US Congress' progressives are harbingers of change on Israel

Despite recent loss, progressives in US Congress will continue to challenge Israel
6 min read
06 Oct, 2021
Opinion: Despite the progressive blocs' failure to stop the Iron Dome funding in US Congress, the loss is not the end, but rather a harbinger of changes for US-Israeli relations, writes Imad K. Harb.
US reps Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Mary Kunesh and Rashida Tlaib pose for a photo at a protest by Native American tribes and environmental activists on 4 September, 2021. [Getty]

Progressives in the US House of Representatives last month attempted to block $US 1bn in funds for Israel's Iron Dome missile system. But the chamber voted 420 to 9 on 23 September to allow the funding.

That comes on top of $US 1.1bn already given by the United States since 2011 for the state-of-the-art technology. The new funding is in addition to the $US 3.8bn in aid Israel will receive in 2021. The latter amount is part of a 2016 10-year agreement signed by the Obama administration to supply Israel with $US 38bn in military assistance from 2017 to 2028.

In the Senate, a group of Republicans - Susan Collins (Maine), Marc Rubio (Florida), and Bill Hagerty (Tennessee) - quickly followed the House action by proposing legislation in the upper chamber to provide the supplemental funding.

"The new funding is in addition to the $US 3.8bn in aid Israel will receive in 2021"

This Senate bill is also expected to pass with an overwhelming majority. Needless to say, President Joe Biden will be happy to sign the legislation into law.

Indeed, the two chambers of the US Congress are arguably Israel's most prized friendly institutions in the United States. It follows that challenging its writ in the halls of Congress requires, in the least, political courage, organization, and sustained commitment.

But things are changing in the United States regarding the blank check that Israel has been able to secure from American politicians.

As in other instances of change, there is no clear triggering event that announced the beginning of a rethinking of Israel's position in US politics and society. But last May's Israeli attack on Gaza and continuing practices of dispossession in East Jerusalem were seminal events in how US politicians, media, and concerned citizens perceive the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Voices

During the murderous attacks on Gaza's civilians and destruction of the strip's infrastructure, even ardent Democratic supporters of Israel in Congress felt uncomfortable enough to voice concerns. These included Chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez (New Jersey), and Representative Jerry Nadler (New York), among others.

Nadler penned a letter with 12 other Jewish House members to President Biden condemning rocket attacks on Israel but also expressing their belief that Palestinians too have the right to live in safety and peace. Such expressions are minimal when it comes to Palestinian suffering, but the mere fact that they are being voiced publicly in Congress, and by Jewish politicians, verges on revolutionary change.

There also are attempts by moderate Democrats to raise questions about unconditional aid to Israel. Last April, Betty McCollum (Minnesota) introduced legislation in the House to make sure that aid to Israel is not used against children or to violate Palestinians' human rights. While her bill did not pass, the idea that it was even proposed was a radical change in business as usual.

Along the same lines, Democratic Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan recently introduced legislation calling for "robust oversight" of aid to Israel to make sure it is not used to violate human rights. It also calls for ending the Israeli occupation and preventing the annexation of the West Bank.

Voices

Despite the progressives' failure to stop the Iron Dome funding, the loss is not the end of the very long and drown out process of change in the US Congress regarding financial aid to Israel. In fact, the progressives' challenge to the old and established norm of unquestioned support for Israel is a harbinger of things to come in American-Israeli relations.

While action by moderate Democrats is beginning to take place - today, Republicans in Congress and everywhere else are more pro-Israel than ever - the most impactful and serious change is that being made by progressive democratic members of the House.

These include Representatives Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts), Jamaal Bowman (New York), Mark Pocan (Wisconsin), Cori Bush (Missouri), and others.

They bring a well-informed and unified public message that was absent from the halls of Congress since criticizing Israel became the third rail in American politics. All progressives believe in the inviolability of Palestinian rights, the righteousness of resisting occupation and demanding its end, and the criminality of Israel's policies of apartheid.

What unifies progressive legislators domestically is their agreement on the centrality of human rights, equality, and economic and social reform. To them, such values must also be advocated and advanced internationally, including in Palestine where Palestinian human rights are trampled and Palestinians suffer from an organized system of apartheid and exploitation.

Part of the progressive camp in American politics are those who share a social identity as belonging to ethnic minorities. Many of the House progressives come from minority communities - African-Americans, Latinos, Arab Americans, Asian-Americans, and others. Their pro-Palestinian activism is most likely to increase in impact as census data shows that minorities are steadily making up larger segments of American society.

They are joined in their activism in Congress by progressive-while-liberals, including many activist American Jews. To be sure, minority and liberal members of Congress are slowly but surely becoming the political base of today's Democratic Party and will very likely radically change it.

This multiethnic identity makes possible a common understanding of rights that translates into an ideology for change on the issue of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

"The longer Israel maintains its system of apartheid and occupation of Palestinian land, the more these myths are doubted and dissipated"

Additionally, general changes in American society, especially at the level of universities and the youth movement, are giving added impetus to political change. Other avenues of such change are social media and electronic and print media analyses, with the latter boasting new cadres of educated and socially conscious journalists and commentators writing in major newspapers.

It is not an exaggeration to state that progressives today are forcing the American body politic to re-examine sacrosanct beliefs about Israel and the myths perpetuated for decades by its supporters and apologists. The longer Israel maintains its system of apartheid and occupation of Palestinian land, the more these myths are doubted and dissipated.

Americans in general and politicians, in particular, are discovering that Israel is not a democracy with equal rights for everyone. They are also realizing that it does not live in constant danger of attack and Palestinian "terrorism" but is the perpetrator of violence against defenceless Palestinians.

This overdue change in American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians is slowly but surely taking place. Progressives in Congress are an essential part of this transformation. Despite their failure to stop the Iron Dome funding, they will continue to expose Israel's policies and practices and vote against extending aid to its military machine.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @Harb3Imad

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.