Pro-Palestinian lawmaker shakes up Israel status quo with seat on foreign affairs panel

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Article Summary
A lawmaker supportive of boycotting Israel has joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee, complicating congressional efforts to pass anti-boycott legislation.

Somali-American Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is one of two freshmen Democrats openly embracing the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. On Wednesday she joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee, giving her an unprecedented opportunity to elevate BDS as an issue on the traditionally pro-Israel panel — should she choose to do so.

Regardless of her intentions, Republicans are already using her appointment on the committee to highlight growing divisions on Israel within the Democratic caucus. While Democratic leadership has traditionally sided with Israel, Republicans are eager to highlight Omar as representative of a Democratic base that is increasingly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Indeed, a December University of Maryland poll found that 56% of Democrats favor sanctions or more serious action against Israel should it continue expanding its settlements in the West Bank. Only 26% of Republicans agreed.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., the co-chairman of the House Republican Israel Caucus, pointed to Omar’s support for BDS and a tweet from six years ago that has been panned as anti-Semitic. Zeldin was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last Congress; Republicans have yet to unveil this year's roster.

“Instead of the Dems supporting Israel & combatting BDS & anti-Semitism on college campuses & elsewhere, they’re now empowering it,” Zeldin tweeted today.

Zeldin was referring to Omar’s 2012 tweet stating that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

The New York Republican also took aim this week at Congress’ only other pro-BDS lawmaker, freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. Tlaib has condemned the Senate’s Combating BDS Act, asserting that the bill’s supporters “forgot what country they represent.”

After the House voted 424-1 this week to condemn white supremacy following comments from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, Zeldin called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to pass a similar resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

“Can we now vote to condemn the anti-Semitism & hate that Rep. Rashida Tlaib & other Dems so strongly embrace, which is also wrong?” Zeldin tweeted on Wednesday.

Eager to pick at the Democrats’ intra-party divisions, Senate Republicans have made the Combating BDS Act, introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., their first order of legislative business in the new Congress. The legislation would give cover to state-level laws cracking down on boycotts of Israel or its West Bank settlements.

Democratic leadership is not in any hurry to address the issue head on. Rubio’s bill had 15 Democratic co-sponsors in the previous Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. But Senate Democrats have refused to advance the bill until Congress ends the longest government shutdown in US history. Amid the gridlock, Republicans have failed to advance the bill three times in one week.

Still, Republicans need to secure only a handful of Democratic votes to advance the bill once the shutdown is resolved, enabling them to throw a potential political hand grenade at House Democrats.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Middle East panel chairman Ted Deutch, D-Fla., are all proponents of anti-BDS legislation, setting up a potential flashpoint with Omar and the left’s progressive base.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously voted to advance another bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, last year. That bill seeks to levy financial and possible criminal penalties on companies and employees that comply with United Nations efforts to gather information on companies affiliated with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

But with Omar on the committee, the politics of advancing any anti-boycott bill become much more complicated.

Asked earlier this week if he would put the Combating BDS Act on the House floor, Hoyer told Al-Monitor that “I haven’t counted the votes yet. I think the overwhelming majority here doesn’t want to see Israel hurt. They also want to protect free speech, and I think there are a number of amendments that have been added to the bills that have been introduced to affect that end.”

Omar and her office declined to comment about her new committee position. But she expressed a dim view of the Senate’s anti-BDS bill earlier this month.

Asked what she would do if Democratic leaders put the Combating BDS Act on the floor, Omar told Al-Monitor: “I can’t imagine us being that senseless and not understanding what is really at stake. I hope that here in the House and in the Senate that we prioritize making sure that we are doing the people’s agenda, and I doubt that is on the people’s agenda.”

But that’s not deterring pro-Israel groups from renewing their push to get Congress to act on the anti-boycott bills this year, characterizing Omar as one of “a few outliers on both sides.”

“In time we would hope that Rep. Omar would recognize the BDS movement for what it is, an effort to isolate and delegitimize the nation of Israel, but if she fails to do so, we do not expect her position to have any tangible impact on our legislative agenda,” Sandra Parker, the chairwoman of the Christians United for Israel Action Fund, told Al-Monitor in a statement.

Omar has also called for curtailing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has deepened its intelligence relationship with Israel in recent years as the two countries seek to counter Iran. State-run Saudi media have run a smear campaign against Omar and Tlaib — the first two Muslim congresswomen — in recent months, echoing far-right conspiracy theories in the United States. Engel announced today that the Foreign Affairs Committee’s first hearing will focus on the Arabian peninsula.

“We need to rein in arms sales to human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia,” Omar said in a statement after joining the committee.

Meanwhile, Omar continues to take heat from the media over her 2012 tweet, offering ambiguous answers as to whether it was appropriate. She wrote the tweet in the middle of an Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem notes that 167 Palestinians were killed in the offensive, at least 87 of whom were civilians.

“I remember when that was happening, watching TV and really feeling as if no other life was being impacted in this war,” Omar said in an interview with CNN International on Wednesday. “And those unfortunate words were really the only way I could think of about expressing that moment.”

She went on to stress the difference between criticizing Israeli military actions and attacking “particular people of faith.”

But in a subsequent interview today for CNN’s domestic audience, she appeared to double down, stating, “I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans. My comments precisely are addressing what was happening during the Gaza war, and I am clearly speaking about the way that the Israeli regime was conducting itself in that war.”

Still, J Street, a liberal lobbying group that opposes anti-boycott laws while also opposing the BDS movement, leapt to her defense, citing her background as a Somali refugee as “a positive development.”

“While it’s fair to disagree with and criticize her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the BDS movement or any other issue, smearing Rep. Omar as an anti-Semite — or suggesting that she is somehow not fit to serve on an important committee like Foreign Affairs — is bigoted and deeply wrong,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement.

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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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