Trump’s Mideast peace plan puts pro-Israel Democrats in a bind

Possible lasting break between the Israeli government and Democratic lawmakers

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House Tuesday announcing a new plan for Middle East peace (Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House Tuesday announcing a new plan for Middle East peace (Getty Images)
Posted January 29, 2020 at 10:52am

The White House’s release of its long-awaited Middle East plan is notable less for its specifics, which have already been rejected by the Palestinians, than for the bind it puts on traditional pro-Israel stalwarts in the Democratic Party, particularly if Israel decides to formally annex Palestinian land as the administration plan would immediately allow.

The administration’s 180-page “Peace to Prosperity” proposal released Tuesday, also called “The Vision,” is the three-year brainchild of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. “The Vision provides for a demilitarized Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel, with Israel retaining security responsibility west of the Jordan River,” states a White House outline of the proposal.

The plan’s release now, while the Palestinians and key regional Arab governments remain dead set against it, is viewed by analysts as more about Trump trying to help his ally, embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, win in March parliamentary elections than it is about a serious U.S. government push for a resolution to one of the world’s longest-running territorial, ethnic and religious disputes.

[Trump and Netanyahu: Embattled leaders turn to each other for political boost]

Opprobrium from Democrats was quick to pour in after the plan’s release.

“The President’s plan is marketed as a roadmap for peace. It is not,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Senate’s top Democratic appropriator for the subcommittee that allocates billions of dollars in annual military aid to Israel. “It is a roadmap for annexing settlements and territory, and indefinite occupation, while creating the mirage of a future Palestinian ‘state.’”

Added Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, a member of both the State-Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittee with Leahy and of the Foreign Relations Committee: “Quite frankly, this isn’t a plan for peace. It’s an abandonment of decades of U.S. and multilateral work to create a two-state solution in the Middle East, and it seems to be guided by political, not policy, objectives.”

Pro-Israel Democrats in a bind

Netanyahu told reporters that he would have his cabinet vote Sunday on applying Israeli sovereignty to West Bank Jewish settlements.

One implication of such a decision is the possibility of a lasting break between the Israeli government and Democratic lawmakers, who now hold the House and could possibly regain the White House and even the Senate in November elections.

Unilateral annexation by Israel of Palestinian territory would put pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers in the Senate and especially in the House in a politically difficult position. They would likely have to decide whether to resist or support the resolutions and bills that could be offered in the coming weeks and months that might condemn Israel or place conditions on the billions of dollars in annual military aid that Israel receives from U.S. taxpayers.

“You’ve kind of nailed the heart of the question,” House Democrats’ Chief Deputy Whip Peter Welch of Vermont said in an interview of the conundrum that traditional pro-Israel Democrats now find themselves in when deciding how to vote on any future Israel-related measures.

“What this plan explicitly does is it abandons the decades-long commitment that the United States has had to support a two-state solution. … There’s no possibility of a viable democratic Palestinian state under the plan,” said Welch, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who traveled to Israel and the West Bank in November for meetings with local officials.

“There’s a reason that we’ve had strong and continuous support for a two-state solution,” Welch continued. “Many of us who are for that consider ourselves to be very pro-Israel, for a democratic Jewish state, and we believe that the aggressive annexation policy, made much more intensive under Netanyahu, threatens a Jewish democratic state’s identity.”

Already, three of the four leading Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination — Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — have said they would consider conditioning Israeli security assistance on Israel not taking steps that hurt prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

“The ice that they are standing on, particularly the pro-Israel Democrats, has grown thinner and thinner over the years,” said  Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American and executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “For Democrats who claim to aspire to these liberal principles and values like equality, like freedom, like justice, like civil rights, it becomes harder by the day to be supportive of an Israeli government that is opposed to all of those things in practice.  . . .  I think the pro-Israel Democrat is an endangered species.”

The statements released by some of Israel’s staunchest Democratic defenders in response to the Trump-Kushner proposal evidenced the narrow political tightrope they find themselves walking.

A joint statement Monday by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Menendez of New Jersey did not explicitly condemn the plan.

“As longtime supporters of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and the two-state solution, we welcome any effort that will help advance those goals,” the duo said. They added: “A two-state solution cannot be born on the backs of unilateral actions from either side.  . . .  Unilateral steps would make it harder to come back to the negotiating table and could set unrealistic expectations and unachievable demands.”

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who leads the Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, said in a statement he was doubtful that a future Palestinian state could result from the Trump-Kushner plan.

“President Trump cannot proclaim the outcome to direct negotiations, nor can he create borders by fiat,” he said. “But if the United States can restart a conversation about peace through a two-state solution, that must be our goal.”

The House approved in a mostly partisan vote, 226-188, a resolution on Dec. 6 reaffirming support for a two-state solution and condemning unilateral actions by either side.