Frustrated Democrats go on offense after Netanyahu win

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Article Summary
Democrats are racing to salvage the prospect of Palestinian statehood after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a fifth term with promises to annex the West Bank.

Democrats in Congress came out swinging this week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a fifth term with the aid of his right-wing allies.

Netanyahu’s close alignment with President Donald Trump and his dalliance with the extremist Jewish Power party has opened him up to unprecedented criticism from even staunchly pro-Israel Democrats in recent months. The Israeli leader’s last-minute campaign promise to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank has added fuel to the fire, generating condemnation far beyond the party’s left fringe.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., fired the opening legislative salvo on Thursday, introducing a resolution calling on the Trump administration to restore US assistance to the West Bank and Gaza.

“Aid to innocent civilians should not be caught up in broader geopolitical battles,” Merkley told Al-Monitor. “We can and should restore aid to children and other vulnerable populations at the same time as we stand steadfastly by Israel’s security.”

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The resolution calls on the Trump administration to spend $196.5 million in economic assistance and $61 million in security aid appropriated by Congress that has been held up because of legal uncertainty. Trump suspended economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians last year; since then the Palestinians have rejected all further assistance amid concerns that accepting it would open them up to court-ordered legal damages following last year’s enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act.

Merkley’s resolution has five Democratic cosponsors: Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the top Democrat on the foreign aid panel, and Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Chris Coons, D-Del., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Van Hollen also penned a Washington Post op-ed with Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., on Wednesday urging Congress to “pass legislation calling for the protections of the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians and opposing any actions that sabotage a future two-state solution.”

While the resolution is unlikely to advance in the Republican-held Senate, it stands a better chance in the Democratic-controlled House. Today, four pro-Israel leaders in the lower chamber — Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.; House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.; Middle East subcommittee Chairman Ted Deutch, D-Fla.; and Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill. — weighed in with a statement condemning Netanyahu’s rhetoric.

“We are greatly concerned by the possibility of Israel taking unilateral steps to annex the West Bank,” they wrote. “We hope that any security measures are implemented within the context of preserving the eventual possibility of a two-state solution.”

Lowey has previously criticized Trump’s Palestinian aid elimination. And Deutch has introduced legislation that would allow Palestinian aid to resume despite the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act.

Nonetheless, the lawmakers avoided calling Netanyahu out by name and asserted that “Palestinian leadership has been unwilling to accept any reasonable peace proposal or even to negotiate seriously toward a solution.”

“Our fear is that such unilateral steps — whether from Israelis or Palestinians — would push the parties [further] from a final, negotiated settlement,” they wrote.

Van Hollen and Connolly went further in their op-ed, calling Netanyahu’s annexation pledge “the first step toward a West Bank with enclaves of stateless Palestinians or of a greater Israel without Palestinians.”

“These developments have not taken place in a vacuum,” the lawmakers wrote. “They have been recklessly aided and abetted by President Trump, whose indiscriminate support for Netanyahu and the Israeli far right has been characterized by total disregard for long-standing US policy, international law and regional stability.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also faced heat from Democratic senators during two appearances on Capitol Hill this week. Pressed by Van Hollen about what the Trump administration would do should Netanyahu move forward with settlement annexation on Thursday, the secretary refused to answer.

Trump’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Golan Heights last month garnered condemnation from Democrats, who fear that the move served as a green light for Netanyahu to propose doing the same in the West Bank.

Pompeo also repeatedly declined to endorse a two-state solution. Israeli media reported today that the administration’s long-delayed plan would drop anywhere between June and November.

“The old set of ideas aren’t worth retreading,” Pompeo told lawmakers on Wednesday. “They have simply not succeeded.”

No one in Congress has seen the carefully guarded peace plan, and Republicans indicated that they are perfectly fine with that. They also believe that decisions that benefited Netanyahu’s chances at the polls, such as the Golan Heights decision and last year’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, do not obligate the prime minister to make any concessions as part of a US peace plan.

“Ultimately it’s a determination for the people of Israel in terms of what agreement would further security in Israel and in the Middle East,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “We should respect the sovereignty of Israel and the Israeli people to make those determinations.”

For his part, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., downplayed Netanyahu’s annexation proposal and its impact on the peace process.

“The prime minister is always going to act in the best interest of Israel’s security,” Rubio told Al-Monitor. “I’m not very optimistic about there being a [peace] settlement at this point on that issue given the players that are involved. And there’s no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.”

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Found in: Israeli elections

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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