Ocasio-Cortez spearheads letter vowing to condition US aid to Israel over annexation
Progressive Democrats have put forward a strongly worded letter against Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, calling for using a "combination of pressure and incentives" to prevent it, including imposing conditions on American military aid to Israel.
The letter, led by prominent left-wing House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was met with immediate rejection by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Monday, setting the stage for a confrontation between progressive Democrats and pro-Israel groups in Washington.
Jewish Insider, which first revealed the letter, said it was co-signed by Rashida Tlaib, Pramila Jayapal and Betty McCollum. But Middle East Eye has learned from a source familiar with the situation that multiple Democrats beyond the four congresswomen have signed the letter, including Senator Bernie Sanders, who proposed conditioning aid to Israel during his presidential campaign.
The letter, addressed to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is set to be released formally later this week.
"Unilateral annexation in the West Bank would alienate US lawmakers and citizens. We cannot support an undemocratic system in which Israel would permanently rule over a Palestinian people denied self-determination or equal rights," it reads.
"Should the Israeli government move forward with the planned annexation with this administration’s acquiescence, we will work to ensure non-recognition as well as pursue conditions on the $3.8 billion in US military funding to Israel, including human rights conditions."
It also threatens "withholding funds for the off-shore procurement of Israeli weapons equal to or exceeding the amount the Israeli government spends annually to fund settlements, as well as the policies and practices that sustain and enable them".
It comes days ahead of a 1 July deadline that the Israeli government has set for starting the process of claiming sovereignty over areas in the occupied West Bank - declaring them parts of Israel.
Democrats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have released statements expressing opposition against annexation, but Ocasio-Cortez's letter is the first congressional declaration outlining real consequences for Israel if it follows through with its plans.
Ocasio-Cortez, known as AOC, is a revered figured on the US left - championing progressive proposals such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Last week, she secured re-election by defeating two primary challengers in her New York district in a landslide.
On Monday, AIPAC said AOC's letter makes the two-state solution "less likely", invoking presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his support for an Obama-era memorandum of understanding ensuring military assistance for Israel.
"The US-Israel relationship is a mutually beneficial partnership that reinforces our moral values and strategic interests," the group said in a series of tweets.
"The overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and across the country, agree that America is best served when we stand with Israel."
'Israel has stated it will not grant citizenship to Palestinians living in annexed territory, paving the path toward an apartheid system'
- Letter led by four US congresswomen
The Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), an AIPAC-linked group that focuses on ensuring support for Israel within the Democratic Party, also urged US legislators to refrain from signing the letter.
"Unlike letter opposing annexation sent by 189 House Dems, this 1 is bad policy, bad politics, & counterproductive to the goal of stopping annexation & encouraging a 2-state solution," DMFI said Monday on Twitter.
The group was referring to a statement led by pro-Israel hawk Ted Deutch and other Democratic House members that expressed "deep concern" over annexation without laying out any consequences for US-Israeli relations.
Palestinian rights advocates had dismissed that letter as mere lip service. Notable progressive Democrats, including AOC, Tlaib, Jayapal, McCollum, Ilhan Omar, Debbie Dingell, and Ayanna Pressley did not sign it.
Unlike Deutch's letter, which was released earlier this month and mostly focused on how annexation is bad for Israel, Ocasio-Cortez's statement details how the Israeli plan violates international law, highlighting its effects on Palestinians.
"Leading human rights experts warn that annexing parts of the West Bank will perpetuate and entrench human rights violations against Palestinians including limitations on freedom of movement, mass expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land, further expansion of illegal settlements, continued demolitions of Palestinian homes and a loss of Palestinian control over their natural resources," it reads.
"Furthermore, Israel has stated it will not grant citizenship to Palestinians living in annexed territory, paving the path toward an apartheid system."
The letter also stresses that annexation is the culmination of an ongoing process by Israel.
"Annexation is notably prohibited because it incites armed conflict, political and economic instability, systematic human rights abuses, and, most importantly, legitimizes the erasure of identity," it said.
"The situation is no different here, nor has it been. Acre by acre de facto annexation since 1967 for the purpose of new Israeli settlements is a blatant attempt to suppress Palestinian identity and nationhood."
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a Washington-based advocacy group, welcomed the letter on Monday, calling on Congress members to sign on to it.
"This is a very welcome approach, and it's something that's been long overdue in American politics," said ADC legal director Abed Ayoub.
Ayoub stressed that criticising Israel and demanding accountability for its abuses against Palestinians is no longer a politically costly position in Washington. He said more Congress members and more Americans understand the reality that Israel is becoming an "apartheid state" - a reality that cannot be "washed away by AIPAC".
"Truth is on the side of justice and on the side of Palestinians. That's why minds will be changing, rather quickly," Ayoub told MEE.
The youth-led progressive Jewish-American organisation, IfNotNow, warned Democrats that siding with pro-Israel groups is not only wrong, but it's also bad politics, citing the recent loss of Congressman Eliot Engel to left-wing challenger Jamaal Bowman.
Pro-Israel groups had spent millions to help re-elect Engel, the hawkish chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Remember that AIPAC & its allies like DMFI dumped $3 million into a primary - and lost," IfNotNow said on Twitter.