The Politics of Israel and Palestine in the US: The State of Play in Congress and Beyond

Peace Advocate January 2022

A pro-Palestinian protest in midtown Manhattan amid the Israeli assault on Gaza, May 11, 2021. (Screen capture by the Times of Israel/Twitter)
A pro-Palestinian protest in midtown Manhattan amid the Israeli assault on Gaza, May 11, 2021. (Screen capture by the Times of Israel/Twitter)

by Jeff Klein

The start of a new year is a good time to assess the possibilities of change in US policy toward Israel and Palestine.

Almost 75 years since its foundation and the expulsion of 750,000 Arab residents in what Palestinians call the Nakba or “Catastrophe,” Israel is now widely seen as an apartheid state that continues to enjoy US military, financial and diplomatic support. We are midway through a ten-year agreement, originally negotiated by Barak Obama,  to supply Israel with $38 billion to purchase US weapons. Numerous other state and Federal programs provide additional millions of dollars annually, not to mention allowing many billions of tax-deductible contributions to Israeli causes, including illegal settlements.  Since 1948, cumulative direct US aid to Israel has totaled more than a quarter-trillion in current dollars

This US backing has allowed Israel to maintain control over the West Bank, and Gaza under quasi-permanent military rule since 1967, while continuing its colonization through the building of settlements on occupied land – all with reduced costs to Israeli taxpayers. The US also ensures that Israel pays no price for its unlawful annexation of East Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan, which the United Nations has repeatedly condemned. Internationally, Israel maintains an aggressive stance toward its neighbors through military threats or regular attacks which employ US-supplied weaponry while it remains shielded from any consequence by the US veto in the Security Council.

Despite the evidence of shifting public opinion, particularly among grassroots Democrats, there have been few cracks in unconditional Congressional and White House support for Israel. This was vividly demonstrated after Israel’s latest attack on Gaza when the House voted overwhelmingly last Fall to appropriate an additional $1 billion in US funding for its “Iron Dome” missiles with only 9 dissenting votes (8 Democrats, including our own Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and one rightwing libertarian Republican; Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and one other Republican voted “present”).

But there are also some bright spots indicating that change is not out of the question. The third version of Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill (H.R. 2590) to hold Israel accountable for its mistreatment of Palestinian children and families now has 31 cosponsors, including Massachusetts Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Stephen Lynch. Another bill filed this year by Michigan Rep. Andy Levin, the “Two-State Solution Act” H.R.5344, reaffirms US policy, repudiated under some recent presidents, that permanent occupation or annexation of the territories Israel conquered in 1967 – including East Jerusalem – and Israeli settlement building are contrary to international law. The Two-State Resolution, which is critical of Israeli human right violations and bans the use of US military aid or arms in the Occupied Territories, has 43 sponsors, all Democrats, including Reps. McGovern and Moulton from Massachusetts. (Only about a dozen House members who have cosponsored both bills.)

These are good, though limited, steps to hold Israel accountable and to exert some pressure on its continued occupation. On the other hand,  the bi-partisan “Israel Relations Normalization Act of 2021” (H.R.2748S.1061) indicates how most of the Democrats in Congress continue their one-sided support of Israel. The House and Senate bills essentially cheerlead for Israel and the process of “normalization” of relations with some Arab states, led under Trump by the Gulf petro-monarchies strongly allied with the US. The House version has 327 cosponsors (167 Democrats, including Massachusetts Reps. Auchincloss, Trahan, Moulton, Neal and Keating) while in the Senate the bill has 72 co-sponsors, so far not including either Markey or Warren. Palestinians are barely mentioned in the bills, though there is the usual pro-forma support for a negotiated two-state agreement at the same time that it approves to regional effort to isolate the Palestinians from their natural allies.

Given the obstacles to change – a united Republican Party joined at the hip to the Israel’s far rightwing, a Democratic leadership committed to an Israel-first policy and a hugely well-financed and influential pro-Israel lobby led by AIPAC, which directs major donations to both parties – it is clear that efforts in Congress will succeed only at the margins in the immediate future. The incipient Congressional caucus of Palestinian rights supporters and advocates for a US policy that would pressure Israel to one degree or another has grown in recent years, but it consists of only between a dozen to sixty Democratic House members, depending on how one assesses their positions. The increasingly evident change in public discourse on Palestine and Israel has until now made relatively few inroads in the Washington establishment. So, while our efforts in Congress should continue and intensify, drastic change in US policy toward Israel and Palestine cannot be expected any time soon.

For that change to become feasible, we will need a larger, more organized and more focused Palestine solidarity movement. However much some might view “street power” as an end in itself, US policy is made in the halls of Congress and in the executive — and that is where pressure for change must be ultimately directed. It took decades for the demands of the mass movement against South African apartheid to bear fruit when Congressional sanctions were passed in 1986 over Ronald Reagan’s veto. This should be our model and our strategic aim.

— Jeff Klein, a Dorchester resident and a retired local union president, is active with Dorchester People for Peace and serves on the board of Massachusetts Peace Action and on its Palestine-Israel Working Group.