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Progressive Democrats hope Omar clash will reset debate in Congress over Israel

Jennifer Haberkorn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- As clumsy and offensive as Rep. Ilhan Omar's remarks were when she questioned the patriotism of pro-Israel members of Congress, some Democratic lawmakers and left-leaning Mideast peace advocates say the episode could nevertheless open the door to a more robust debate about U.S. foreign policy and rekindle interest in the plight of Palestinians, particularly among younger Democrats.

"I think there will be more and more willingness on the part of members of Congress and policymakers to speak up and be critical of the policies of the U.S. and the government of Israel. ... There's been more reluctance in the past," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, an advocacy group that supports Israel but opposes many of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies.

Ben-Ami said that congressional newcomers like Omar, D-Minn. -- now one of three Muslim House members -- and young Democratic voters are interested in exploring issues like the growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, a topic that has been pushed aside as the Trump administration adopted a strong pro-Israel stance.

"They want to change the reality on the ground," he said. "Ultimately they are worried about the impact of cutting off funds for schools. They are worried about the impact of violence and drinking water in Gaza. I think the space to have the discussions around that are opening up here."

Others say that paints too rosy of a picture and worry that the political backlash against Omar from those within her party could end up stifling debate by making politicians afraid to discuss or even question U.S. policy on Israel. The widespread criticism of Omar could also make other lawmakers reluctant to partner with her.

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East policy expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, said a strategy to change policy or even attitudes on Israel requires patiently building coalitions of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

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"My sense is that several of the progressive Democrats who have been most outspoken don't have that kind of strategy," he said. "These are perhaps genuinely held positions driven by emotion and ideology. But there isn't a strategy behind it."

The controversy also gave Republicans another political cudgel to use against Democrats, who have long been the favored party by far for American Jewish voters. President Donald Trump last week outraged Democrats by calling them "anti-Jewish."

But despite the internal Democratic Party battle triggered by Omar's comments, progressives on Capitol Hill remain optimistic.

"This is a start of the conversation that didn't happen in a positive way," said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. "But the conversation is not going away."


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