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With New House Resolutions, Democrats Finally Allow Their Israel Divide Into The Open

Rashida Tlaib Israel resolution

Some moments in politics are clarifying. The House’s vote on Resolution 246, which opposes the movement to boycott Israel, is one such moment. The resolution, which boasted 351 co-sponsors, overwhelmingly passed the House on Tuesday, 398-17.

For most of this year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has worked overtime to protect her caucus from too much scrutiny where Israel’s concerned because her caucus is split. That’s why the House still hasn’t taken up H.R. 336, the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, which the Senate passed 77-23 in February. (Psst. Readers, this is your friendly reminder to call your representatives to ask them to sign Republicans’ discharge petition to force a vote on the House bill.)

Of course, compared to the Senate, the Democratic House is a decidedly different kettle of fish. To maintain a unified front, Pelosi has largely sidestepped the boycott issue. This has allowed House Democrats to say they support Israel without having to go on the record and prove it. For outside observers, this has meant a fuzzy sense of how many Democrats don’t share Congress’ traditionally strong bipartisan support of Israel.

But that has now changed. With the roll call vote for Resolution 246 and the introduction of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s own pro-boycott resolution, House Resolution 496, Democratic dissenters are identifying themselves.

Time To Go on the Record

These dueling resolutions offer a much clearer picture of where the center of gravity is on the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress. They also highlight the split within the Democratic Party, since 16 of the 17 “nays” were Democrats. (Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky was the lone Republican.)

So, what does it all mean? Democrats and many Jewish organizations are celebrating this resolution as a win — and symbolically speaking, it is. Persuading 398 members of Congress to vote for anything, particularly in our polarized political climate, is undeniably impressive, and CNN‘s calling this overwhelmingly favorable vote “divisive” is laughable.

That nearly all Democrats signed onto a resolution opposing the boycott-Israel movement and unequivocally reaffirmed that “Israel is a key ally and strategic partner of the United States” is undeniably good, “especially in the context of rising anti-Semitism.” Seeing Democratic Reps. Eliot Engel of New York, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch of Florida, and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey support this resolution from the House floor, in addition to Republican Reps. Lee Zeldin of New York and Chris Smith of New Jersey, was also important. Because if there’s any group that has been too quiet for my taste this year, it’s pro-Israel Democrats. In that sense, I agree with Zeldin, who described this resolution as “progress” during debate.

However, before anyone declares game over, it’s important to note three issues: 1) This was a purely symbolic vote, 2) Democratic support would likely drop if this vote were more than symbolic, and 3) there’s a small but growing number of legislators willing to publicly support boycotting. Let’s consider those points in turn.

The Vote Was Symbolic

First, symbolism is important, but it obviously doesn’t have the same real-world consequences as laws. This resolution unambiguously opposes the global effort to boycott the Middle East’s only democracy. It even goes so far as to lay out the words of a boycott movement founder who said, “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

However, the resolution “opposes,” “affirms,” “urges,” and “supports.” Essentially, it identifies a problem without taking steps to resolve it.

Problem-naming is helpful, but in many ways, we’re past the point where it’s sufficient. College students who support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship are being marginalized on American campuses, and the ACLU and CAIR are suing state governments for adopting anti-boycott laws.

We Still Need ‘Legislation with Teeth’

Second, congressional leaders may widely agree that the boycott movement is harmful. However, Democrats still aren’t publicly supporting H.R. 336, which includes affirmation of state and local governments’ right not to contract with firms that boycott Israel.

When I asked a House Foreign Affairs Committee aide why Democrats supported the anti-boycott resolution but not H.R. 336, they cited free speech concerns. That wasn’t terribly surprising, since Democratic senators said the same about the Senate bill.

Still, this underscores that Democrats’ wide agreement doesn’t include actions to oppose the boycott. If it did, the House would have voted on H.R. 336 or a similar bill already. And as a spokesman for Zeldin emailed: “Making a powerful statement is good. Now let’s do something about it and pass legislation with teeth.”

Omar’s Allies Continue To Emerge

Finally, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Omar may be the most outspoken about U.S. policy toward Israel. However, ever since the House failed to unequivocally condemn Omar’s third round of anti-Semitic comments, it’s been clear the Minnesota Democrat has ardent defenders within her caucus.

With the introduction of Omar’s pro-boycott resolution, we can better see who numbers among her allies. As of Wednesday, Omar’s resolution has 14 co-sponsors, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Notably, three of them, Democratic Reps. John Lewis of Georgia, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Donald Payne Jr. of New Jersey, also voted for Resolution 246. Time will tell if more of Resolution 246’s “nay” voters co-sponsor Omar’s resolution; although, it’s not clear it’s going anywhere. In the interim, Pelosi’s hard-fought effort to keep the Israel divide quiet has been foiled — not by leaks from the majority, but by the dissenters themselves.