US lawmaker Gregory Meeks shows his true colours on Palestine

US lawmaker Gregory Meeks shows his true colours on Palestine
Comment: Rep. Gregory Meeks' rightward shift is a worrying sign for Palestine advocates, as Biden's administration waits out elections in Israel and Palestine, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
6 min read
15 Mar, 2021
Democrats elected Gregory Meeks as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last December [Getty]
When newcomer Jamaal Bowman defeated Eliot Engel, one of the most powerful Democrats in the US House of Representatives, last year, it was a big victory.

Engel had been the chairperson of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC). Bowman was not going to replace him in that role, but Engel was one of the most hawkish Democrats in the House, especially on matters pertaining to the Middle East. His departure opened the possibility for change.

In December, House Democrats elected Gregory Meeks to succeed Engel. Another New York Democrat, Meeks had been on the HFAC for years, and, while no stranger to Middle East politics, he had not been a central figure in that realm. He was, in fact, a bit of a mystery, a moderate Democrat who was generally seen as pro-Israel but had demonstrated a willingness to step outside the normal pro-Israel boundaries in extreme cases.

Meeks had always supported military aid to Israel and voted to oppose the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel over its denial of Palestinian rights. But he had also boycotted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 2015 address to a joint session of Congress, an appearance arranged behind the back of President Barack Obama and intended to undermine his effort to strike a deal with Iran to limit their nuclear programme.

Meeks had also stated that he supported using US military aid to Israel as leverage to pressure Israel against the unilateral annexation of territory on the West Bank.

Meeks went further, paying only the most minimal lip service to Palestinian 'grievances'

With ties to the right-wing lobby group AIPAC as well as to the more centrist and dovish J Street, it was not clear what form Meeks' support of Israel would take. Last month, however, in a talk at the Brookings Institute in Washington, Meeks shed some light on his approach, and it is not one that Palestinians will be pleased with.

Meeks quickly backtracked on the question of using military aid to Israel as leverage for policy changes, something the United States routinely does with other recipients of its military and economic support.

He left no room for ambiguity, saying that he supported Israel's right to defend itself (which, we should note, it is more than capable of doing without nearly $4 billion in US taxpayer money every year). He declared that "I'm unequivocal in regards to support for the MOU and that should not be touched at all," referring to the Memorandum of Understanding that Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to in 2016, guaranteeing the annual flow of US dollars to pay for American weaponry that Israel would purchase.

Read more: ICC Israeli war crimes probe is first real test for Biden administration

But Meeks went further, paying only the most minimal lip service to Palestinian "grievances" while stating, "I also need to state that I want to make sure that when I talk to Palestinians - when I get a chance to it, I believe that we will - that I'm going to serve as a strong voice against anti-semitism, which has been rising along with racism around the world and hate crimes."

The linkage between Palestinian complaints against Israel - which are routinely viewed as major human rights violations, war crimes, and even crimes against humanity - and anti-semitism feeds directly into efforts to equate criticism of Israeli policies with the hatred of Jews. It is fast becoming, if it is not already, the main tool for defending Israeli policies, surpassing debates over policy which have become increasingly futile as Israeli policies have become more intransigent and draconian.

Meeks' shift rightward on this issue is particularly worrisome. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now chaired by Bob Menendez of New Jersey, one of the staunchest pro-Israel hawks among Democrats and one of AIPAC's favourites.

President Joe Biden himself has long been a stalwart of the pro-Israel camp. As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was widely seen as a pro-Israel influence on the president, and proudly declared himself a "Zionist." In the first weeks of his administration, he has shown no inclination to prioritise the plight of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation, and has made it clear that he will leave the US embassy in Jerusalem.

The disappointment that Meeks' latest statement engenders is real

Yet, for the most part, Israel's occupation has taken a back seat to other issues that Biden is focused on. The transition from the previous administration, or lack of one, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, a difficult relationship with Congress, and the complex path to re-engaging with Iran have dominated the agenda.

Moreover, with both Israel and the Palestinians heading to elections in the coming weeks and months, Biden is reluctant to engage in diplomacy that might need big revisions by the end of the summer when new leadership could be in place on both sides. Given the long history of complaints about ineffective leadership as the obstacle to diplomatic success, it is even more logical that Biden wait until after the elections to form definite policies.

More than any other foreign policy issue, Congress weighs in as much as it can on anything involving Israel. Menendez in the Senate and Meeks in the House are going to play key roles in shaping the political pressures that Biden and his team respond to.

The Senate tends to be the more important arena, but when it comes to Israel, both chambers get involved. In any case, Menendez has been a known entity for many years. Meeks offered at least some possibility for moderation, given some of his prior stances.

The disappointment that Meeks' latest statement engenders is real but does not diminish the importance of the next six months in determining the agenda for the Biden administration going forward.

The elections in Israel and Palestine have the potential to create new opportunities and new obstacles for US diplomacy in the Middle East. Since there is no possibility that a Biden administration will abandon its central role in the issue of Israel and Palestine, it is imperative that the president be pushed toward a more positive disposition.

It is imperative that the president be pushed toward a more positive disposition

In the immediate future, it's important the White House comes under pressure to reverse its current stance, respect the rule of law, and allow the International Criminal Court to proceed with its investigation of possible war crimes. This should be accompanied by support for the ICC's investigation into American actions in Afghanistan, as a broad statement in support of international law.

It is also important that the Biden administration resist calls to interfere in the Palestinian electoral process and that it guarantees respect for the choice of the Palestinian people. In the last Palestinian election in 2006, the US failed to do this and the results were disastrous.

Finally, Americans hoping for a just peace must press the Biden administration to listen to and respect Palestinian calls for their rights, rather than decide which rights can be discussed and which cannot - including rights of Palestinian refugees.

Biden is not likely to heed such a call, but pushing the rights-based discourse toward the centre of the discussion will help build positive pressure and help a future Palestinian leadership to make its case.

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.