Democratic leaders seek to quell pro-Palestinian uprising in US Congress

Growing number of pro-Palestinian Democrats are facing opposition from party’s top political brass

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 14: A general view of the U.S. Capitol Building on May 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. Republican members of the House of Representatives will gather today for a caucus meeting to pick a replacement for Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) as Chair of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center.   Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP
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Democratic leaders in the US Congress are seeking to clamp down on a growing movement in their ranks to restrict arms sales and put conditions on military aid to Israel, which once had unconditional bipartisan support.

The pro-Israel old guard in the House of Representatives has started to lose traction as a new generation of Democrats willing to criticise the close US ally rises through the ranks and vocally pro-Palestinian members continue to win elections.

The fractures were on display this week as the pro-Palestinian faction tried to block President Joe Biden’s $735 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Israel.

Israel is in the middle of a deadly aerial campaign in the Gaza Strip, in response to a barrage of Hamas rocket attacks.

The violence has killed at least 212 Palestinians, including 61 children, and 10 people in Israel, including one child.

A group of 10 pro-Palestinian Democrats introduced legislation on Wednesday to block the arms sale after Gregory Meeks of New York, the House foreign affairs committee chairman, ultimately declined to ask the Biden administration to halt the sale.

The legislation was introduced by left-wing firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who defeated the House’s number three Democrat and staunch Israel defender Joseph Crowley in 2018.

“For decades, the US has sold billions of dollars in weaponry to Israel without ever requiring them to respect basic Palestinian rights,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez said when introducing the bill.

“In so doing, we have directly contributed to the death, displacement and disenfranchisement of millions.”

“At a time when so many, including President Biden, support a ceasefire, we should not be sending ‘direct attack’ weaponry to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to prolong this violence.”

The Biden administration first notified Congress of the $735m arms sale on May 5, but The Washington Post reported on Monday that Mr Meeks had failed to promptly inform members of the foreign affairs committee, who learnt about it last weekend.

After backlash on the committee, initial reports on Monday indicated that Mr Meeks would use his authority to ask the Biden administration to halt the sale.

But Steny Hoyer, the House’s number two Democrat, said on Tuesday that Mr Meeks had backed off his decision to place a hold on the sale.

Mr Hoyer that same day blamed Hamas for civilian casualties in Gaza and Israel, while saying that placing conditions on aid to Israel “would only embolden Hamas and encourage it to continue its disregard for innocent life and destabilising actions".

Mr Meeks later denied that he ever intended to halt the arms sale after intense criticism from Republicans.

Instead, he said that the Biden administration would brief Congress on the arms sale by the end of the week.

"I never said I was going to hold it," Mr Meeks told The National. "I wanted to make sure we have open space for dialogue.

“It’s not about what’s taking place in the Middle East right now, because these weapons are going to be delivered a year from now, [when] they will probably receive them.”

Mr Meeks assumed leadership of the foreign affairs committee after the former chairman, Eliot Engel of New York, lost his re-election bid to Jamaal Bowman.

During the race, Mr Engel faced heavy criticism for his history of unconditional support for Israel. Mr Bowman is now one of the co-sponsors of Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s bill to halt the Israel arms sale.

But she and her allies would need Mr Meeks’s support to force the House to vote on their bill.

The 15-day deadline to force such a vote expires on Thursday and pro-Israel Democrats would probably join forces with Republicans to kill any such legislation, effectively making the bill a symbolic objection to the sale in the face of opposition from Democratic leadership.

"This was sort of slid through without a lot of attention or notice," Pramila Jayapal, another co-sponsor on the bill, told The National.

“Given the situation today and the fire keg that is there in the Middle East, this is the wrong time to be approving military sales.

Pro Palestinians rally in US capitol

Pro Palestinians rally in US capitol

“It doesn’t mean it can never happen, but I think this is not the time to be doing it because I think we really have to focus on the ceasefire. It felt important to send that message.”

Pro-Palestinian advocates may still have other cards to play in Congress.

Betty McCollum of Minnesota, another co-sponsor of the Ocasio-Cortez bill, now chairs the powerful defence spending panel.

Ms McCollum has introduced her own legislation that would put conditions on US military aid to pressure Israel into avoiding forcible displacement of Palestinians, annexing Palestinian territory or detaining Palestinian minors.

At least one advocacy group backing her bill has suggested that she could use her new position in leadership to attach similar restrictions on aid to Israel in the annual defence spending bill.

“While a vote on [Ms McCollum’s] bill may be unlikely given the political dynamics in the House right now, it’d be wonderful if she got a hearing on the bill, attached a version of it to the must-pass [defence spending bill] and found someone to introduce a Senate companion,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative manager for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

The defence spending panel regularly appropriates $500m a year to fund Israeli missile defence programmes.

But most of the military aid to Israel comes in the form of $3.3 billion in yearly financing from the foreign aid spending panel, of which Barbara Lee of California is now chairwoman.

While Ms Lee has yet to comment on the arms sale, she has criticised Israel’s “unjust attempts to forcibly displace Palestinian families from their homes".

She took control of the panel this year after Nita Lowey of New York, the former chairwoman and another stalwart Israel defender, retired.

Despite their new potential allies in leadership, pro-Palestinian advocates in Congress still face an uphill battle with the Democrats’ top brass.

Mr Meeks, for instance, objected to Ms McCollum’s efforts to place conditions on Israeli military aid, saying it would impinge on the preliminary agreement under former president Barack Obama.

The 10-year agreement stipulates that the US will provide Israel with $3.8bn in military aid a year.

"I don't think that the [preliminary deal] that was agreed to should be conditioned," Mr Meeks told The National. "That's for Israel's defence.

“Thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel. Without them being intercepted, we would have an even larger tragedy taking place than we have right now.

"So, that’s clearly why I agree with the president on this, that Israel has the right to defend itself.”