With an ill-timed trip, US Democrats signal to Israel it can act with impunity

With an ill-timed trip, US Democrats signal to Israel it can act with impunity
6 min read
20 Feb, 2022
As violence escalates in Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinians face expulsion, the US Democratic delegation's trip to Jerusalem sends a clear message to Israel that it may act with impunity regarding Palestinians' human rights, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, and Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on October 12, 2021. [Getty]

How might liberal Democrats in the United States House of Representatives respond to Amnesty International accusing Israel of the crime of apartheid? How might they respond to renewed violence in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, after all the attention that area has gotten in recent months? No matter how low one sets that bar, Democrats are likely to fall below it.  

This week, the most powerful Democrat in Congress, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, led a delegation of congressmembers to Israel. The trip was tacked on to a trip they were taking to Germany for the Munich Security Conference, as was another leg to the United Kingdom.  

But where both the German and UK legs of the journey were focused on security, and come at a particularly grave moment given the standoff with Russia over a possible invasion of Ukraine, Pelosi said that the diversion to Israel was meant to discuss security, a two-state solution with the Palestinians (an outcome that has been an impossible dream for a very long time), and, crucially, to recognise “our shared democratic values,” in the Speaker’s words.

"The timing of this delegation is a clear message to Israel that it may act with impunity regarding Palestinians’ human rights, coming as it did as Amnesty’s accusation of apartheid continues to lie heavy in the air"

You would never know that just a few kilometres away from where Pelosi addressed the Knesset on February 16, violence continued to flare in Sheikh Jarrah, where settlers and Israeli police are harassing Palestinian residents and cordoning off areas in preparation for yet another eviction next month.  

The Salem family is desperately trying to hold on to the home they have lived in for 70 years. Settler leader and Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir had, mere days before the congressional delegation’s arrival, set up a makeshift office near the Salems’ home, provoking more unrest, as Israel deployed even more police to protect Ben-Gvir despite their irritation at his action. That is the Israeli democracy that Pelosi praised.

“Our delegation brings representation of the Congress' bipartisan, bicameral commitment to an unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States – built on mutual security, our economic interest and our common values, our commitment to democracy,” Pelosi told the Israeli parliament.  

The timing of this delegation is a clear message to Israel that it may act with impunity regarding Palestinians’ human rights, coming as it did as Amnesty’s accusation of apartheid continues to lie heavy in the air. Of course, the United States rejected Amnesty’s finding, and no one expected anything else. But this delegation was a particularly insulting stab at every Palestinian who has been abused by Israeli laws, soldiers, and settlers.  

It was especially galling because the delegation included two members of Congress who are considered among the more sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight, Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee. While Lee has been quiet about the Israel trip, Khanna has had much more to say, and it is not encouraging.  

“I raised concerns over the  evictions of Palestinians from Wadi Foquin & Sheikh Jarrah with (US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides), who understands the human rights implications of these cases. Thank you, Rep. Barbara Lee for your leadership on this issue to respect the rights and dignity of Palestinians,” Khanna tweeted, implying he did not raise these concerns with any Israeli officials.  

Instead, Khanna gave a gushing interview to The Times of Israel, praising “Israel’s extraordinary entrepreneurial and innovation culture.” Several times, Khanna did mention “human rights,” but did not raise specific concerns. Instead, he spoke of his constituents’ admiration for Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who made his fortune as a software developer prior to entering politics. This is appealing to Khanna as he represents Silicon Valley in California, an area that is a focal point for many tech firms, big and small.  

Khanna also naively said he had “heard” that Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who has in the past held election rallies in settlements and repeatedly called for a united Jerusalem under sole Israeli sovereignty, “wants to make progress” with the Palestinians. Lapid has made no such efforts during his time in office and is not expected to in the future should he become Prime Minister in 2023, as the current Israeli coalition agreement stipulates.  

Voices

These tone-deaf comments from Khanna matched the deafness of Pelosi. Reports say that in his meeting with the delegation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Pelosi to stop the Israeli settlers from assaulting Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah. If Pelosi had any response, it was neither reported, nor included in her statement about the meeting.  

Pelosi did note, in a tweet, that “COVID-19 has devastated the Palestinian economy.” Yet, while she praised Israel for its response to the pandemic, she somehow neglected to note that Israel was bound by both bilateral agreements and international law to have provided defence against COVID-19 to the Palestinians under its control. Its refusal to do so is precisely why the Palestinian economy, and people, suffered so badly from COVID while Israelis fared better.  

Pelosi bragged of a new USAID program meant to help Palestinians recover from this economic devastation. The project, called SMART, is funded at $40 million over four years. USAID also mentioned, in its press release, that they had provided some $110 million to the Palestinians in humanitarian assistance in 2021.

Next to the $3.8 billion the U.S. provides Israel in annual military aid, in addition to various other projects and gifts the United States offers to Israel on a regular basis, this amount pales in comparison.  

"The disdain for Palestinian rights and the blessing granted to Israel to act in any manner it wishes free of consequence could not have been clearer"

The disdain for Palestinian rights and the blessing granted to Israel to act in any manner it wishes free of consequence could not have been clearer. While much of the delegation is known to be in step with Pelosi’s views, the inclusion of Lee and Khanna gave the message much more power.  

This detour to Israel was unnecessary and, given the current circumstances, can only be taken as support for some of Israel’s worst practises. It was certainly within Pelosi’s power to quietly cancel this trip, considering current events. Several members of Congress skipped the Israel leg of this trip, likely due to scheduling conflicts. Still, that means it would have been possible for Khanna and Lee to skip the Israel part of the trip had they so desired.  

Perhaps they thought they could do more good by going. But given the outcomes, and the optics of their attendance, they were mistaken. 

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick

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