Rep. Eliot Engel (NY-16) is the Democratic chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. As such, he is the Democrat with the most power over foreign policy since the Senate and White House are controlled by Republicans.
Just a week ago, he spent significant chunks of his time working to pass another resolution aimed squarely at Rep. Ilhan Omar. Right wing media and Trump claimed Rep. Omar’s remark at the DC coffeehouse was anti-semitic or a “dual loyalty” allegation. Their hypocrisy on this issue was staggering, and misinformed, but Rep. Engel decided he would jump right into it without review, and condemned Rep. Omar’s remarks.
Which should lead us to ask where Rep. Engel’s loquaciousness is today. He’s previous waxed eloquent about Israel being a “true democracy”, blatantly ignoring the fact that for over 50 years it has ruled over millions of Palestinians who do not get a say in the oppressions visited upon them by the military occupation:
Now that PM Benjamin Netanyahu has clarified that Israel is a democracy, but really only for its Jewish citizens, Rep. Engel seems to have nothing to say.
On Sunday morning, Netanyahu responded to Sela on his own Instagram. He uploaded a picture of himself against the backdrop of an Israeli flag, and wrote, “Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People – and them alone. As you wrote, there’s no problem with the Arab citizens of Israel – they have the same rights as us all and the Likud government has invested in the Arab sector more than any other government.”
“Likud only asks,” the post continued, “to sharpen the central point of these elections: it’s either a strong right-wing government led by me, or Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz’s left-wing government with the support of the Arab parties. Lapid and Gantz have no other way to form a government, and a government like this will undermine the security of the state and citizens. The decision – another month at the ballot box. Have a nice day.” — www.haaretz.com/…
Most of the commentary following these remarks has focused on Netanyahu’s statements that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens”. That will not come as news to non-Jewish citizens of Israel, they’ve lived under a supremacist system and policies all their lives. The explicit inclusion of such a statement in Israel’s supposedly democratic constitution, merely acknowledges what all observers have long known.
But the real political meat of Netanyahu’s statement is in the second paragraph.
In it, Netanyahu presents the mere prospect of a Blue-White/Labor coalition forming a government with the Joint list (consisting of Arab parties like Balad, Ta’al and the radical left-wing Hadash) as an apocalyptic outcome to be prevented at all costs. And it seems to be working. Netanyahu’s comments seem to have spurred his right-wing coalition into the lead, despite the fact that Netanyahu is likely to be indicted for corruption by July 10.
What Netanyahu is actually doing here is following his buddy Trump’s strategy of openly demonizing minorities and making an argument for supremacy. Supremacy of one group is antithetical to democracy, but that is exactly what Netanyahu says here is the sole acceptable outcome.
Of course, this is nothing new. Though Arab/non-Jewish persons make up over 20% of Israel’s citizens, not a single one has held any cabinet position in the 70 years of Israel’s existence. There have been several deputy ministers and a Labor MK who held the Science, Culture and Sports portfolio. Throughout the 70+ years of Israel’s existence, Arab/non-Jewish citizens have been shut out of wielding any actual power. This is one of the many reasons it is fair to say that Israel proper is a de-facto Jim Crow regime, and not, as Rep. Engel claims, a “true democracy”.
Worse yet, the specter of sharing power with their Arab/non-Jewish fellow-citizens is routinely presented as a dire, frightening prospect by Israeli governments. This is the context in which Benjamin Netanyahu said “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves” before the last election. That is why no single Israeli government has ever accepted an Arab/non-Jewish party as a coalition partner.
Of course, all this side-steps the fact that 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank/Gaza and 150,000 in East Jerusalem do not get a say in these elections to choose a government that holds sway over every aspect of their lives.
So how in what world does Rep. Engel get away with saying Israel is the “one true Democracy” in the Middle-East unchallenged?
In fact, like the United States, Israel is at best a flawed democracy, and even that is only credible if you ignore the apartheid it practices in the West Bank (where settlers can vote and have their own roads), and ignore completely the Israeli government’s pervasive human rights violations in Gaza.
Other senior Democrats, even those without Foreign Affairs assignments, have spoken about Netanyahu’s comments:
Rep. Engel, in contrast, has maintained a studious silence, despite being the most important Democrat holding a foreign policy role right now.
Rep. Engel didn’t even have anything to say about Netanyahu’s open alliance with a Kahanist party. Compare that with his colleague, Rep. Jerry Nadler:
Rep. Engel frequently has positive things to say about Israel and applaud Netanyahu. He rarely misses an opportunity to smack down any criticism of Israel (for eg. here and here). His website says Israel is a “close strategic ally” that shares an “unbreakable bond” with the US. Rep. Engel is ready to lead the charge against statements made by junior members of congress when they criticize the US’s Israel policy. A few weeks ago, Rep. Engel jumped to criticize Rep. Omar for suggesting AIPAC driven contributions played a role in lawmakers’ views on Israel/Palestine. The Guardian has done an analysis that seems to bear out her contention. But he has nothing at all to say when this close strategic ally’s government openly allies with a racist party founded by terrorists.
To be fair, Rep. Engel has occasionally criticized the Israeli government and petitioned Netanyahu. He’s taken the time to do this publicly when the Israeli government disallowed non-orthodox led prayers at the Western wall, when it stopped accepting Jewish-status letters from an orthodox rabbi and after its decision to deport tens of thousands of African refugees. But Rep. Engel has never, to my knowledge, had the time or seen fit to criticize any of Israel’s policies that impact Palestinians. He consistently sees every discussion about Palestinians through the lens of a “security threat” to Israel. He consistently blames Palestinians and other nations in the region for Israel’s current discriminatory, oppressive policies towards Palestinians. His silence on the most recent issues simply adds to that deeply one-sided pattern of priorities.
In contrast, Rep. Engel seems to periodically offer unsolicited advice on Israel policy via his official Twitter account to Palestinians and even to the tiny nation of Grenada/St. Kitts.
Let’s reiterate, Rep. Eliot Engel, in his position as chair of the Foreign Relations committee, is the Democrat with the most power on foreign affairs. When it comes to foreign affairs, he effectively controls the actual policy of the Democratic party. On Israel-Palestine, Rep. Engel simply does not have the record to be considered an honest broker.
As we approach 2020, Democrats should consider whether Rep. Engel is the right person to steer our policy towards Israel/Palestine. I believe the time has come for him to either:
- Credibly follow a more even handed approach championing equal rights of all people in Israel/Palestine. Or,
- Step aside and leave this important House committee chair to someone who can credibly present such an approach.
Lastly, I’m going to share a Palestinian perspective on this fracas:
— @subirgrewal | Cross-posted to TheProgressiveWing.com