Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. Brian Baird interview Dr. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief of the PLO Steering and Monitoring Committee.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — When it comes to Middle East politics, Keith Ellison’s caution is constantly on display.
And his approach is getting results: The first Muslim elected to Congress — and Minnesota’s first African-American representative — has been embraced by many in the Muslim and Jewish communities in a way that he never was during his 2006 campaign.
Here’s a glimpse of how the Democrat from Minneapolis works:
In an event in March, sponsored by the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, Ellison talked to the group about the suffering he saw on his trip to both Gaza and — he pointed out with emphasis — Sderot. He repeatedly called for an opening of the crossings into Gaza and for a halt to Israel’s settlement expansion, statements that received loud cheers from the audience.
At the same time, Ellison ducked questions from the audience about issuing sanctions against Israel. Instead, he urged the group to “put on the shoes of the person who is Jewish…a person dealing with 2,000 years of perceived stigmatism.”
“My own Muslim brothers and sisters booed me off stage when I didn’t want to engage in denunciations,” Ellison said, referring to a pro-Palestinian rally that he attempted to speak at in January. “I said, ‘It’s not my role. I got other things to do.'”
While that may be the congressman’s personal view on the matter, it is also the political reality that he faces in Congress, where Israel has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support as a reliably stable democracy in a volatile and strategically important region.
“It is very common for members of Congress to support Israel’s right to defend itself and to lend, at least, rhetorical support to Israel during times of conflict,” said Jonathan Schanzer, deputy director of the Jewish Policy Center, a conservative-leaning think tank. “Those who are critical of Israel risk confrontation from members who don’t hold their views and potentially ostracizing their constituency.”
Talks before key vote
Earlier this year, Ellison faced such a situation when he declined to vote in favor of a resolution that reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself. Instead, he voted “present” along with Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and 20 other House members.
At the time, Ellison said, “For the U.S. Congress to simply reiterate its statement that Israel has a right to defend itself, to me misses the critical issue before the world at this moment, which is the humanitarian crisis [in Gaza].”
Before his vote, however, Ellison did weigh in with the chairman of the foreign affairs committee to see if it would affect his appointment to the Middle East subcommittee.
Rep. Howard Berman, who chairs the committee, is Jewish and from California. As his bio on his web site states, “Over the years, Berman has taken a strong interest in strengthening the vital U.S. -Israeli relationship…”
“I walked up to the chairman and said, ‘Mr. Chairman, is my inclusion on the committee dependent on my vote?'” Ellison told the American-Arab group in March. “He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s good because I can’t vote for it’ — and I didn’t and I’m on the committee.”
Ellison also discussed the vote with the Jewish community in his district.
“From time to time we have our disagreements,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director for the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in Minneapolis, which did not agree with Ellison’s vote. “And when that occurs, we discuss them as friends will do.”
Hunegs said that over time, despite these occasional disagreements, a friendship has grown between the council, Ellison and his staff.
“He believes in the Jewish state of Israel, which is critical,” said Hunegs. “He has spent considerable time with the JCRC and the Jewish community discussing issues and or participating in JCRC events.”
In addition to furthering relationships, Ellison’s outreach has also earned him campaign donations.
In the 2008 elections, JStreet, a newly formed liberal Jewish group, donated $1,000 to Ellison’s campaign. While not a lot of money, it was the first time that Ellison had drawn any money for his congressional campaign from a pro-Israeli lobbying group, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“We were very excited to endorse Ellison last year,” said JStreet’s Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami. “We really view him as an emerging leader in Congress.”
Ellison also received money from the American Task Force for Lebanon Policy, the Council on American-Islamic Relations California PAC and the Indiana Muslim PAC.
From these three groups, he netted $6,000 for the 2008 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Meanwhile, one of Ellison’s No. 1 donors was FTR International, a general contracting, engineering and construction management firm with offices in California and Saudi Arabia.
The center reports that Ellison received $11,500 from individuals with FTR during the 2008 election cycle.
Ellison traveled to Saudi Arabia last week on a trade mission with the Minnesota Trade Office and 11 Minnesota companies.
But, of course, what some groups see as Ellison’s path of moderation, others view as completely skewed.
Ellison, for instance, did not receive any money in 2008 from the top Pro-Israeli PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In an interview this week, Matt Brooks, the executive director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, which did not donate to any Democratic candidates in 2008, said that he found the Obama administration’s emerging stance on Middle East issues and Ellison’s comments since he had returned from Gaza this year to be troubling.
Brooks emphasized that the crossings should not be a focus until Gaza first stops firing rockets into Israel.
“I think that going and seeing first hand is certainly what Congress is in their right to do,” said Brooks about Ellison’s recent trip. “But, having said that, I think… they have squandered an opportunity. The reality is that you have missiles and rockets being shot from Gaza into civilian centers and I don’t think these people would tolerate a similar situation in their districts.”
At the same time, the group of largely Arab-Americans, who booed Ellison in January, felt that he has not gone far enough to support Gaza, according to Tamir Khalil, a 25-year-old Minneapolis native whose brother worked on Ellison’s campaign.
“They felt that Keith Ellison and the rest of Congress should have done more” when it came down to helping the people of Gaza, said Khalil, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Egypt more than three decades ago. “They felt betrayed.”
Dealing with Hamas
In a recent interview with MinnPost, Ellison reiterated his opinion that the crossings should be opened into Gaza, but stopped short of advising the Israeli government on how exactly to proceed with Hamas, the group that has governed Gaza since 2007 but is considered a terrorist organization by the Israeli and U.S. governments.
“I think it is beneficial for Egypt to continue to be an interlocutor between Israel and Hamas,” said Ellison.
Ellison also acknowledged the complicated nature of dealing with Hamas.
“Yes, they are elected. Yes, they are a constituency-based organization. Yes, they have [deployed] suicide bombers. And, yes, they have targeted Israel with these rockets, which constitutes an act of terrorism. All those things are true,” Ellison said. “We have to make things better regardless of what Hamas does.”
But, while Ellison has risen to a rare level of visibility on the Middle East for a junior member of Congress, his ability to actually affect policy in the region could still prove to be a significant challenge, according to Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert and resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“It is very difficult for House members, unless you are Howard Berman or Nancy Pelosi, to have a significant impact on policy in the Middle East,” said Ornstein. “It is particularly hard if you are somewhat at odds with the policy that is being pushed by your party, so it will be a challenge with him to figure out a way of building a coalition.”
“I don’t think that is impossible,” Ornstein said. “But it sure is tricky.”
In meetings with groups since traveling to Gaza this year with Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., Ellison has called on individuals to lobby their representatives for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict that takes both sides into consideration.
“In America today, you have a very strong active group of people who are willing to lobby for Israel’s security,” Ellison told a group recently. “You have a similar, less organized group that is willing to lobby for the Palestinian side. But in my opinion what we lack is a constituency for peace… what is best for America is that Israel and Palestine live side-by-side in security and peace.”
Depending on the Obama administration’s reaction to the new right-wing Israeli government, Ellison’s position could potentially gain momentum, according to Ornstein.
“The Netanyahu government is not one that starts with an enormous waive of support from the Democratic Party,” Ornstein said. “I think you will have people a little uneasy… and at least there may be an opportunity for dialogue about the different sides.”
On other Middle Eastern issues, Ellison has already expressed disagreement over Obama’s move to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.
“When it comes to Afghanistan, I don’t know if a troop increase is what is needed. What I think is needed is an increase in civilian people,” Ellison said. “Their country has just been a war zone for so long.”
Group of advisers
As these and other potential debates loom on the horizon, Ellison has started meeting with a select group of well-known Minnesota politicians, policy experts and human rights activists to get advice and opinions.
The group includes J. Brian Atwood, the dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and Don Fraser, a former Minneapolis mayor and U.S. representative from Ellison’s district.
“He wants to relate his work on the Foreign Affairs Committee to the extent that he can to his district,” said Atwood. “His district is very international… [and] he also understands that he has a very important role to play. Where someone might not listen to an American congressman from another religion, they might listen to what Keith Ellison has to say.”
But the question is: Will Congress or the Obama administration listen when it comes to policy matters?
Last month, Ellison indicated that he was working on legislation that would be geared toward strengthening the economy in the West Bank by funding humanitarian assistance and development.
“I think the challenge here for Keith Ellison is capitalizing on his extraordinary international prominence in terms of actual policy making,” said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs, who echoed Ornstein’s point. “That is the challenge he faces now”
That, and avoiding the obvious tripwires as he continues to cut his own path through U.S. policy and the Middle East.
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.