Israeli leader’s visit sparks internal Democratic fight

The scheduled appearance of a top Israeli leader on Capitol Hill this week has sparked an internal fight among House Democrats, pitting liberal critics of Israel’s human rights record against Jewish lawmakers and party leaders scrambling to forestall any diplomatic tensions with America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s planned speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday has already prompted an outcry from progressives, many of whom are vowing to boycott the address to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — including the expansion of settlements barred by international law — and the controversial judiciary reforms being pushed by the conservative administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I will not be attending,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of the Squad, a faction of progressive House Democrats. “What’s been happening with the settlements has been really disturbing and … I think it’s important for us to have a public acknowledgement of the human rights crisis that’s happening in the region.”

The liberals’ protest has triggered a backlash of its own among Democratic leaders, Jewish lawmakers and more centrist members of the Caucus, wary that congressional attacks on Israel will diminish the strong ties between Washington and Jerusalem at the expense of national security for both countries.

“I’m concerned about what’s taking place in Israel,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “[But] there is a way to seek and get information: You talk, and hear, and understand his viewpoints. And we’re interested in hearing what he has to say.”

The debate was inflamed over the weekend when Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said Israel is a “racist state” during a progressive conference in Chicago. Her comment came as Palestinian protesters disrupted a panel discussion featuring three members of Congress.

“I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy,” she said Saturday.

Jayapal walked back her remark one day later, issuing a lengthy statement that shifted the focus of her critique onto Netanyahu’s conservative policies, rather than Israel as a nation. 

“I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” she said, before sharply criticizing Netanyahu’s government, underscoring her commitment to a two-state solution and apologizing “to those who I have hurt with my words.”

The walk-back, however, did not shield Jayapal from criticism. In a rare joint statement Sunday night, House Democratic leadership — without naming Jayapal — pushed back on her remarks.

“Israel is not a racist state,” the statement began.

A coalition of more than 40 House Democrats also weighed in, issuing a statement Monday saying they are “deeply concerned” about Jayapal’s “unacceptable comments about our historic, democratic ally Israel, and we appreciate her retraction.”

“We will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism to undermine and disrupt the strongly bipartisan consensus supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship that has existed for decades,” they added.

For Democrats, the internal clash is hardly new: Israel’s staunchest allies have sparred for years with liberals over human rights issues surrounding the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That collision intensified with the 2019 arrival of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Congress’s first two Muslim women, who have been highly critical of Israel’s human rights record — and drawn accusations of antisemitism in the process. 

The resurgence of that fight this month is proving a headache for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and his leadership team, lending Republicans new ammunition to paint Democrats as antisemitic — and shift the debate, if only temporarily, away from the recent, racially charged scandals surrounding GOP lawmakers

“If the Democrats want to believe that they do not have a conference that continues to make antisemitic remarks, they need to do something about it,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Monday.

Democrats fired back, urging GOP leaders to disinvite Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., from testifying in the House this week on COVID-19 vaccines after his recent comments suggesting the virus spares certain Jews — remarks condemned as antisemitic. 

Herzog arrives to the U.S. amid heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, as Netanyahu has taken a series of aggressive steps since regaining the prime minister spot in December. Those controversies include efforts to diminish the power of Israel’s Supreme Court and expand Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank — moves had sparked criticism from President Biden, who characterized Netanyahu’s administration as “one of the most extremist” in decades.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who is also boycotting Herzog’s speech this week, said the decision is meant to send a message to Netanyahu directly. 

“It’s fundamental issues of democracy and a real earnest effort at peace, period. It’s always been that,” he said. 

“I’ve never questioned Israel’s right, or ability, to exist and be sovereign,” Grijalva added. “But seeing the political churn that’s happening with their leadership at all levels — more and more authoritarian — there are things to worry about.”

It’s unclear how many Democrats will boycott Herzog’s address this week. Other Squad members, including Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.), have signaled their intent to boycott, and Jayapal last week strongly suggested that she’ll do the same. 

“For me, it’s very difficult to be faced with such devastation in the West Bank: settler violence, settlement expansions, the linking up with extreme right elements of their country,” she said. 

But the number appears to be much lower than in 2015, when more than 50 Democrats boycotted Netanyahu’s joint address to Congress amid then-President Obama’s efforts to seal an Iranian nuclear deal. Meeks, who joined those boycotting in 2015, noted that then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had invited Netanyahu without consulting the White House — a slight McCarthy did not repeat. 

“The proper procedures were followed. So any time that happens, I think we should come and listen,” Meeks said. “That’s what I would do.” 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Benjamin Netanyahu Benjamin Netanyahu Greg Meeks Gregory Meeks Hakeem Jeffries Ilhan Omar Isaac Herzog Isaac Herzog Israel Pramila Jayapal Pramila Jayapal Rashida Tlaib

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