GOP senators threaten to block Biden nominees over ‘antisemitic’ settlement policy

Letter slams decision to restore longstanding policy that refrained from funding research projects beyond Green Line, as White House weighs whether to tap new envoy to Israel

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A group of 14 Republican senators threatened on Tuesday to block US President Joe Biden’s nominations over what it characterized as the administration’s “antisemitic” decision to cease funding scientific research at Israeli institutions beyond the Green Line — a longstanding policy that was only annulled by the previous administration.

“Candidly, it is untenable for State Department officials to continue testifying to Congress that they support the US-Israel relationship and then – once out of view – to push policies designed to undermine that relationship,” states a letter to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken that was spearheaded by Sen. Ted Cruz. “Without a reversal in these trends, Congressional oversight and the expeditious vetting of nominees would become intractable.”

A Republican decision to act on the threat would spell bad news for Biden, as a degree of bipartisan support is needed in order for him to get his nominees confirmed by the Senate, where the Democrats have a slim majority.

The harsh rhetoric also provides a window into the Biden administration’s ostensible hesitance to nominate a new ambassador to Israel to replace Tom Nides who steps down this week. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as politicized as ever on Capitol Hill, any nominee will likely come under intense Republican scrutiny, both over their own record on the matter as well as the administration’s.

In their Tuesday letter, the senators wrote: “We also write to emphasize that any effort to deepen American policies that discriminate between territories Israel controlled before and after June 1967 will risk a full rupture in my/our ability to engage the Department of State on these issues.”

Late last month, the State Department publicly confirmed that it had recently informed relevant government agencies “that engaging in bilateral scientific and technological cooperation with Israel, in geographic areas, which came under the administration of Israel after 1967 and which remain subject to final status negotiations is inconsistent with US foreign policy.”

Then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign agreements to further binational scientific and technological cooperation in a special ceremony held at Ariel University on October 28, 2020 (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

The Biden administration’s guidance represented a return to longstanding limitations on US support for scientific research before the Trump administration scrapped the restriction in 2020.

It is also very narrow in scope and likely to largely impact just one university located in the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel. Despite pressure from progressives, the administration did not go as far as to revoke the so-called Pompeo Doctrine, the policy unveiled by former president Donald Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo in 2019 deeming settlements “not per se inconsistent with international law.”

Pompeo overturned a 1978 memo by State Department legal adviser Herbert Hansell, which characterized settlements as illegal.

Nonetheless, the Senate Republicans insisted in their Tuesday letter that “the new guidance as written constitutes an antisemitic boycott of Israel.”

“The United States has embraced the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which includes double standards targeting Israel or Israeli Jews,” the senators wrote, ostensibly arguing that refraining from funding research projects in the settlements constitutes a double standard rooted in antisemitism.

The IHRA definition and its examples do not touch on the issue of settlements but its citation in the GOP letter could legitimize fears by progressive Jewish groups that it is being “weaponized” by conservatives to stifle criticism of Israeli policy in the West Bank.

For their part, the Republican senators claimed that the administration did not consult Biden’s antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt before issuing the guidance.

Asked to comment on the Republican senators’ allegation that the administration policy constituted an “antisemitic boycott of Israel,” Lipstadt’s office did not respond.

However, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller tore into the Republican senators for their threat, saying he wasn’t familiar of nominees during previous administrations, including Republican ones, being held up when they also maintained this policy regarding the West Bank.

Miller said the administration has over 25 nominees waiting to be confirmed “to posts that are essential to our national security” — the vast majority of whom are career foreign service officers, and not political appointees.

“It is a detriment to our national security when we see our nominees for critical posts being held up, especially for issues unrelated to their qualifications, their service or the job that they will be performing,” he added.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America said that “Republican attempts to misconstrue the Biden administration’s return to long-standing bipartisan US policy on the West Bank as antisemitic have no basis in reality.”

“Republican threats to derail Biden administration nominees will leave critical national security posts vacant,” said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “The administration would be more likely to put forward nominees, including to serve as the next ambassador to Israel, if Republicans wouldn’t continue to derail, obstruct and threaten critically important nominations.”

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