Progressive lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that takes aim at the Israeli government’s proposed annexation plans. Unlike previous Democratic letters on the subject, which have resisted any suggestion that Israel face consequences for such a move, this one actually threatens to condition military aid.
The letter was first led by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), but in just one day it gathered a number of additional signatures: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep. André Carson (D-IN), Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-IL), and Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL). Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has also signed it.
The text of the letter contains a massive flaw. It claims that annexation would “lay the groundwork for Israel becoming an apartheid state”, an assertion that would certainly be news to all the Palestinians who have been living under Israeli apartheid for decades. Nonetheless, it represents the most forceful congressional response to annexation yet. It’s call for the conditioning of military aid is a watershed moment for congress, as such a tactic was long-thought to be a third rail in U.S. politics. These elected officials are acting on a policy that is already widely popular among Democratic voters and in defiance of the Democratic party’s pro-Israel establishment. It also firmly plants them to the left of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has referred to the idea of conditioning military aid as “outrageous.”
The letter has predictably spread panic among pro-Israel lobbying groups. AIPAC has sent out an urgent action alert calling for legislators to oppose such efforts. “Some in Congress want to cut the vital assistance Israel needs to defend itself, by itself. It’s outrageous to threaten the security of a strategic ally facing threats on all its borders,” declared the group on Twitter.
Democratic Majority for Israel (hot off sinking nearly $2 million into Eliot Engel’s failed reelection campaign) is also sounding the alarm. The group claims it opposes annexation, but of course no one should actually be held accountable if it ends up happening. They called the letter “bad policy, bad politics, & counterproductive to the goal of stopping annexation & encouraging a two-state solution.”
There’s reason to believe that “Progressive Except Palestine” types are slowly beginning to shift on the issue. Take Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley for example. Last summer she was the only member of “The Squad” to vote in favor of H.Res.246, a resolution that condemned the BDS movement. Pressley put out an extremely confusing statement justifying the move, claiming that her vote was an “expression of solidarity with Jewish families and with marginalized communities that continue to face heightened threats to their safety in this volatile moment driven by hateful rhetoric from the Trump Administration.” On the same day that Pressley voted for the resolution, she also became a cosponsor of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s H.Res.496, a resolution that affirms the right to boycott countries in the name of human rights.
Pressley’s sponsorship of Omar’s bill made her anti-BDS vote seem even more ridiculous. If she legitimately supports the right to boycott, then why support a bill that effectively tags BDS as antisemitic, calls for a renewed partnership between the United States, and paves the way for laws that criminalize the movement. “Our right to free speech is being threatened with this resolution,” warned Rep. Rashida Tlaib before the vote, “It sets a dangerous precedent because it attempts to delegitimize a certain people’s political speech and send a message that our government can and will take action against speech it doesn’t like.”
On our site, the Palestinian scholar-activist Nada Elia wrote about how Pressley’s vote didn’t exactly shock pro-Palestine activists in Massachusetts:
As I discussed what still felt like a betrayal with friends in Massachusetts, however, a different image of Pressley began to emerge, as longtime activists for Palestinian rights in Boston said they were not surprised by Pressley’s condemnation of BDS, which they viewed as consistent with her own longstanding stance favoring Zionism. I looked up her congressional candidate website, where she discusses her policy positions, and was disappointed to read uncritical platitudes and normalizing talk.
Pressley faced an immediate backlash from Palestine solidarity activists, and the broader left, over her anti-BDS vote. Progressive Jewish groups took particular offense to the fact she had cited solidarity with Jews as a reason for her vote. “The Jewish people are not a monolith. We are Jewish. We are your constituents. We stand in solidarity with Palestinians. We asked you to oppose #HR246. You voted for it. @AyannaPressley pls don’t use the Jewish faith as an excuse for your vote,” tweeted Jewish Voice for Peace Boston at the time.
Just six months after that vote, the House debated another piece of legislation concerning Israel. This was H.Res.326, a Democratic-sponsored resolution that reaffirmed the United States’s commitment to a two-state solution. In an effort to appease hawkish Dems and potentially attract some Republicans, any mention of Israel’s illegal occupation was removed from the text. This ended up winning over the hawkish Dems, but it wasn’t extreme enough to generate any GOP support and Palestinians were thrown under the bus yet again. AOC, Omar, and Tlaib voted against the measure and Pressley was the only other Democrat to join them.
“I understand the importance of this Congress calling out the volatile and dangerous foreign policy of the Trump Administration. Tenents of this resolution, including expressing opposition to unilateral annexation, do that effectively,” said Pressley in a statement, “But at a time when the Administration is also reversing the United States’ position that the occupation is a violation of international human rights law and defunding humanitarian aid to Palestine, we need to call it out.”
Now (in addition to being a cosponsor for Omar’s boycott bill) Pressley is one of the first lawmakers to sign the annexation letter. Pressley’s press release regarding the letter is brilliant:
As the United States reckons with its own systemic inequities and engages in a national conversation about racial injustice and the value of Black and brown lives, we must be consistent in our calls for dismantling systemic racism. We must reject short sighted, oppressive, and discriminatory policies both in the United States and abroad.
Last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu took unprecedented steps to ban members of the United States Congress from entering the country. That move came on the heels of an increase in demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and ongoing detention of Palestinian children.
This pattern of human rights violations shouldn’t be tolerated from the Trump Administration or the Netanyahu Administration. We must uphold the values that we espouse. We must stand up in the face of injustice and we must dismantle systems of oppression.
The beltway consensus on military aid is finally beginning to face a legit political challenge. There’s obviously still a long way to go, but it’s telling that so many Democrats now feel they can safely sign such a letter without facing disastrous political consequences. This moment was made possible through the tireless work of activists and social justice organizations, many of whom were fighting when no Democrat would dare touch the subject of military aid with a ten-foot pole. It’s no surprise that Israel’s most ardent defenders are melting down over this development. They know their position is untenable and that one day Palestine will be free.
This was an excerpt from our weekly politics newsletter, The Shift, where Michael Arria takes you to the front lines in the battle over Palestine in the United States. Sign up below to receive the newsletter in your inbox every Thursday.