Liberal Jewish groups warn against hawkish pick for House Foreign Affairs post

Five organizations, including J Street and Americans for Peace Now, send letter to House panel laying out criteria for who should replace Eliot Engel as chair

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)

WASHINGTON — 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 Iran nuclear deal, the US-Israel relationship and a two-state solution.

The coalition of progressive Jewish advocacy groups — comprising J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, Habonim Dror and Partners for Progressive Israel — also said the next committee chair should oppose Israeli efforts to annex parts of the West Bank, and should be willing to restrict American military assistance from going toward annexation.

The letter did not mention any of the candidates running for the open seat by name, according to a copy obtained by The Times of Israel. But a J Street official said that California Congressman Brad Sherman was a source of the activists’ concern.

“It’s an open question whether Representative Sherman’s views and record are in line with these principles,” J Street’s communications director, Logan Bayroff, told The Times of Israel.

“His opposition to the JCPOA [Iran deal] at the moment of truth in 2015, as well as his initial support for the Iraq War, raise real concerns about the strength of his commitment to diplomacy,” Bayroff added.

Sherman, who said he “generally agrees” with the objectives laid out in the letter, pushed back against J Street waiving a red flag over his candidacy.

“It is virtually unprecedented for an outside group to explicitly intervene in an election for committee chair,” he told The Times of Israel. “I am particularly surprised to see that anyone would view the Israeli-Arab conflict as the sole determinative factor in deciding who should hold a position that deals with the entire world.”

Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California (photo credit: CC BY cliff1066™, Flickr)

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

The California lawmaker is challenging two of his colleagues — New York Congressman Gregory Meeks and Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro.

In 2015, both Meeks and Castro voted for the Iran nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, whereas Sherman was one of 19 Democratic House members to vote against it.

Bayroff said that Sherman would have to make the case that his positions on Middle East policy are compatible with those of the rest of the party.

“He has an opportunity to demonstrate whether his current views are now more in line with the Democratic Caucus and the majority of Americans — including the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans — who support Democratic lawmakers,” he said.

According to a 2017 Morning Consult poll, 69 percent of Democratic voters  and 54% of Americans support the Iran deal.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has vowed to return the United States to the pact — which US President Donald Trump withdrew the country from — if he’s elected.

Sherman said he thought J Street was “upset” with him was because he attended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress railing against the Iran deal, while the two other candidates boycotted it.

“I have said that it was not wise for the prime minister to speak to Congress at that time,” he said. “However, I respect democratic allies of the United States and their duly elected leaders. I have also suffered through the State of the Union speeches of President Trump – out of respect for the office.”

Sherman questioned J Street citing his vote in favor of former president George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion.

“My position on the Iraq War 18 years ago was equivocal, as I wrote one rival resolution, and supported another, which would have prevented the invasion of Iraq if Saddam Hussein agreed to inspections (which he did at the last hour),” Sherman said.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, Democrat-New York, left, and ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican-Texas, talk during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, February 28, 2020. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In their Tuesday letter, the progressive pro-Israel groups asked the House Foreign Affairs Committee members to choose a replacement for Engel whose “foreign policy views are aligned with those of the solid majority of Jewish Americans and other supporters of Israel.”

They said the next chair should have a demonstrated commitment to three principles: prioritizing diplomacy; supporting Israel’s existence as a Jewish democracy; and advocating for Palestinian rights, including to statehood.

That person “must be an ardent, consistent champion of diplomacy over coercive or military approaches to furthering US interests on the world stage,” the letter said.

What’s more, it continued, the next chair should uphold America’s security commitments under the 2016 memorandum of understanding between the Obama White House and the Netanyahu government, which pledged $3.8 billion in military assistance to Israel over 10 years.

“At the same time,” the groups wrote, “they should promote measures to ensure that such assistance is actually used as intended — and not for purposes which harm rather than enhance Israel’s security and American interests.

“They should oppose ​de facto​ and ​de jure​ unilateral annexation of Palestinian territory, settlement expansion and ongoing occupation — and support appropriate, proportional consequences in response to such actions,” they said.

Many of the organizations that signed the letter also support a proposed Senate amendment that would ban Israel from using US military aid to annex parts of the West Bank.

US President Donald Trump (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, on May 23, 2017.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sherman has expressed opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to annex the roughly 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel under Trump’s Israel-Palestinian plan, which conditionally envisions a Palestinian state.

“I have worked with others, so far effectively, to dissuade Israel from implementing it,” he told The Times of Israel. “I believe I am better positioned than the other candidates for chair to explain to Israeli leaders, and the Israeli people, that the Annexation Plan would be a catastrophe for Israel. 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.”

The veteran lawmaker also supports a two-state solution, which would result in the establishment of a Palestinian state.

While Netanyahu has vowed to annex all settlements and the Jordan Valley, his initiative has recently stalled and it is unclear when it will advance.

The liberal groups said the next chair should be committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state and be “an advocate for robust humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people.”

The Trump administration has cut aid to the Palestinian Authority, the East Jerusalem hospital network, and the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.

That came after PA President Mahmoud Abbas refused to engage with the White House over Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there, saying the president’s team could no longer act as an honest broker in peace talks.

This story has been updated to include Congressman Sherman’s response. 

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