Mondoweiss / May 7, 2023
Two congressional delegations carrying important political implications visited Israel recently. Both were a reminder of how badly out of step Congress is with the American public on Palestine.
Two congressional delegations—one led by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and the other by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy—visited Israel recently. Both carried important political implications, particularly in light of President Joe Biden’s attempts to avoid involvement in any of Israel’s current controversies, preferring to quietly continue full support of Israel and barely acknowledge Palestinian existence at all.
Jeffries landed first, leading an all-Democratic delegation. It included the Ranking Member and former Chair of the House Armed Services Committee Gregory Meeks of New York, and prominent AIPAC shills Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, among others. While the Democrats didn’t entirely ignore either the Palestinians or the ongoing controversies over the Israeli government’s assault on the democracy for its Jewish citizens, their response to those conditions was pathetic, if typical.
Jeffries—who, though in many ways more progressive than his predecessor as Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi, is even more staunchly anti-Palestinian than she was—said Democrats “are going to continue to lean in to our strong support for a Jewish and democratic state.” He absurdly said that the ongoing protests against the Israeli government’s attempts to destroy its own judiciary were the “sign of a vibrant democracy,” rather than recognizing them as the desperate attempt to stop what has been a longstanding trend toward illiberalism and authoritarianism that has defined Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and now, finally, threatens to spread even to Jewish citizens.
It was noteworthy that Jeffries described the Democrats’ conversations with Israeli leaders on that topic as “anchored in… our shared democratic values” and also said that Israeli leaders understood “why the subject was raised and why there were significant concerns that had been expressed by many within the Jewish community in the United States.”
The issue, by Jeffries’ own admission, was not connected to any kind of democratic principle. Reporting in Axios, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid said that an Israeli official told him that the message to Netanyahu was “help us help you.” Ravid further reported that the delegation shared with Netanyahu an “equally warm sentiment on the occasion of Israel’s 75th anniversary and our unique and enduring friendship.” The message, which is consistent with what the Biden administration has been communicating, is that the problem is strictly one of appearances.
Democrats deny Palestinian humanity
But more concerning were the statements regarding the Palestinians. These betrayed a complete detachment from reality and the total disregard for the basic humanity of Palestinians that has been the hallmark of American attitudes on a bipartisan basis since this conflict began. This view of the Palestinian people as less than human and less deserving of fundamental human rights than Israeli Jews is the fuel that the United States has used for 75 years, often unintentionally, to enflame the region and stoke the forces of apartheid and violence.
While there has been an increasing number of Democrats—even including some who might not be considered as progressive as Ilhan Omar or Bernie Sanders, for example—who have been willing to issue sharp criticism of Israel, the party remains dominated by a combination of conservative Democrats and “Progressive Except for Palestine” (PEP) members. Jeffries is typical of the latter group, while Wasserman Schultz demonstrated the bigotry and dishonesty of the former.
Wasserman Schultz spoke of the Abraham Accords, the agreements normalizing relations between the apartheid state of Israel and several Arab dictatorships, despite the objections of the overwhelming majority of people in those Arab states. Those agreements were designed specifically to give Israel the benefits it has sought for decades from the Arab world without having to relent one bit from its domination of the Palestinians and its absolute denial of their rights.
“The more Israel is able to reach agreements — with the work and assistance of the United States — with her neighbors around the region, I think it’s going to eventually bring about the realization among the Palestinians that time is marching on and that the benefits of having relationships with Israel far, far outweigh their commitments to blind hatred, and that that blind hatred is leaving them in an unnecessarily dire situation,” she said. “And so it’s incumbent upon the Palestinians to get their own act together.”
This vile example of blaming the victim for their own oppression was reinforced by Jeffries, in less racist language, as he promised “…that we look forward to building upon the success of the Abraham Accords, and helping to facilitate broader communication, normalization and cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”
Jeffries also reassured the Israelis that the idea of “conditioning aid”—by which he means the idea that U.S. miliary aid to Israel would be made to actually conform to U.S. law as is required of every other country the U.S. sends aid to—was, in his words, a “non-starter.” But his view of the Palestinian Authority was even more concerning.
Jeffries expressed concern to Netanyahu over the potential transition of rule in the PA after President Mahmoud Abbas’ death. Netanyahu, for his part, mentioned the importance of PA collaboration with Israeli security forces. This has been the primary agenda item for the U.S. in talks they have tried to broker between Israel and the PA, although both Israel and the U.S. have pressed for that cooperation to continue regardless of how their own demands made such collaboration much more difficult for Abbas.
Jeffries said it was crucial for the PA to be able to deliver the “day-to-day services” that were its part as sub-contractors of Israel’s occupation (not the words he used, of course) and that he hoped that aid from Gulf Arab countries could offer some stability. Apparently, he made no ask of Israel but pledged “a clear understanding that in no circumstances can a transition to Hamas occur.” At no point did any hint of the interests of the Palestinian people, much less their rights, creep into Jeffries’ mind. Instead, he shared the assumption that the fate of the Palestinians was Israel’s and the United States’ to decide. You really can’t get more racist than that, especially from a presumptive “progressive.”
Meanwhile, Republicans deny Palestinians’ very existence
McCarthy, the House Speaker who led a bipartisan delegation to Israel and became only the second House Speaker ever to address the Knesset (Newt Gingrich was the first), reminded everyone that, as racist and pro-apartheid as the Democrats are, the Republicans are worse.
McCarthy never came close to mentioning the Palestinians. They simply don’t exist at all in his worldview. His demonization of Iran included terrorism and similar buzzwords, but even then, he pointed at Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Even mentioning Hamas would have shattered the cloak of invisibility McCarthy threw over the entire Palestinian people.
While much of McCarthy’s speech was laced with religious overtones, his few words of policy sounded remarkably similar to those of the Democrats. “Thanks to the Abraham Accords, coexistence, and cooperation are beginning to replace conflict and intolerance,” he said. “As a result, a future where your children can enjoy a just and lasting peace is not only foreseeable, it is attainable. Congress has supported the dramatic breakthroughs of the Abraham Accords. Last week, we passed a bipartisan resolution celebrating your 75th Anniversary and commending the Abraham Accords.”
McCarthy also attacked the United Nations, implying the body is irrationally antisemitic because it makes some minor attempts to defend Palestinian rights. His one departure from the bipartisan party line, which certainly fell on deaf ears in the Knesset, was to urge Israel to distance itself from China. But shortly after that, Israel moved to conclude a new free trade agreement with China, with which it does an enormous amount of trade. The U.S. has long wished Israel would distance itself from China, but Israel, looking after its interests, has not. China recently offered to mediate talks between Israel and the Palestinians, an offer that has been met with hostility from the U.S. and simply ignored by Israel.
The bipartisan congressional lovefest that Jeffries and McCarthy performed in Israel is a reminder that Congress is badly out of step with the American public on this issue. This is especially true for Democrats, and while Congress has long been resistant to the public view on this question, even there, change is starting, however slowly. It will be important that Hakeem Jeffries hear clearly that his bigoted approach to this question will cost him support, not win him friends.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics