Congress Weighs in on the “Deal of the Century”


(Analysis by FMEP’s Lara Friedman, originally published Jan. 31, 2020 at Medium)

What can be gleaned from the responses from Members of Congress to President Trump’s “Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People”? Based on examination of members’ statements, press releases, and tweets, here are 6 initial observations.

(1) GOP members are 100% with Trump on the issue. So far, there does not appear to be a single Republican willing to express reservations about, let alone opposition to, Trump’s plan. This likely reflects in part the poisonously partisan nature of the current political environment, in which some Republicans (and two of Trump’s lawyers) went so far as to try to use the Trump Plan to score points in the impeachment debate. It likely also reflects the rise of hardline pro-Israel Evangelical views among Republican elected officials, to the extent that today there is in Congress a strong ideological alignment with “Greater Israel” forces in the U.S and in Israel.

Likewise, strong Republican support for the Trump Plan plays into the GOP’s strategy of casting the Republican party as the true pro-Israel party, with the goal of appealing to pro-Israel Evangelical Christians, pandering to pro-Israel donors, and trying to win over some traditionally Democratic Jewish voters. It also is central to efforts that seek to re-purpose support for Israel into a shied to deflect questions about white supremacists/antisemitism — not just in the party’s base but in its own leadership. Indeed, the embrace of the Trump plan is just the latest example of the Republican party adopting an Israel policy grounded in philo-semitism (which is essentially another face of antisemitism), with support for Israel weaponized to attack those who disagree as anti-Israel, probably antisemitic, and possibly in league with terrorists.

(2) Democrats are not unified. Many Democrats in both the House and Senate came out with strong, substantive criticism of the plan. Yet, some key House Democratic leaders (including a number of Jewish members) issued statements that were at best wishy-washy. Most notable are statements from Pelosi (D-CA), Engel (D-NY), Deutch (D-FL), Lowey (D-NY), and Wasserman Shultz (D-FL), all of appear to have been crafted for the express purpose of avoiding direct criticism of the plan. One can only guess as to why this was the case — indeed, some of these members may eventually take stronger positions (arguing perhaps that they needed time to study the text — a weak argument at best). But it is hard to avoid the conclusion, for now, that these members may prefer to actively or passively support the plan, either for tactical domestic reasons (like avoiding a clash with Israel or not letting the GOP claim to be more pro-Israel), or out of a sense that this is the right way to support moderate forces in Israel (given that Blue and White’s Benny Gantz has fulsomely praised the plan).

(3) Key Democratic candidates for President in Congress opposed the plan. It is significant that three senators who are vying to be the next Democratic candidate for President — Sanders (I-VT), Warren (D-MA), and Klobuchar (D-MN) — all came out early and strong in opposition to the Trump plan. All three signed on to a Senate letter (led by Van Hollen, D-MD) on the issue; Sanders and Warren each made separate statements as well.

(4) Hypocrisy on the issue abounds (and is bipartisan). During the Obama era, Members of Congress from both parties preemptively attacked the UN and Obama for even considering a UN Security Council Resolution intended to break no new ground on Israel-Palestine, but merely reaffirming longstanding terms of reference regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace, including with respect to settlements (see, for example: H. Con. Res. 165, passed in the House by a Voice Vote). After Obama abstained on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 — exactly such a resolution — members from both parties attacked and condemned Obama and the UN for trying to “impose” a solution on Israel (see, for example: H. Res. 11, passed by a vote of 342–80 — which uses the word “impose” 7 times). Now, however, it seems hardly anyone in Congress cares that the new U.S. policy literally and comprehensively imposes a new reality on the parties. Indeed, the word “impose” (or variations thereof) hardly shows up in any statements. This phenomenon is on starkest display with Rep. Deutch (D-FL): in his comment preceding the release of the plan, he noted that “ it is important to remember that no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can or should be imposed”; in his comments after the plan —a textbook example of an imposed solution to this conflict — was released, Deutch dropped this concern completely, shifting his focus to what will be required to make the plan work.

(5) Congressional objections are weak on alternatives. In general, even the strongest objections to the plan are framed in terms of the dangers Trump’s plan poses to Israel (validating the erasure of Palestinians as equal stakeholders), the dangers of annexation, the need to hold on to the (presently unimaginable) two-state solution, and calls for, in effect, rolling U.S. policy back to the pre-Trump status quo ante (validating the notion that things were going fine until Trump took over). In reality, as has been recognized (belatedly) by many experts commenting this week, the road to Trump’s disastrous peace “vision” was paved by the many peace efforts that came before it (for a thorough look at this reality, see Khaled Elgindy, “Trump Can’t Kill the Peace Process — It was already dead” and Nathan Thrall, “Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan Exposes the Ugly Truth — This isn’t a break with the status quo. It’s the natural culmination of decades of American policy”).

(6) Josh Gottheimer <hearts> Greater Israel. The only member to fully cross party lines regarding Trump’s plan (so far) is Democrat Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ). This is just the latest demonstration of the truism that Gottheimer will get behind (or out in front of) any initiative that panders to Israel and sticks it to the Palestinians. For past examples, see: H. Res. 727, H. J. Res. 135, HR 6034, HR 2712. Or most notably (and hilariously, given his embrace of the Trump plan) see H. Res. 684, opposing the UN General Assembly’s vote to criticize the US for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, which includes a provision that “reaffirms that a sustainable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will only result from direct, bilateral negotiations between the two parties, and cannot be imposed by international organizations such as the United Nations.” Apparently imposed by the Trump Administration is another matter.