The US (Palestine Online)- One notable political consequence of Israel’s attack on Gaza last May was the statement by Sen. Robert Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch Israel supporter, that he was “deeply troubled” by reports Israel was killing “innocent civilians,” though Menendez endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself.
Menendez’s statement was “an act of God” that took him by surprise, but is representative of other Congress members’ growing awareness, Samer Khalaf, the president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said last Saturday.
“Menendez is one of the biggest pro Israel hawks in the Senate, period…. I’ll be honest with you, I think it was an act of God. Look, I’ve known Menendez since he was a mayor in New Jersey [late 80s Union City] and I’ve met with him on countless occasions and when he ran for Congress [in 1992] he decided to take a very Zionist track and when he ran for Senate he became even a bigger Zionist. But we consistently met with him, and that was the one area that we could not get through to him. So I don’t think it was a matter of lobbying in his case. I think this was a matter of, It was so bad what they were doing that he finally realized, Wait a minute, something is wrong here. He made that statement but at the same time he wanted to protect himself, and so it’s kind of like, what good was that statement. You made one step forward but like five steps back.
I don’t know what his motivation was. Because his statement came out of nowhere. I don’t want to be naive about it and say now he’s pro-Palestinian. He’s not. He’s pro-Zionist and he’s going to be that way. But it showed some glimmer of hope that we can maybe get some movement somewhere else from other people.
Menendez was not alone, Khalaf told an audience at the ADC’s annual convention. But don’t expect conversions to the Palestinian cause.
The latest Israel aggression toward Gaza and toward the West Bank and even toward their so called Palestinian Israeli citizens opened up a lot of eyes for a lot of members of Congress. A lot of people that normally would never criticize Israel all of a sudden started saying, Wait a minute, this is wrong…
For me, I thought, that to get the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who is pro Zionist to come out and actually question an action of Israel was a significant step. It’s not great, but it’s a step. Politics is a game of inches literally… You’re not going to flip somebody. There’s no light to turn on. There’s no magic word, no statement you’ll be ever to make to that person. ‘Oh wow! You’re right I was wrong. I now agree with you 100 percent.’ We have to take everything incrementally.
Menendez in June emphasized to a pro-Israel news site that he has not shifted his position on Israel.
Khalaf also discussed the dilemma of working with “PEP” congresspeople, Progressive Except Palestine.
“They’re well known… They’re great on issues regarding minority rights, they’re great on issues regarding women’s rights. They’re great on issues involving a whole myriad of things. But we stop at Palestine. So we have to decide individually what we do about those people. Do we say we’re going to totally ignore that person?”
A member of the audience cited one such PEP case: Rep. Katie Porter, a law professor who in 2018 became the first Democrat to win her district in Orange County, California, and last year was reeelected. The audience member said that Porter has “evaded” Arab Americans though she raised “crazy money” at fundraisers in Arab-American households, and even attended a fundraiser for Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
Chris Habiby, legislative director of the ADC, said he thinks it’s important to keep working with Porter because she is more open than her predecessors. But he lamented that she has refused to support Rep. Betty McCollum’s landmark bill that (as Habiby said) “prohibits security assistance to Israel that goes toward harming Palestinian women and children.” Polls show a large majority of Democratic voters support it.
“It is an issue that is important to our entire community, it is something that we are pushing hard on the Hill,” Habiby said. When the ADC met with Porter, “Her response was– interesting.” Porter said, “I agree with the effort.” But according to Habiby, she said that thinking strategically, the bill will not get enough support to become law, so she wants to address human rights aspects of “security assistance across the world.” Habiby said he has met her staff to build a coalition to address security assistance globally, “which includes Israel.”
At least Porter is thinking about it, Habiby said. “It’s not that she has disregarded it, or she doesn’t think about it… I understand the frustration. I understand, we want her to be on the other side of this bill.”