Six months after a shooting war in Gaza, Congress is more involved in controversies over Islamophobia and anti-Semitism than it is in resuscitating a two-state solution in the Middle East.
Support for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel has notably declined on Capitol Hill as poisonous rhetoric replaces policy debates about long-term security in a region where conflict has flared for more than a generation. For many lawmakers — and more prominently in the GOP as of late — the weaponization of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism has become the rule, not the exception.
This past week alone, two videos emerged of Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) suggesting that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali-born Muslim who’s outspoken in favor of Palestinian rights, is a terrorist; and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) called Omar a jihadist. The Democratic Party has its own internal fractures over the U.S.-Israel relationship: Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) was criticized by a far-left activist group last week for simply meeting with Israeli leaders, even as he has been critical of the country’s right-wing-led coalition government.
Lawmakers and two-state advocates alike are wincing at those episodes, warning about a serious undermining of what used to be an overwhelmingly bipartisan goal to help end the decadeslong Middle East conflict — not to mention the intimidation of those on both sides of the aisle seeking real solutions.
“What we’re seeing is a willingness to weaponize and politicize that takes us away from substantive, core policy issues. The kinds of substantive national-security tactics that Congress loves to engage in and debate about are suddenly a sideshow,” said Joel Rubin, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy hinted Friday that he, too, is weary of the controversies, describing them as “things we would not want to deal with.”
The rhetoric on Capitol Hill has devolved palpably since Israel carried out a retaliatory offensive in Gaza over the summer that Democrats from the progressive and establishment camps criticized as disproportionate. Republicans defended the military campaign and suggested that those criticizing it were anti-Israel, questioning Democrats’ support for Israel’s right to defend itself from militants as more progressive members of the president’s party spoke out in favor of Palestinian rights.
The intensity of that GOP response only reinforced many Democrats’ belief that the opposing party isn’t serious about supporting a Palestinian state, a view punctuated by last week’s fury toward Boebert and Greene.
“It is not a coincidence that, as Islamophobia is on the rise inside the Republican Party, support for a two-state solution has evaporated,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a Foreign Relations Committee member. “There’s a feeling amongst many Republicans that people of the Muslim faith are our enemy, and I assume that that must extend to the way they think about the Middle East.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called the attacks on Omar “blatant bigotry and political grandstanding” that aren’t “related to any serious foreign-policy proposals.”
Even before this summer, however, GOP support for a Palestinian state was waning. Only five House Republicans supported a 2019 resolution backing a two-state solution to the conflict and vowing to “discourage steps by either side that would put a peaceful end to the conflict further out of reach, including unilateral annexation of territory.”
Stiff-arming a two-state solution in the Middle East is one thing; antagonizing progressives who favor a Palestinian state is quite a different matter. But doing both can pay off politically for conservatives.
Republicans like Boebert and Greene “are finding that there are votes and political resources available to them when they” resort to Islamophobia, said Rubin, who led State Department legislative affairs during the Obama administration and was an adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.
Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and more vocally backed the country’s right-wing government, moves that Democrats said undermined the push for peace. Republicans, however, point to Trump’s brokering of the Abraham Accords — diplomatic agreements between Israel and nearby Arab nations — as evidence that the GOP is committed to fostering peace in the region.
Some Democrats, as critical as they are of GOP anti-Muslim rhetoric, even see the Abraham Accords as a launching point for future peace talks.
“Most of the Dems didn’t want to say Trump did anything good,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), but the Abraham Accords “might open up some opportunities in peace discussions that weren’t there before.”
The Democratic Party isn’t entirely aligned on a two-state solution: Four House Democrats joined the vast majority of Republicans in opposing the 2019 resolution endorsing one. Those four Democrats, original members of the chamber’s progressive Squad, are perennially at the center of Congress’ partisan storm over U.S.-Israel policy.
One of them, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), continues to refers to Israel as an “apartheid state” — a claim that has upset Jewish Democrats in particular, raising alarms among members of both parties who’ve described the statement as anti-Semitic.
Tlaib’s phrasing has been “consistent with those who advocate for the dismantling of the one Jewish state in the world,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who is Jewish. He added: “When there is no place on the map for one Jewish state, that’s anti-Semitism.”
But the vast majority of Democrats are aligned on the legitimacy of a Palestinian state that neighbors Israel and opposed to aggressive settlement construction by the Israeli government.
“The far right of the Republican Party is moving away from two states,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the pro-Israel group J Street. “And 98 percent of Democrats remain wedded to the concept that the only way out of this conflict is through diplomacy and two states.”
Ben-Ami added pointedly that it’s often the 2 percent that get the most attention. It was J Street — founded as a more liberal alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee but which is now squarely in the mainstream of the party — that Bowman, a newer Squad member, raised progressive hackles for praising.
Bowman represents a heavily Jewish district in New York and has voted accordingly, backing funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and traveling to Israel in addition to praising J Street. For the Democratic Socialists of America, under whose banner Bowman launched his political career — knocking off a pro-Israel Democratic incumbent last year — it was three strikes and you’re out.
DSA’s working group on Palestine is now pushing for the broader organization to expel Bowman over Israel. On Thursday, DSA’s national political committee said it wouldn’t push Bowman out but chastised him and said it wouldn’t endorse his reelection absent certain conditions.
Bowman’s allies noted that the freshman lawmaker, since returning from the trip to Israel, criticized the government’s approach to the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians.
The first-term progressive declined to comment on the DSA’s proposed move but said “proper policy and political actions” must be taken “in order to ensure a two-state solution.” That includes diplomacy and meeting with both parties to the conflict, he said.
“It’s not just a talking point, it’s something that needs to get done. Because Palestinian rights and Palestinian humanity and Palestinians as a nation — it’s essential to the safety and security of everyone,” Bowman said in a brief interview.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a close Bowman ally, also did not comment on the DSA’s move but said Bowman “has been an incredible champion on this issue given the community that he’s in” — a likely reference to his Jewish constituents.
“What he is doing is walking a very difficult path, quite alone,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a brief interview. “I think the goal here is to stand with and advocate for Palestinian human rights. And so what’s really important for us is to transform the communities into supporting that.”