Democrats plan legislative response to Trump’s new Israeli settlement policy

House Democratic leaders vow to vote on a resolution backing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the Donald Trump administration’s new settlement policy.

al-monitor US House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland is flanked by New York Rep. Eliot Engel and other Democratic members of Congress at Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 13, 2019. Hoyer said today he is putting his support behind a resolution in favor of a two-state resolution for Israel. Photo by REUTERS/Leah Millis.

Nov 19, 2019

The Donald Trump administration’s reversal of the decades-old US position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate international law has prompted Democratic leaders to coalesce around a resolution reaffirming support for a two-state solution despite their previous attempts to slow-walk the legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told Al-Monitor today that he expects to put the resolution on the floor “before the end of the year.” Hoyer’s announcement comes the day after the State Department scratched a 1978 legal opinion deeming Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law.

The majority leader noted that both Republican and Democratic presidents have previously maintained “that settlements, whatever the legal argument is, are an impediment to a resolution to the differences between the Palestinians and Israelis, and therefore the settlements should not go forward.”

“That is still our policy, should be our policy, and as a strong supporter of Israel, I have urged that the settlement movement stop, and very frankly be reversed,” Hoyer told Al-Monitor.

Hoyer’s new support for the symbolic resolution is notable because he had previously kept the two-state resolution off the House floor as Democratic leaders negotiated potential changes that would have watered down the language.

This infuriated the resolution’s sponsors, including Reps. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who believed they had struck an agreement to vote on the bill in July at the same time the House passed a resolution condemning the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement 398-17.

As Al-Monitor reported in July, Hoyer’s office had previously said they were seeking Republican supporters on the partisan resolution amid a debate over minor yet contentious changes to the bill’s language.

Specifically, some Democratic leaders had sought to strike the word “only” from the resolution’s unequivocal endorsement of a two-state solution while eliminating language warning Israel against the “unilateral annexation of territory” in the West Bank. The House Foreign Affairs Committee had already watered down the resolution in July by removing a reference to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

That didn’t stop House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., from entering the intraparty fray last month at a gala hosted by the left-leaning lobbying group J Street, which has spent at least $200,000 this year lobbying on the resolution alongside several other bills. Addressing the gala, Pelosi praised the resolution as “an opportunity for Congress to reaffirm support for a two-state solution.”

J Street immediately condemned the Trump administration’s Monday announcement and called on Congress to “move quickly” to pass the resolution.

The rival American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) responded to the decision on Twitter by noting that it “does not take a position on settlements.” Instead AIPAC called on the Palestinian Authority to “stop their boycott of US [and] Israeli officials and return to direct talks.”

Many Republicans promptly praised the Trump administration’s move.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the reversal of the Jimmy Carter-era settlement opinion “a repudiation of President [Barack] Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s ill-informed efforts to target Israeli presence in the West Bank.” And Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., characterized it as a reversal of Obama’s “anti-Israel policy,” citing the former president’s abstention from a 2016 UN Security Council vote on a resolution condemning the settlements.

Conversely, Democratic presidential candidates — even those with close AIPAC ties — quickly followed J Street’s lead and condemned the Trump administration’s new stance on settlements.

Vice President Joe Biden said the decision was “not about peace or security. It is not about being pro-Israel. It is about undercutting Israel’s future in service of Trump’s personal politics.”

Biden rivals — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana — also criticized the decision, accusing Trump of moving further away from a two-state solution. Warren vowed to undo the decision. Sanders' foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, tweeted that a Democratic administration must be "willing to create consequences for settlements."

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