Who's Afraid of Bibi?

It used to be that the hard line Jewish right could torment Democrats who did not follow their pro-Israel playbook. Not anymore. President Obama and Jewish moderates are providing cover.

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Before Rep. Donna Edwards, of Maryland’s Fourth Congressional district, traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first time in May, she hadn’t thought much about minorities in the Jewish state: “As an African-American woman, I really didn't have a perception of a significant minority population in Israel, and there is,” she told the Washington Jewish Week, adding that minority rights in Israel are “a work in progress.”

Since returning, she has inflamed some tempers in Washington and in her district, which straddles Montgomery and Prince George’s County, by wading into the debate over Israeli settlements that extend into the West Bank: “Settlements really get in the way of a lasting peace,” she said.

Some members of the Jewish community in her district attacked her for the remark,  which is at odds with the pro-settlement stance of  Israel’s newly elected conservative Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—reinforced in a recent policy speech. Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told Politico that his organization's  relationship with Edwards “got off to a rocky start,” and that there was “concern” over her record on issues regarding Israel. “It has really raised eyebrows in the Jewish community,” he said.

Edwards defended her position in an exclusive interview with The Root. Her visit to the Middle East, she maintains, “clarified for me that continued settlement growth and expansion is really an impediment to long-term peace and security in the region.”

Edwards’ articulated stance is in line with the policy that President Barack Obama outlined in his early June speech in Cairo, Egypt. But the bad blood with the Jewish right had been brewing since January, when Edwards, along with 21 other representatives, voted “present” on a nonbinding resolution that backed Israel’s right to defend itself, and condemned Hamas, the extremist political party that has been engaged in a violent struggle with Israel in Gaza for years. It has also fueled rumors that Edwards might face a primary challenge from another black politician with a more conservative stance on Israel.

“I’m not sure how much of the criticism is coming from my district so much as it’s coming from national pro-Israel leadership,” Edwards says.  Jews make up about 15 percent of her constituents. But the cosmopolitan, heavily Democratic, majority-black district also houses a significant Muslim-American community and is among the wealthiest African-American populations in the nation. And Edwards isn’t worried about alienating these voters. “I feel like I very much represent the sentiments of people in my district, who agree with President Obama that the United States needs to play an active and engaged role, and we have to have a much more moderate approach.”

Middle East policy has been a signal priority of the Obama administration, which has made no secret of its aggressive pursuit of a two-state solution in the holy land. But, even as the geopolitics of the region—and U.S. relations with Israel, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other parties—evolve, the Edwards flap, and her measured response to it, illustrate the new dynamics in play on the American political left. In part because of the new tone the president has set on the Israel-Palestine debate, progressives are no longer easily rattled by threats from the Jewish right.

Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, who visited the Holy Land at the same time as Edwards, says he shares Edwards’ views, and that the whole country, especially diverse, well-educated districts like Edwards’ and his own, cares deeply about foreign policy and the Israel-Palestine conflict in particular. “Foreign affairs is important for people in this post-9/11 world. People have a sense that what happens abroad matters to us,” he says.

The images of young protesters and police clashing on the streets of Iranian cities after the nation's widely disputed presidential election last week only underscores the relative urgency of informed, progressive leadership on issues such as democracy in the Middle East and international nuclear security.

Edwards also points to a 150-person town-hall meeting, held the same week as the present vote, and featuring experts on Israel-Palestine, as evidence that she is engaging the entire district. “I invited an Israeli human rights organization and another nonprofit group that was doing humanitarian work on the ground in Gaza,” she says. “We had a really interesting discussion, and I think I received really positive feedback from that.” 

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