The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supporters of a tougher line on Israel split over tactics and message

Demonstrators in New York in support of the Palestinians during the recent violence in the Middle East. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

The Democrats and activists who successfully pressured party leaders to be tougher on Israel during its recent conflict with Hamas are now fracturing over how to move forward, with sharp disagreements over demands and tone that could threaten their ability to keep shaping the debate.

Some favor restricting aid to Israel or blocking arms sales, while others favor more controversial steps such as boycotts and sanctions. Many embrace a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestinian territories as separate countries, but the sole Palestinian American in Congress is partial to a single state.

While some of these Democrats say they need to make it clearer when criticizing Israel that they also accept its right to exist and defend itself, others are unapologetic about using unvarnished rhetoric.

[After Gaza bombardment, building back could take years]

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a leading advocate of a harder U.S. line against Israel, acknowledged the flurry of sometimes contradictory proposals but said the overall aim is the same — encouraging Israel to seriously engage in a process of reconciliation.

“I see these all as strands of spaghetti on the wall, with the goal being to try to bring the two sides to again sit down and try to work out a resolution,” Pocan said. “We may not all advocate for the same things, but [we] are all looking at trying to get us to having the United States take a more aggressive role in helping to enable to conversations that haven’t happened for way too long.”

He added that he and other liberal House members will meet over Zoom on Tuesday with State Department officials for a discussion of the Middle East. Assistant secretaries will brief the Democrats on the administration’s long-term objectives in Israel, a State Department official said, and update them on the cease-fire and on relief efforts.

The disputes among liberals, which largely revolve around how forcefully to confront Israel, highlight the suddenly fluid nature of the Democrats’ position on the Middle East. Many Democrats say they welcome the vigorous debate on Israel, but the discord leaves deeper questions about how President Biden and his party will address the volatile region in the coming months.

Biden’s effort to strike a balance has created uncertainty about his own strategy. He is a longtime supporter of Israel, and during the recent hostilities he took more time than many other Democrats to publicly demand that it de-escalate. But he also has a well-honed sense of the shifts within his party, and he ultimately insisted that Israel embrace a cease-fire.

At the same time, Biden has signaled there are lines he is unwilling to cross. “He categorically rejects the description of Israel as an apartheid state or as engaging in terrorism,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said. Those terms have been used by some prominent liberals, creating some of the disputes within the party.

The president recently dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Middle East, where he pledged to provide more development aid to the Palestinians and reopen a U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem that served as America’s de facto embassy to the Palestinians until the Trump administration shut it down.

But it’s unclear how long the eased tensions in the region will last, or how the United States will respond to any future strife. Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to capitalize on the Democratic upheaval, seizing on comments by some on the left, including “the Squad” of liberal women of color in the House, in an effort to portray Democrats as hostile to Israel and beholden to radicals.

The debate has taken on a new urgency amid a string of attacks on Jews in America. Since May 10, at least 26 instances of antisemitism have been reported across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York, according to the Anti-Defamation League and news reports.

Four moderate Jewish Democrats in the House recently signed a letter to Biden voicing outrage at comments by far-right Republicans such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who compared coronavirus restrictions to the Nazis forcing Jews to wear a yellow star. But the letter simultaneously criticized some of the liberals’ rhetoric on Israel.

“We also reject comments from Members of Congress accusing Israel of being an ‘apartheid state’ and committing ‘act[s] of terrorism.’ These statements are anti-Semitic at their core and contribute to a climate that is hostile to many Jews,” said the letter, signed by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Elaine Luria (D-Va.), Kathy E. Manning (D-N.C.) and Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).

Still, one Democrat said privately that the letter was notable in part for how few lawmakers signed it, suggesting it would have attracted far more in years past. A Democratic aide closely associated with the letter countered that it wasn’t widely circulated and that the members decided themselves to send it quickly. Both Democrats spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

During the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted, “Apartheid states aren’t democracies.” Representatives for the lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comment on their colleagues’ letter, though each of them denounced antisemitism last week.

Much of the debate revolves around when criticism of Israel shades into antisemitism. The country’s detractors say it is a legitimate subject for criticism just like any other nation, especially given its oppression of the Palestinians. Supporters say that the critics at heart are questioning the legitimacy of the world’s only Jewish state and that portraying it as a uniquely malign force comes uncomfortably close to longtime anti-Jewish messages.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has written on Twitter that “Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in Gaza is an act of terrorism.” She also took to Twitter to call the recent antisemitic attacks “appalling” but added, “We cannot equate legitimate criticism of the Israeli government, its policy, and its military occupation with anti-Semitism. Connecting the actions of a foreign country's government and military with an entire faith does nothing to keep the Jewish people safer.”

Omar is not alone in rejecting the notion that the recent criticism of Israel has been antisemitic. “Calling Israel an apartheid state is not antisemitic,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who is Jewish, though he has not embraced that term himself.

Pocan said that when he traveled to the region, he saw segregated highways and “that does remind me of an old South Africa, right?” That, he added, is an observation — “That’s not saying something that’s being discriminatory to anyone.”

Still, even some liberals suggest their allies could choose their words more carefully, especially in the wake of the recent antisemitic attacks. “I think we should tone down the rhetoric,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told CBS News. Sanders, who is Jewish, has been one of the most prominent American critics of the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some of Sanders’s supporters believe he could emerge as something of a bridge-builder in the Middle East debate — an unusual role for a politician who has spent his career staking out purist positions and sparring with those who differ. With an open line to both the White House and prominent liberals, his allies say, Sanders is well-positioned to unify those pushing a new approach to Israel.

Sanders recently spared his party a divisive fight on the subject by abandoning his push to block a $735 million arms sale to Israel, dropping his insistence on a vote and releasing the hold he had placed on Biden’s State Department nominees to protest that sale.

The senator had a productive conversation with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman about steps the administration was taking in the region, according to an aide, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

Some members of Sanders’s political network are also adopting a middle position, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a former Sanders campaign co-chair who is among a new generation of left-leaning Democrats pressing for a tougher U.S. posture toward Israel.

“The way forward is for responsible progressives to speak about the moral case for why Israel has the right to exist, just like we speak about the Palestinian case and the moral case for Palestinian rights,” Khanna said in an interview.

At the core of the most impassioned discussions is how exactly the United States should pressure Israel to change its policies, particularly when it comes to displacing Palestinian families or building settlements in the West Bank.

Many Democrats, including some longtime Israel hawks, united behind the push for a cease-fire during the recent conflict. But now that there are no hostilities underway, the strategy, and even the precise goal, becomes fuzzier.

Almost all Democrats, from Biden to Sanders, advocate the creation of an independent Palestinian state that would exist peacefully with Israel. “We still need a two-state solution. It is the only answer,” Biden said after the cease-fire.

But Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress, supports a “one-state solution” that would combine Israel and the Palestinian territories into a single country. Proponents of this idea argue that by aggressively placing Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, Israel has ensured that any remaining Palestinian state would be tiny and weak.

But such a plan would presumably end Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, and it has drawn criticism from many of the country’s supporters. Despite the disagreement, Biden met with Tlaib during a recent trip to Michigan and Blinken has also spoken with her, according to a Biden administration official.

In the meantime, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are pushing for interim steps that would prod Israel to relax its treatment of Palestinians and make more definitive moves toward peace.

Last week, more than 500 Biden campaign and Democratic Party staffers signed a letter calling on the president to take specific steps, such as demanding the end of settlement expansion in the West Bank and lifting the blockade of Gaza.

Figures like Tlaib and Omar, however, are championing the more controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS, which most Democratic lawmakers reject. “Big win for the BDS movement,” Omar tweeted last week following a court ruling in Georgia striking down limitations on boycotts.

Some Democrats say that far more unites than divides them — that an overwhelming majority in the party supports Israel’s right to exist and defend itself but also wants the country to improve its treatment of Palestinians.

Levin said he sees “a great urgency to move this problem to a different place,” while acknowledging the disagreements on how to do that. He attributed the division to an underlying frustration: “The debate arises because there’s been absolutely no progress in years.”