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Dems seeking House foreign affairs job would restrict Israel aid over annexation

All 3 candidates running to chair powerful committee say American assistance shouldn’t go toward Israel annexing parts of West Bank, signaling growing Democratic support for idea

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, questions former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a US diplomat in Ukraine, as they testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, questions former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a US diplomat in Ukraine, as they testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — All three of the Democratic congressmen running to chair the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee support either restricting or leveraging American aid to Israel as a form of opposing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

In separate statements to The Times of Israel this week, California Rep. Brad Sherman, Texas Rep. Joaquín Castro, and New York Rep. Gregory Meeks each indicated that US military aid should not be used on Israeli annexation moves.

The statements from the three Democrats vying to become the next top House lawmaker on foreign affairs signal a growing tide of mainstream Democratic elected officials who support the use of aid restrictions to influence Israeli actions and policy.

“I oppose any use of American taxpayer dollars to implement the Annexation Plan or to build any permanent Israeli installation in the West Bank or Gaza,” said Sherman, a longtime ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Castro also suggested that there should be restrictions on how the annual $3.8 billion in assistance to Israel is used.

“Not a penny of US taxpayer money should subsidize or enable any unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank,” he said. “Under a two-state approach, America has a responsibility to be an arbiter of peace, which means we need trust and credibility with both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Meeks, for his part, stated that America should be willing to leverage aid to Israel over the issue.

“Annexation is anathema to a two state solution, and America cannot be used by its proponents to justify a pro-annexation position or policy,” he said. “On the contrary, the United States must be explicit in our opposition by applying pressure against Netanyahu should he annex territory, including leveraging US aid.”

Congressman Gregory Meeks, D-NY, speaks before the arrival of Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg to participate in Queens Democratic party’s first in a series of “presidential fireside chat,” a town hall forum for 2020 presidential candidates, Wednesday, May 22, 2019, at LaGuardia Community College in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Netanyahu has vowed to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank including all of the settlements and the entire Jordan Valley — territory that the Trump White House allocated to Israel under its peace proposal, which conditionally envisions a Palestinian state in the remaining territory with land swaps.

Netanyahu had intended to move ahead with the unilateral plan from July 1. It has recently stalled,  however, with the prime minister indicating that the delay is in DC, and it’s not clear when it will advance.

Reports in recent months have said that the White House has cooled on the Israeli proposal, amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, race protests, upcoming national elections, and other considerations.

The White House has said repeatedly that it is up to Israel to decide on annexation, but has yet to give a definitive answer as to whether it is prepared to support and recognize the unilateral annexation now of part or all of the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel in its “Peace to Prosperity” plan. That territory would include all of the settlements along with the strategic Jordan Valley.

While the House Foreign Affairs Committee itself does not control appropriations or the disbursement of military aid, the panel’s chair plays a leading role in shaping the majority party’s foreign policy agenda.

The legislators’ declarations come after five liberal Zionist groups sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday, laying out the criteria they believe the panel should use when selecting its next chair.

These included picking a US House member with a consistent record of supporting the diplomatic initiatives, such as the Iran nuclear deal, the US-Israel relationship and a two-state solution.

The coalition of progressive Jewish advocacy groups — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, Habonim Dror and Partners for Progressive Israel — also said the next chair should not only oppose Israeli efforts to annex parts of the West Bank, but should be willing to restrict American military assistance from going toward annexation.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat of California, talks to reporters in a basement corridor at the Capitol in Washington, January 4, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Last month, Castro, Meeks and Sherman, currently the second-ranking Democrat on the House foreign affairs panel, announced that they would seek to replace New York Congressman Eliot Engel, who will vacate the position next year after losing his district’s primary race.

Engel was considered to be one of the most pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers. His replacement as committee head will come from ultimately be decide by the House Democratic caucus, which holds a majority in the House of Representatives.

The lawmakers’ positions on aid restrictions come amid a debate on Capitol Hill over what the US foreign policy response should be if Israel were to follow through on annexing West Bank land.

In June, 191 House Democrats signed a letter warning against annexation, but only a fraction of Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate have said publicly that conditioning aid should be on the table.

In July, Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to block US funds going toward annexation.

The motion currently has 12 other co-sponsors, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, out of 45 Senate Democrats.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) expressed strong opposition to the proposal, tweeting that it would “weaken Israel’s defenses, especially as it faces unprecedented threats.” The powerful pro-Israel lobby said the amendment “restricts where Israel can place lifesaving missile defense systems like Iron Dome.”

Many of the groups that sent the letter on Tuesday also signed onto a separate letter supporting the Van Hollen amendment.

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