Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman Visits Israel—and Faces Criticism

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1. Jamaal Bowman goes to Israel, then gets in trouble

New York freshman Congressman Jamaal Bowman won his seat after defeating 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel, a fellow Democrat. Engel was arguably one of the most pro-Israel House members. Bowman, who is part of the Squad, is among the chamber’s most vocal critics of Israel.

And yet, earlier this month, Bowman joined a J Street-organized trip to Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas, even meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader and head of a right-wing party that does not support a two-state solution.

Bowman’s record on Israel is more nuanced than most of his Squad colleagues. He, for example, spoke out strongly against Israel’s initial refusal to provide COVID-19 vaccines to the Palestinians; but on the other hand, he did not join other progressive Democrats in voting against providing an extra $1 billion in U.S. aid to Israel to fund replenishing its Iron Dome system. His trip to Israel with J Street further demonstrates this approach. In doing so, Bowman broke with those calling for boycotting Israel and with Israeli official representatives, but during the trip, he made a point of calling out Israel for its ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

This attempt to balance criticizing Israel with accepting its legitimacy was sufficient for members of the Israeli government who met with Bowman and the delegation, but not for some members of his progressive base. 

Upon returning to New York, Bowman was met with an angry reception from the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) national political committee, which issued a statement reiterating the group’s commitment to boycotting Israel and promising to engage directly with Bowman on the issue. One of the group’s chapters called for expelling Bowman from the DSA, saying that in his visit and meetings with Israelis, “Bowman condones the continued Israeli settlement of Palestinian land, as well as the forced displacement, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.”

2. A missed opportunity?

Bowman will likely overcome the political challenges created by his trip to Israel. As a first-term Congressman, he is more vulnerable than others, but being shunned by DSA or other pro-BDS progressives won’t matter much, since they do not play a major role in his district.

Politics is usually an equilibrium: You lose support on one side, but gain it on the other; actions that turn off one type of supporters and donors help shore up backing from those on the other side. This does not seem to be the case with Bowman. He is about to lose support from hardline progressives but will not gain much from the other side. AIPAC and the Democratic Majority for Israel may be pleased that he visited Israel, but the DMFI will still support his rivals (AIPAC does not endorse).

And this is exactly the space where pro-Israel groups could spring into action and set a goal of peeling off politicians like Bowman from the hard anti-Israel margin of the progressive movement. J Street is already doing so, but it may require a more concerted effort and more willingness to venture outside their comfort zone.

By cultivating ties (and yes, funneling political contributions, too) to members of the Democratic Party’s far left who do not adhere to full BDS and are willing to sit down and talk, the pro-Israel community can redraft the Democratic landscape on Israel. This would add a subgroup of, for lack of a better term, “pragmatic” progressives to the existing spectrum made up of (from right to left) staunch pro-Israel centrists (think Chuck Schumer, Debbie Wasserman Schultz), the broad mainstream (who are pro-two-state solution and pro-Iran deal but try to avoid getting into a fight with Israel), the critical progressives (who, like Chris Van Hollen, will push for action against Israeli policies) and the Squad progressives, who fully adhere to BDS. These pragmatic progressives are by no means “pro-Israel,” but their willingness to engage offers a new opportunity for Democrats who fear their party is turning its back on Israel.

3. Who is Idan Roll, and how could he help?

Idan Roll is Israel’s deputy foreign minister. He is also supposed to be the liberal face of Israel’s coalition government.

Last week, Roll made his first visit to Washington, DC since assuming office, and alongside high-level meetings at the State Department and on Capitol Hill, he also sat down with students, journalists, think tank experts and Jewish leaders. In some of these talks, Roll tried to use his own personal profile (young, openly gay, raising two children with his husband, who is also one of Israel’s top performing artists) to advance what a decade or two ago was known as “Israel beyond the conflict”—or, in other words, the liberal, modern, open and fun Israel that you may not have known about because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has consumed the world’s attention.

This has also been part of Israel’s pitch to progressives for years. Something along the lines of “We’re trying our best to reach peace with the Palestinians, and in the meantime, enjoy everything else Israel has to offer.” The current government added to this pitch a pledge to return to bipartisanship and reopen the door to Democrats.

This is a long-term game, but it’s hard to see Roll, or for that matter any other Israeli official right now, winning over progressives with these arguments.

Roll, who is a centrist (from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party) and whose views on the conflict represent the Israeli center (which the rest of the world views as being right of center), played it safe during his visit to Washington.

He met with some progressives on the Hill and with a mix of Jewish social justice activists but did not indicate any position that could make progressives view him as their potential point of contact in Israel. When it came to the core issues of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the views Roll expressed fell squarely within the center of the Bennett-Lapid centrist coalition.

Progressives like Bowman, who come from the far left but are willing to listen and engage, will need more than that.

4. The endless saga of Israel and the visa waiver program

Remember Israel’s request to join the U.S. visa waiver program, the one that allows citizens of certain countries to enter for up to three months without requiring prior approval? Yes, it’s been going on for years, but things are finally happening.

Last week, Israel’s interior minister Ayelet Shaked met in Washington with Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to discuss the issue.

The meeting was good and constructive (did you ever hear of a meeting that wasn’t?) and for the first time in over a decade, things seemed to be moving into a practical path that could—according to Shaked—lead to Israelis being exempt from tourist visas as soon as early 2023. An American working team will visit Israel in January to discuss the details, and monthly virtual sessions have been set up to follow up and advance the process. Shaked’s timeline may be a tad too optimistic, but diplomats dealing with the issue believe that barring any new roadblocks, the issue is on its way to a successful resolution within the next year or two, or perhaps a little longer.

There are many technicalities that make the process so arduous. 

Key among them is lowering Israel’s refusal rate, which means the percentage of Israelis who are not approved because of concerns that they will either work illegally or overstay.

In addition, the teams will have to resolve questions regarding reciprocity, since Israel has been less than welcoming to some Americans, especially those with Arab and Palestinian roots. Also, the U.S. is requiring access to Israel’s criminal registration data banks, a request Israel has agreed to, but still needs ironing out.

5. It’s about visa politics

Joining the visa waiver program is really important for Israelis. In part because they’re tired of waiting in endless lines at the U.S. embassy, of the paperwork and of the rejections, and—some have argued—the suspicious attitude of American consular agents toward Israelis who only wish to visit the U.S.

But there’s more to it. It’s also a matter of pride, and of friendship.

How could Israel’s closest ally not allow Israelis in without a visa? What do Croatia, Taiwan, New Zealand and Brunei have that Israel doesn’t?

Israelis and pro-Israel advocates have tried to make this case to previous U.S. administrations, even arguing that exempting Israelis from entry visas could be a simple gesture that would go a long way in assuaging Israelis concerns on other issues. Obama opted not to use this option when trying to sell Israelis on the Iran nuclear deal, citing the bureaucratic hurdles facing such a visa exemption. When Trump came into office, the time seemed opportune because the 45th president was not one to care much about government bureaucracy, but Israeli leaders believed—and rightly so—that they could get more of Trump’s largesse than a visa waiver. So they focused on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and annexation.

Biden’s administration now seems both aware of the rewards such a move will entail, and willing to do the work in order to make it happen.

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