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Will the House Dems’ new Foreign Affairs Committee leader chart a new course on Israel?

The fact that two of the three contenders for the top-spot on the committee opposed the Iran nuclear deal signals that there is a lot at stake.

Analysis | Reporting | Middle East

Before his primary loss in June, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) was one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. A moderate liberal on domestic policy, he was one of the most hawkish House Democrats on foreign policy. He is now the outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the race for his successor has taken some interesting turns in the past week.

Five liberal pro-Israel groups — J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Partners for Progressive Israel, Ameinu, and Habonim Dror — sent a letter to House Democrats calling on them to appoint a new HFAC chair that would be committed to diplomacy, promote a Palestinian state, and “support appropriate, proportional consequences in response to” unilateral Israeli annexation of West Bank land or more expansion of Israeli settlements.

In the past, no Democrat who hoped to chair the HFAC would have considered supporting such overt pressure on Israel. But the political winds have shifted as the Israeli government has become increasingly identified with illiberal policies and opposition to a reasonable, sustainable peace with the Palestinians. As a result, the three congressmen vying for Engel’s HFAC chairmanship have all agreed that they would work to prevent Israel from using any U.S. funds to unilaterally annex any part of the West Bank.

The most progressive of the three candidates, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), has made it clear that he considers Palestinian rights a priority. “I stand with a majority of Americans and Democrats in Congress who believe not only in a secure, democratic Jewish homeland in Israel, but also the rights of the Palestinian people,” he tweeted in response to the letter from the liberal groups.

Castro is considered a long shot for the job. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) takes a more moderate position, stating “the United States must be explicit in our opposition by applying pressure against Netanyahu should he annex territory, including leveraging US aid.”

The most conservative of the three, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), has long been seen as Engel’s successor, and is the presumptive favorite to replace him. Sherman’s foreign policy views are similar to Engel’s in that he holds hardline policy views on the Middle East in general. Like Engel, he voted against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, and he touts his strong support for Israel, particularly militarily, as one of his defining policy stances.

But even Sherman said he opposes “any use of American taxpayer dollars to implement the Annexation Plan or to build any permanent Israeli installation in the West Bank or Gaza.” The wording there was important, as Sherman went beyond the immediate issue of annexation and said something that could be interpreted as opposition to funding Israeli settlement expansion full stop.

Advocates for Palestinian rights greeted Sherman’s statement warmly. It seemed to directly address concerns raised in the letter from the five liberal, pro-Israel groups. Indeed, many saw that letter as expressing specific concern about Sherman, a view that seemed to be substantiated by J Street’s communications director Logan Bayroff, who stated, “It’s an open question whether Representative Sherman’s views and record are in line with these principles. His opposition to the JCPOA [Iran deal] at the moment of truth in 2015, as well as his initial support for the Iraq War, raise real concerns about the strength of his commitment to diplomacy.”

Sherman’s statement reflects a growing alienation among Democrats from the Netanyahu government and the Israeli right wing. That alienation is prominent even among pro-Israel Democrats, and it is why even AIPAC made it clear that it would not act against Democrats who spoke out against annexation.

But Sherman’s words were chosen carefully. He did not mention Palestinians or their rights, in stark contrast to Castro. He made it clear that he was concerned about annexation for Israel’s sake, whereas Meeks had framed annexation as contrary to U.S. interests while casting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a distinctly negative light. In other words, Sherman was still making sure to position himself as the most hostile, or at best, indifferent, to the Palestinians among the three contenders.

The reality is that Sherman is hardly going out on a limb here. In fact, there should not be any debate about how Israel may use U.S. aid as it is clearly prescribed in the law. The Foreign Assistance and Arms Export Control Acts stipulate that U.S. aid, to Israel or anyone else, can only be used for legitimate self-defense and that its use must adhere to standards of human rights.

Questions about Israel’s use of U.S. aid have only occasionally been raised, and even less frequently investigated and followed up on, and the fungibility of funds means that U.S. aid can free up Israel’s own funds for things like settlement expansion. But it should not be controversial for a member of Congress to state that Israel must adhere to terms of U.S. aid laid out in U.S. law. It should be concerning that Sherman’s statement was considered surprising and remarkable. 

That all three contenders felt the need to quickly address the concerns raised by the five liberal, pro-Israel groups is a sign of changing times. Hawkish PACs tried desperately to save Rep.Engel once it became apparent that he was in real danger of losing his seat. He was by far the biggest congressional recipient of funding from ideologically hawkish PACs. That failure, among others, raises the question of what groups are most influential now in shaping policy toward the Middle East.

Although the process of selecting a committee chair is largely opaque, what we do hear from inside the halls of Congress and the eventual outcome will tell us a great deal about where the party sees its foreign policy heading.

Castro reflects the values of the party much more closely at this point, as recent polls have repeatedly demonstrated. He has repeatedly stated his support for Israel’s security, but his disagreement with some of its policies and attitudes toward Palestinian rights. He is a strong advocate of diplomacy and tends to see coercion as a last resort.

Sherman falls back on the idea, which has been held prominently in the Democratic Party only until recently, that only someone with a close relationship to Israel can, as he put it, “explain to Israeli leaders, and the Israeli people, that the Annexation Plan would be a catastrophe for Israel.” He represents what might be called the Dennis Ross style of negotiation, where Israel is given more and more in the hope that it can then be convinced to grant some leeway to the Palestinians.

Meeks is a compromise choice — a supporter of the Iran deal but also someone who has been generally viewed as a moderate by hawkish foreign policy groups, he is much less outspoken than either of his competitors.

The choice Democrats make in the highly likely event that they retain control of the House of Representatives in November will tell us if we can expect a sharp left turn toward diplomacy and away from militarism with Democratic leadership.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), New York City, April 2016 (Photo: a katz / Shutterstock.com)
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