May 16, 2021 - World

Most of Congress silent on Israeli-Palestinian fighting

A Palestinian boy is seen sitting with the body of an airstrike victim amid fighting in Gaza.

A Palestinian boy mourns an airstrike victim on Sunday. Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

The pitched criticism by conservatives over progressive outrage about the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians overshadows a larger silence by the vast majority of Congress.

Why it matters: In the largely permissive environment, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ratcheting up its military engagement in Gaza. The death toll is rising, and a spectacular weekend attack leveled a building housing the Associated Press and other outside media.

  • The House and Senate returned from recesses last week but made no move to pass a symbolic, bipartisan resolution urging each side to halt the fighting. Sources tell Axios the relevant foreign relations committees haven't even talked about something that would have previously been an automatic topic.
  • On Saturday, though, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a dramatic statement that surprised Israelis: "I am deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza, as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets.”
  • Additionally, a group of Jewish lawmakers wrote to President Biden to criticize evictions in East Jerusalem, writing "the Palestinians should know that the American people value their lives as we do Israeli lives."
  • While most other lawmakers did little to take on Israel, its retaliation after Hamas launched rocket attacks from there sparked universal outrage by The Squad.

What they're saying: "We can't stand idly by when the United States government sends $3.8 billion of military aid to Israel that is used to demolish Palestinian homes, imprison Palestinian children and displace Palestinian families," Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) said in a tweet.

  • Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also posted critical tweets.
  • The progressive statements — including a New York Times op-ed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — reflect that old-school Democratic leaders such as Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may be out of step with their younger, more vocal members when it comes to blind support for Israel.

Such statements triggered their own backlash from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

  • "There is no moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas," he tweeted.
  • Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) chased after Ocasio-Cortez last week, accusing her of supporting Hamas — which governs Gaza — because of her pro-Palestinian statements.

The backdrop: The relative quiet has obscured a subtle move to the left by more Democrats when it comes to Israel.

  • Lawmakers beyond progressives have become more critical of Israel and defensive of the Palestinians’ rights.
  • As a result, sources tell Axios, a resolution supporting Israel hasn't even been offered because progressives made clear they would lead a charge against it.

Between the lines: Netanyahu was on the verge of being ousted from the office he's held for 12 years when talks over a rival coalition government collapsed after the Gaza fighting broke out.

  • And Netanyahu has to court extreme right-wing groups within Israel if he hopes to maintain his narrow coalition.

For his part, Biden has called for a peaceful resolution but has abstained from any public criticism of Israel, maintaining longstanding U.S. policy.

  • The president spoke Saturday with both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
  • The White House has heard from many progressives who believe that Israel is not acting proportionately, Axios has learned.
  • There have been a number of staff-level phone calls between Congress and the NSC, as well as with members themselves calling the White House to speak up on the issue.

Be smart: During a press conference Sunday, Netanyahu said Israel has the backing of the U.S. for its operation in Gaza and thanked Biden for his support, Axios from Tel Aviv author Barak Ravid reported.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with news of the Jewish lawmakers' letter to President Biden.

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