If Keith Ellison heads DNC, he may usher in a more critical Democratic position on Israel
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AnalysisFirst Muslim congressman voted against Iron Dome Funding during 2014 Israel-Hamas war

If Keith Ellison heads DNC, he may usher in a more critical Democratic position on Israel

Minnesota lawmaker hailing from party's progressive wing and backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders is much warier of Israel than past Dem leaders

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, speaks during the first day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, speaks during the first day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — After the Democrats suffered a devastating and unexpected defeat in the 2016 elections, they are undergoing a leadership shakeup that could mark a shift in the party line on Israel.

For years, the Democratic National Committee’s position on Israel was reflected in chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), a strong supporter of the US commitment to aiding the Jewish state’s security, especially during periods of intensified conflict, and a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign from the DNC last summer after leaked emails revealed DNC officials discussed aiding Hillary Clinton’s candidacy against challenger Bernie Sanders in the primary. Sanders is now a key backer of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison to take that post.

Longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile has been the interim chair since the July revelations about internal DNC emails strategizing ways to defeat Sanders.

Ellison’s mindset reflects a different approach to the US-Israel relationship, one that found traction with the Sanders wing of the party during the primary season. Indeed, Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the US Congress, was one of the Vermont senator’s most outspoken Congressional backers.

During the campaign, Sanders said the US should not be “one-sided” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called Israel’s military offensive during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war “disproportionate.” He also emphasized the need for more public opposition to Israeli policies with which the United States disagrees. “If we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” he said during a debate.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. is greeted by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., before speaking at a campaign rally, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Dearborn, Mich. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. is greeted by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., before speaking at a campaign rally, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Dearborn, Mich. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

After Sanders conceded the primary to Clinton, he appointed Ellison as one of his three delegates to the platform drafting committee at the Democratic convention. The Minnesota lawmaker took that opportunity to argue vigorously for including in that document language criticizing Israel’s military presence in the West Bank and condemning settlements.

Those efforts ultimately failed because Clinton’s and Wasserman Schultz’s appointments to the committee blocked them. Instead, the final version called for a “two-state solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict” that guarantees Israel’s security within recognized borders and “provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity.”

If Ellison were to lead the Democrats’ largest umbrella body, that moderating presence might disappear from official party language and positions.

Ellison has a record of being openly critical of Israel in ways not commonly seen in party leaders. He opposed efforts to castigate the UN’s Goldstone Report, which alleged Israel committed war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians during its 2009 war in the Gaza Strip — a claim the South African jurist who led the report committee, Richard Goldstone, retracted in 2011. Ellison had visited Gaza shortly after that campaign, formally known as Operation Cast Lead.

He also voted against increased Iron Dome Funding during the 51-day Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014.

When asked on Meet the Press why he didn’t support the measure supplying Israel with more of its sophisticated missile interception system, he said, “Because a cease-fire is what we should prioritize now. A cease-fire protects civilians on both sides. It doesn’t just say, ‘We’re only concerned about people on one side.'”

Days later, he wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post that called for ending the Gaza blockade, a policy Israel maintains because of concerns that Iran will deliver missiles and other weaponry to Hamas that will be used to terrorize its people.

Since Ellison formally announced he would run for the DNC chair opening on November 14, a number of critics have objected to him possibly solidifying that leadership role. “His vile beliefs … ought to disqualify him outright,” Joel Mowbray, a syndicated right-wing columnist and consultant to Jewish groups, told CBS.

The liberal advocacy group J Street responded with a press release defending Ellison’s posture toward the Jewish state. “Representative Ellison is a true friend to the Jewish people,” the organization said. “His support for a two-state solution, opposition to settlement construction and advocacy for US leadership to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are supported by the majority of American Jews.”

But Ellison has also caused concern among the Jewish establishment for reasons beyond his dovish inclinations. He has spoken to groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, including the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and in June 2016 he tweeted a picture from Hebron suggesting Palestinians were living in a system of apartheid.

Critics will also cite his previous association with the Nation of Islam and his defense of Louis Farrakhan, someone the Anti-Defamation League has called anti-Semitic.

During his first run for Congress, in 2006, Ellison apologized to the Jewish Community Relations Council in Minneapolis for failing to “adequately scrutinize the positions” of Farrakhan. “They were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, left, walks off the Senate floor with Sen. Chuck Schumer after voting to avoid a financial default and reopen the government after a 16-day partial shutdown, in October 2013 (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci)
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, left, walks off the Senate floor with Sen. Chuck Schumer after voting to avoid a financial default and reopen the government after a 16-day partial shutdown, in October 2013 (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci)

A number of powerful Democratic leaders have announced their support for his bid to chair the DNC, including Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of the most prominent Jewish members of Congress.

Schumer, a staunch supporter of Israel who went against his party to oppose the Iran deal, has taken heat from some factions of the pro-Israel and Jewish community for backing the Minnesota congressman.

Nevertheless, the support Ellison has received from him and many of the Democrats’ most influential movers leaves open the possibility he and his ideas may soon play a key role in shaping the party’s future.

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