Democrats clash over resolution calling for two-state solution

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Article Summary
Democratic leaders and members are bickering over a resolution meant to reaffirm Washington’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to annex parts of the West Bank, while President Donald Trump won’t commit to a two-state solution in his perpetually delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. Meanwhile, Democrats on Capitol Hill are arguing among themselves about a single word in a symbolic resolution that endorses a two-state solution to the conflict.

Rank-and-file Democrats are accusing the party leadership of trying to water down and slow walk the resolution, which Democrats initially introduced to reaffirm a decades-long bipartisan pillar of US policy that has started to unravel under the Trump administration.

Multiple sources familiar with the debate told Al-Monitor that some Democratic leaders want to dilute the language in order to secure buy-in from Republicans, who have soured on the previously noncontroversial two-state solution in the Trump era.

A senior Democratic aide told Al-Monitor that the “resolution is still being discussed and worked on,” noting that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., wants to “ensure that the resolution is supported by the broadest number of people possible, including Republicans.”

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Politico first reported on the debate Wednesday, which largely centers on removing one small word with major symbolic implications: “only.” Defenders of the resolution in its current form argue that the minor alteration would significantly change its meaning by signaling Democratic willingness to accept measures short of a two-state solution.

But Al-Monitor has since learned that Democratic leadership has also floated removing the resolution’s warning to Israel against “unilateral annexation of territory” in the West Bank — even though the bill simultaneously warns Palestinians against trying to achieve statehood “outside the framework of negotiations with Israel.”

“If implemented, these changes would completely undercut the purpose and impact of this resolution,” J Street, a left-leaning group that lobbies on the conflict, said in a statement Thursday. “They would hand a victory to President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu and all those who wish to prevent the achievement of a two-state peace agreement and to instead entrench a one-state nightmare of unending conflict and occupation.”

The liberal lobbying group had urged Democrats to pass the resolution to coincide with Tuesday’s vote on a closely scrutinized resolution condemning the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement — a key lobbying priority for the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). J Street spent $100,000 between April and June to lobby Congress to pass both resolutions as well as several other legislative items.

The anti-BDS resolution passed 398-17 alongside a binding Israeli military aid bill and a Hamas sanctions bill, both of which sailed through the House by voice vote without objection from a single lawmaker. 

The two-state resolution’s sponsors, Reps. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Karen Bass, D-Calif., thought they had an agreement with Democratic leaders for a vote on their bill the same week as the anti-BDS vote.

That did not happen before the House adjourned for a five-week recess Thursday, meaning that any vote will not take place until September at the earliest — if it takes place at all.

At 161 co-sponsors, the two-state resolution enjoys significant support within the Democratic caucus. But not a single Republican has gotten on board.

While House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., allowed the two-state resolution to advance along party lines last week in addition to four other bipartisan Israel bills, proponents of the resolution have primarily blamed him for pushing for changes to the text.

Engel’s office flatly denies the accusations, telling Al-Monitor that the chairman was not involved in negotiations over the changes sought by Republicans and some Democrats.

“Chairman Engel wants to see a measure come to the floor that will pass,” a committee aide told Al-Monitor. “It was unclear this week that what advanced out of committee would have. It wasn’t the substance, but some members had objections to the timing, considering there wasn’t a good read on the vote count.”

Interestingly, a third nonbinding resolution, introduced by Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., also did not proceed to the House floor despite advancing out of committee with the other Israel-related bills. That resolution praises Arab states that have improved their relations with Israel, but it also endorses a two-state solution as “essential.” Only three of the 32 co-sponsors are Republicans: Reps. David Schweikert of Arizona, Rob Woodall of Georgia and Francis Rooney of Florida.

Trump and Republicans have aggressively sought to paint Democrats as anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic, repeatedly pouncing on the party’s refusal to advance binding anti-BDS legislation backed by AIPAC despite free speech concerns raised by J Street and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Democratic leadership is less eager to highlight the rapidly accelerating partisan divisions over Israel. J Street and other pro-Palestinian advocates argue that this is a losing strategy.

“So long as Democrats are on the defensive, these are winning issues for the [Republicans] and opponents of peace,” said Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which supports a two-state solution. “With the goal posts moving — for example, now treating references to occupation as beyond the pale — Democrats are going to take hit after hit on this, just like they are doing on boycotts.”

Indeed, Democrats had already struck the term “occupation” from the original resolution before the House Foreign Affairs Committee vote. And Axios reported last month that Israel had lobbied Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., against introducing their own bipartisan resolution to endorse a two-state solution in the upper chamber.

The Israeli Embassy did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for clarification over its stance on the House resolution or whether the Netanyahu government currently supports a two-state solution. 

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Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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