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US lawmaker seeking foreign affairs job flips stance on conditioning Israel aid

New York Rep. Gregory Meeks says military assistance to Jerusalem is ‘absolute and unequivocal,’ 2 weeks after stating US should leverage aid to stop annexation

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)
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)

WASHINGTON — One of three Democratic congressmen running to chair the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee said Thursday that the US shouldn’t restrict or leverage aid to Israel to stop the country from annexing parts of the West Bank, reversing a position he took earlier this month.

New York Rep. Gregory Meeks told the American Jewish Committee that America’s annual $3.8 billion in military assistance to the Jewish state should not be conditioned on Israeli actions and policies.

“We know the extreme importance in the region to make sure that Israel has the right to defend itself, and the dollars that we give Israel to defend itself [are] absolute and unequivocal,” Meeks said during a Zoom call.

“Of course, there are disputes in regards to policy, in regards to some of the things that President [Donald] Trump has done, and some of the things and some of the issues that Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu has done, and so we have the ability to talk about that,” he continued.

“But we understand that Israel has a right to defend itself, our strong ally — in a bipartisan way. We stand strong in that regard.”

The remarks were an about-face from a statement the lawmaker made two weeks ago.

“Annexation is anathema to a two-state solution, and America cannot be used by its proponents to justify a pro-annexation position or policy,” Meeks told The Times of Israel then. “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.”

While Israel agreed to “suspend” its annexation plans to reach a historic accord with the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations, the Israeli premier has insisted that he is not abandoning his proposal.

A crane is used at the construction site in the West Bank settlement of Amichai on September 7, 2018. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Meeks made his original statement after a coalition of progressive Jewish advocacy groups sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, 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 diplomatic initiatives such as the Iran nuclear deal, as well as backing the US-Israel relationship and a two-state solution.

The five liberal Zionist organizations — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, Habonim Dror and Partners for Progressive Israel — said the next chair should not only oppose Israel annexing any West Bank territory, but should be willing to restrict American military assistance from going toward annexation.

Last month Meeks, Texas Congressman Joaquín Castro and California Congressman Brad 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 ultimately be decided by the House Democratic caucus, which holds a majority in the House of Representatives.

In separate statements earlier this month, all three told The Times of Israel that US military aid should not be used on Israeli annexation moves, in what appeared to be a growing tide of mainstream Democratic elected officials who support the use of aid restrictions to thwart Netanyahu’s annexation proposal.

Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, listens during a committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 30, 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

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 Mideast peace plan, which conditionally envisions a Palestinian state in the remaining territory with land swaps.

Last week’s historic accord with the UAE appeared to postpone those plans, perhaps indefinitely, as suspending annexation was a core tenet of the agreement to formalize relations.

But Netanyahu has insisted that “There is no change to our plans to apply sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, in coordination with the US… I remain committed to that.”

Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, however, has said the United States will not consent to Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank “for some time” — and the US expects Israel to honor its commitment as part of the pact.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses the Israel-UAE normalization deal at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Meeks’s Thursday statement comes on the virtual sidelines of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

In other forums over the last week, some Democrats have suggested there is a dramatic shift underway on attitudes within the party regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Michigan Congressman Andy Levin spoke of a “changing of the guard” within the caucus during a J Street briefing, which he said was reflected in the increasing number of Democrats willing to refashion the conditions by which the US provides aid to Israel.

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.

“I feel like there’s a real sense in the Democratic caucus that there’s not much time left,” said Levin, who is Jewish. “There’s been too much build up of settlements. The right-wing government in Israel is on this path to annexation that would be the death of the possibility of a two-state solution, so we have to stand up clearly and say annexation is totally unacceptable.”

He went on, “None of US aid should be used to execute or further annexation. That is certainly the dominant position, far and away, in the Democratic caucus.”

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