WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to congratulate Israel on its 75th birthday and to wish it well in making peace with other countries.
But the encouragement of peace deals did not extend to the Palestinians, in a breach with the language typical of U.S. lawmakers’ past Israeli Independence Day resolutions — and, insiders say, a departure from the language originally drafted for this one.
Democrats pressed for the inclusion of the Palestinians in a resolution focused on peace-making between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but Republicans rejected the language.
The behind-the-scenes struggle to even mention the Palestinians reflects how far apart the parties have drifted on Israel issues, with the Republicans joining Israel’s hard-right government in refusing to countenance Palestinian statehood.
It also undercuts a bid to show bipartisan comity on Israel issues, as the top House Republican, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and top Democrat, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, are visiting the country to mark its 75th anniversary.
“We worked diligently with Foreign Affairs Committee Republican staff to find a way to maintain precedent and maintain two- state language when honoring Israel’s birthday which has been done for decades,” said a Democratic senior staffer who remained anonymous to speak candidly. “Unfortunately Republican leadership could not accept two-state language and we were forced to move ahead with a ‘happy birthday.’”
The resolution passed Tuesday, the eve of Israel’s Independence Day, 401-19, with all but 18 Democrats voting for the resolution. It “encourages the expansion and strengthening of the Abraham Accords to urge other nations to normalize relations with Israel and ensure that existing agreements reap tangible security and economic benefits for the citizens of those countries and all peoples in the region.”
But in an unusual and bitter caveat after the vote, leading Jewish Democrats joined a statement denouncing the GOP for cutting out the Palestinians.
“Unlike previous resolutions honoring Israel’s birthday and achievements, this resolution, principally drafted by Republicans, broke the longstanding bipartisan tradition of acknowledging the importance of achieving a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians,” said the statement issued after the House approved the resolution. “We remain resolute in our aspiration to help Israel find peace with all its neighbors, including and particularly the Palestinians.”
Signing the statement were Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and eight top Jewish Democrats: Jerry Nadler of New York, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Kathy Manning of North Carolina, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, and Jan Schakowsky and Brad Schneider of Illinois.
Phillips, Manning, Wasserman Schultz and Schneider are all known for their willingness to take on fellow Democrats they feel are too critical of Israel and for crossing party lines to promote Israel. Manning and Schneider were the Democratic lead sponsors of the resolution. It is highly unusual for the authors of a resolution to complain afterwards that it has been altered. (The Republican lead sponsors were Michael McCaul of Texas, the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, and Ann Wagner of Missouri.)
An insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, described for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the evolution of the resolution. Early this year, pro-Israel groups approached Democrats and Republicans to draft a bipartisan resolution marking Israel’s 75th birthday.
Lawmakers from both sides saw that as a no-brainer, despite recent turmoil in Israel. Massive protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed radical changes to the courts system have filled the streets for weeks, and Israeli-Palestinian violence has intensified.
Staffers, working in a bipartisan fashion, resurrected the language from a resolution in 2018 marking Israel’s 70th anniversary, sponsored that year by Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican. Staffers from both parties thought the Foxx resolution was a good template.
That resolution included what was by then boilerplate language, supporting “a negotiated settlement leading to a sustainable two-state solution with the democratic, Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized, democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security.”
There was a minor wrinkle: Republicans no longer want purely commemorative resolutions.
At the outset of this congressional session, Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana banned any resolution that “expresses appreciation, commends, congratulates, celebrates, recognizes the accomplishments of, or celebrates the anniversary of, an entity, event, group, individual, institution, team or government program; or acknowledges or recognizes a period of time for such purposes.” He allowed exceptions for resolutions that call “on others (such as a foreign government) to take a particular action.”
So the staffers agreed to frame the 75th anniversary resolution around a topic everyone likes, the Abraham Accords, the 2020 normalization deals between Israel and four Arab states. The Trump administration brokered the deals, and in a rare example of continuity, the Biden administration is committed to expanding them.
In addition to the two-state boilerplate language, a draft resolution circulated that mentioned bringing in the Palestinians to the Abraham Accords. That was not seen as problematic, since it was an explicit aim of the accords as envisioned by former President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner.
But after about a month, the Republican leadership came back, according to this account, with a clear instruction: Don’t mention the Palestinians, at all — even though centrist pro-Israel groups, chief among them the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, were lobbying for the two-state language to remain in the resolution. (AIPAC declined to comment.)
The Jewish organization most consistently influential during the Trump presidency was the Zionist Organization of America, which rejects two states, and top conservative pro-Israel influencers in 2016 persuaded the party to remove two states from its platform.
The resolution, which also upholds defense assistance to Israel and bilateral U.S.-Israel cooperation in defense and civilian spheres, mentions every peace and normalization agreement Israel has signed — with Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — except for the 1993 Oslo agreements with the Palestinians.
The top Democratic staffer said that of course the party wanted to wish Israel well — but that those well-wishes were wrapped into concerns that it remain a Jewish and democratic state.
“We were happy to say happy birthday on the floor and we will continue to advocate for peace for Israelis and Palestinians,” the staffer said.
McCarthy’s office did not respond to requests for comment. McCaul’s office in its response did not address questions about why the two-state outcome or the Palestinians did not appear in the final version.
“The United States and Israel have stood together as partners since Israel’s founding 75 years ago to overcome shared challenges and global threats,” McCaul said in a statement to JTA. “Together, we’ve achieved major milestones, such as the signing of the historic Abraham Accords. I look forward to continuing the longstanding tradition of friendship and partnership between our two countries.”
AIPAC praised the resolution. “The resolution recognizes that a strong and secure Israel is a vital pillar of America’s national security policy in the Middle East,” it said in a statement.
Liberal Jewish Middle East policy groups decried the omission of the Palestinians. “The decision to strip support for the Two-State Solution from the text requires that we ask exactly what ‘shared values’ is Kevin McCarthy referring to?” said Americans for Peace Now. “And more importantly, it begs the question, what future solution to the conflict do House Republicans support?”
J Street said it would lobby the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority, “to introduce a resolution that takes a different approach, consistent with the bipartisan commitment to a two-state solution that ensures a peaceful future for both Israelis and Palestinians.”