Chairmanship Fight Highlights Democratic Divisions on Israel

  • Three lawmakers vying to head the Foreign Affairs Committee
  • Battle to replace Rep. Eliot Engel, who has been hawk on Israel

The Democratic race to be the next House Foreign Affairs chairman exposes a generational rift and differences on U.S.-Israel policy that could reshape the party’s stance on achieving Middle East peace.

The contest to replace Eliot Engel (N.Y.), who lost his primary last month, is pitting Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), the next most senior Democrat on the committee and an Israel hawk, against Reps. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) and Joaquin Castro(Texas), who have been more willing to break with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies.

While the chairmanship selection won’t take place until early next year, the jockeying for the position is highlighting differences among Democrats about how hard to push Israel’s government to drop long-term plans to annex West Bank land and negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state.

The debate also poses political risks to Democrats if it alienates older and more conservative Jewish voters whom the party has relied on in key suburban districts in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Photographer: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/Bloomberg
Rep. Brad Sherman, an Israel hawk, is vying to become the next House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman.

Netanyahu’s decision to suspend, at least temporarily, annexation as part of a deal with the United Arab Emirates hasn’t quelled a growing debate on whether to place conditions on military aid to Israel to prevent such a move in the future.

The rhetoric about Middle East peace among Democrats appears “more sharp because of the completely hands-off way the Trump administration has approached Israel,” said Dana Stroul, a former Obama administration defense official and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The leadership races in the House will see members “pushing for more open discussion and challenging long-held views’’ about Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries, not only Israel, she said in an interview.

The Trump administration’s abandonment of the U.S.’s longstanding role of Middle East peace broker has spawned a sense of urgency in the Democratic caucus about restoring American commitment to a two-state solution, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich) said at an Aug. 18 webinar sponsored by J Street, a liberal Israel advocacy group that supports a two-state solution.

A Recalibration

Such impatience could embroil Joe Biden, if he’s elected president, in a debate with congressional Democrats about the best approach to fostering a two-state solution as he recalibrates the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The chairs of both the Foreign Affairs and Appropriations committees are being vacated this year by two of the party’s most stalwart supporters of Israel, who represent adjacent New York districts with large Jewish constituencies.

The contests to replace both Engel, 73, and Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), 83, who is retiring, will test Congress’ unwavering security support of the Israeli government despite lawmakers’ increasing discomfort with Netanyahu.

Sherman, like Engel and Lowey, represents a large Jewish constituency and has been more hawkish than Meeks on Israel. He supported the 2002 resolution to authorize the Iraq invasion, which Meeks opposed. Sherman opposed the Iran nuclear deal, which Meeks strongly advocated while it was being negotiated.

Sherman voted with Engel and Lowey in 2017 for a resolution adopted by the Republican-controlled House objecting to the U.N. Security Council’s resolution that declared Israeli settlements on the West Bank a “flagrant violation” of international law. Meeks and Castro were among 77 Democrats who opposed the House resolution.

A similar split is happening in the Appropriations Committee chairmanship fight where two of the three candidates vying to succeed Lowey, Reps. Rosa DeLauro(Conn.) and Marcy Kaptur(Ohio), opposed the resolution. The third candidate for that spot, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), voted for the 2017 House resolution.

Unlike Engel, the three lawmakers vying to succeed him as Foreign Affairs chairman signed a June 25 letter urging Netanyahu not to annex any part of the West Bank after July 1 as he promised in the latest election campaign.

In an interview, Sherman said the letter reflects more discontent with Trump’s Middle East peace plan rather than with Israel.

Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg
Rep. Gregory Meeks, left, who has been critical of some of Israel’s policies, is also competing to head the Foreign Affairs Committee. Fellow New Yorker, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is on the right.

Meeks, 66, said in an interview that his record is closer to the views of most Democrats than Sherman’s because “I was for the Iran agreement, he was against it,’’ and “I was against the war in Iraq, he was for it.”

Sherman, 65, said that while he opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal because the prohibition on uranium enrichment “has time limits,” he opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement when those restraints were being enforced.

Sherman said he expects that if Biden is elected president, he would quickly make good on his campaign pledge by seeking a renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal on terms that would enable the U.S. to rejoin.

Castro, 45, now in his fourth term, has advocated giving Palestinians a greater voice in debates over U.S. policy toward Israel.

He is challenging the Democratic Caucus’ seniority system that would normally favor Sherman or Meeks, the committee’s two most-senior members behind Engel.

“We need a new generation of foreign policy leadership with a new vision that promotes inclusive prosperity and democracy at home and a more holistic view of security abroad,” Castro wrote in an op-ed posted on Medium.com.

Photographer: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo/Bloomberg
Rep. Joaquin Castro is challenging the seniority system in seeking to become next head of the Foreign Affairs Committee

The generational turnover among House Democrats may accelerate the shift on U.S.-Israel policy. Jamaal Bowman, who defeated Engel in the primary, and Mondaire Jones, who won the primary in Lowey’s district, have been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and oppose annexation. Both are heavily favored to win their overwhelmingly Democratic congressional districts.

Sherman’s seniority would likely favor him when he seeks support of the Steering and Leadership Committee, said John Lawrence, a former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But his seniority would be tested in the full caucus, where the final decision is made in a vote by the rank-and-file, he said.

“When there is an open seat, there’s more of an expectation now that there can be a challenge” by junior members, Lawrence said.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jrowley@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

Top