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Israel and the Democratic divide

A growing pro-Palestine faction challenges liberals in Congress

Rep. Ilhan Omar Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Israel and the Democratic divide

WASHINGTON—Recent provocative comments by freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., illustrate a growing divide in the Democratic Party over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The current dust-up escalated Sunday after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., should be disciplined for making anti-Israeli statements. Omar and Tlaib, who are Muslim, support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to punish Israel economically for its treatment of Palestinians in the country.

On Sunday night, Omar tweeted that lawmakers’ support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins baby,” meaning money. When a journalist asked who she thought was paying lawmakers to support Israel, Omar tweeted, “AIPAC!” a reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.

In 2018, AIPAC spent approximately $3.5 million on lobbying, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan research group Open Secrets. AIPAC also annually pays for congressional lawmakers to take trips to Israel. It does not have its own political action committee and does not contribute directly to campaigns, though individuals who worked for AIPAC donated $21,350 to candidates in 2018. Nine of 14 candidates that received contributions were Democrats.

After Omar’s tweets, Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Elaine Luria, D-Va., both Jewish, circulated a letter asking the Democratic Party to condemn anti-Semitism from “certain members within our caucus.” House Democratic leadership released a statement Monday, affirming, “We are and will always be strong supporters of Israel in Congress. … Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations against Israel’s supporters are deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks and call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize.”

Omar tweeted an apology. But it was not the first time she made waves with anti-Israel comments. She only recently apologized for a 2012 tweet in which she said, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said that Omar will not lose her spot on the House Foreign Affairs Committee over her remarks.

A growing coalition of Democratic lawmakers has pro-Palestine views, presenting a challenge to party leaders and 2020 presidential candidates in how they relate to Jewish voters, a traditionally solid bloc of Democratic support. A 2018 Mellman Group poll found that nearly three-quarters of Jews surveyed would vote for a Democrat for president or for Congress.

But within the party at large, support for Israel is waning. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that 79 percent of Republicans are pro-Israel, compared with only 27 percent of Democrats. This is a jump in GOP support from 50 percent in 2001, and a decline in Democratic backing from 38 percent that same year.

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, questioned whether Democrats will continue to elect pro-Israel politicians. “What once had been a bipartisan issue—now has become a political wedge,” he told me.

A recent Senate vote exemplifies the quandary. In a bill to give aid to Israel and Jordan and sanction Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pushed to include a pro-Israel provision that allows state and local governments to refuse to do business with companies that support the BDS movement. The bill passed 77-23 on Feb. 6. The effort was in some ways a response to outspoken supporters of BDS like Omar and Tlaib.

Among the announced and likely 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls in the Senate, only Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, traditionally a strong supporter of Israel, voted in favor of the pro-Israel measure. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts all voted against it. Booker voted no after co-sponsoring an anti-BDS bill last year. He explained the flip by arguing that Rubio’s provision had the potential to harm free speech.

Criticizing Israel’s policies and actions does not equal anti-Semitism, lawmakers have pointed out, but Lela Gilbert with the Center for Religious Freedom noted that the divide could give the party a black eye on the issue. “There’s a fine line between criticizing the state of Israel for policies and wanting the state of Israel removed from the map, and that’s what we’re getting from the progressive side,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Calling the question on the Green New Deal

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is looking to force Democrats to take a position on the so-called Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal to address climate change and economic growth.

“We’re going to be voting on that in the Senate to give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal,” McConnell said at a news conference Tuesday. The proposal, put forward as a nonbinding resolution by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., aims to address climate change and create jobs but has drawn fire for the breadth of its goals, including guaranteeing jobs for all Americans.

While many Democrats, including top 2020 presidential contenders, have signed on to co-sponsor the resolution, pushing a vote on the matter would highlight divisions within the Democratic Party about the measure’s more controversial proposals. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gave the Green New Deal a lukewarm reception but said she welcomed the enthusiasm behind it.

The vote could force lawmakers to pick between pleasing party activists and appearing too far left, or rejecting environmental proposals to take a more centrist economic approach.

Markey denounced McConnell’s move as political theater that fails to adequately debate the issues the resolution is meant to highlight.

“The principles of the Green New Deal resonate with the American people—a mission to save all of creation by investing in massive job creation,” he said in a statement. “The Green New Deal resolution has struck a powerful chord in this country, and Republicans, climate deniers, and the fossil fuel industry are going to end up on the wrong side of history.”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called the resolution “a raw deal for the American public” that would damage the economy and said it illustrated the “very hard-left turn that the Democratic Party has taken.”

McConnell has not set a time for potential vote. —Anne Walters Custer

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Hats in the ring

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is the latest Democrat to announce her bid for the presidency in 2020. At a snowy outdoor rally Sunday in Minneapolis, Klobuchar said that Americans are “tired of the shutdowns and the putdowns, the gridlock and the grandstanding” and promised to get things done.

Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, has served in the Senate since 2006. Along with two other Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sens. Cory Booker of New York and Kamala Harris of California, she serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Klobuchar joins a crowded field in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland; former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; entrepreneur Andrew Yang; and author Marianne Williamson have all declared their intent to run. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he is exploring a possible independent campaign, while former West Virginia state Sen. Richard Ojeda dropped out of the race at the end of January. Some Democrats who were reportedly considering running have taken their names out of the race, including lawyer Michael Avenatti, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. —H.P.

Former aid sues Donald Trump

Cliff Sims, former special assistant to President Donald Trump, is suing the president, arguing that he used his campaign to unconstitutionally silence former employees.

Sims worked for the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election and in the White House afterward. In January, he published a tell-all book, Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House. Then, last week, the Trump campaign filed an arbitration claim against him for allegedly violating a nondisclosure agreement he signed before the election.

“The U.S. Government is intentionally and unconstitutionally engaging in a subterfuge effort to use a private entity, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., to do its bidding to silence Mr. Sims when it is really the intense powers of the Presidency coming down upon a sole individual,” claims the lawsuit, filed Monday in Washington, D.C. The suit notes that the president, who has complained about the book, did not sue aides who also violated nondisclosure agreements, including former White House Communications Director Sean Spicer, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and former deputy campaign manager David Bossie. —H.P.

Stepping down

Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, resigned Wednesday after a two-year tenure in which he managed the response to historic wildfires and major hurricanes. He said in a letter to FEMA employees that he was resigning to spend more time at home with his family. His last day is March 8. Long did not mention the investigation by the agency’s watchdog that found he had used government vehicles without authorization, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last fall that Long would repay the government and would not lose his job. —Lynde Langdon

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a former political reporter for WORLD’s Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate.


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