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Rep. Betty McCollum stakes out lonely turf on Israel

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Support for the state of Israel runs deep on Capitol Hill, and virtually every lawmaker calls themselves pro-Israel.

In the sharply partisan House of Representatives, there aren’t a whole lot of items that get overwhelmingly approved. Measures to rename post offices for local heroes, sure, or symbolic resolutions in favor of feel-good things like U.S. students having access to “digital tools.”

But a lopsided vote can also mean something else: the topic in question was U.S. support of Israel.

That’s what happened last week, when the House approved a resolution condemning, in harsh terms, a United Nations resolution that condemned Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, which passed in December after the U.S. declined to veto it.

The measure, H.R. 11, passed the House on Thursday night, 342 to 80. Among the no votes were Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison, Rick Nolan and Betty McCollum.

If anyone knows what it’s like to be in Congress’ minority on Israel issues, it’s McCollum. Since being elected to Congress in 2000, the St. Paul Democrat has been a vocal advocate for a two-state solution, and has been among Congress’ most consistent critics of Israel.

It’s a stance that has made her plenty of enemies. So why does a Midwestern Democrat who’s usually focused on the finer points of interior appropriations bills think it so important to stick her neck out on this loaded issue?

Long record of criticizing Israel

Support for the state of Israel runs deep on Capitol Hill, and virtually every lawmaker calls themselves pro-Israel.

McCollum too is quick to say that she is pro-Israel, and calls the Jewish state a key U.S. ally. But her position of frequently criticizing that ally’s actions sets her apart from most lawmakers.

Powerful interest groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, have tremendous sway in getting members to support, or at least not vocally oppose, a particular vision of Israel policy reflected by the House resolution.

AIPAC and other groups run a full-court press on the Hill: in command of a formidable base of passionate activists, they can create real political consequences for opposing its objectives with floods of calls and signatures on petitions. And through a network of PACs, it can halt valuable campaign contributions, or in some cases, bankroll an opponent’s campaign.

During her tenure in Congress, McCollum has publicly feuded with AIPAC, and has drawn the ire of Israel backers on numerous occasions.

In 2006, McCollum was one of two “no” votes in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a bill, backed by AIPAC, that would have restricted aid to the Palestinian territories. After the vote, an AIPAC member from Minnesota named Amy Rotenberg was on a call with McCollum’s chief of staff, Bill Harper, who said that she told him McCollum’s “support for terrorists will not be tolerated.” (Rotenberg denied Harper's account of the call.)

In an open letter to AIPAC, McCollum demanded a formal apology, and said AIPAC representatives were not welcome in her office until she got one. “Never has my name and reputation been maligned or smeared as it was last week by a representative of AIPAC,” McCollum wrote.

(McCollum says she never got that formal apology, but said her relations with the group have improved somewhat, though even staff-level meetings did not take place for years after the 2006 spat.)

Recently, McCollum has urged U.S. diplomats to put pressure on Israel. In June 2015, she wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry over alleged mistreatment of children in the Palestinian territories.  

“Israel’s military detention of Palestinian children is an indefensible abuse of human rights. I hope this letter results in State Department pressure on the Government of Israel to end this systemic abuse immediately,” she said.  

Later that year, McCollum sent another letter to State, asking them to investigate whether Israeli forces’ killing of two Palestinian teenagers precluded Israel from receiving military aid under the Leahy Act, which prohibits the U.S. from giving military aid to governments that violate human rights. (Countries denied aid in the past on this basis include Turkey, Mexico, and Nigeria.)

McCollum’s work has made her an ally of J-Street, a Jewish-American organization that is more critical of the Israeli government in its advocacy for a two-state solution, and is effectively working as a counterweight to AIPAC.

Dylan Williams, a lobbyist for J-Street who has worked frequently with McCollum, says she is a key partner and a longtime advocate for a diplomatic approach his organization says that most American Jews support.

“The congresswoman has consistently supported robust U.S. military assistance to Israel,” he said. “At the same time she, has not hesitated from pointing out when U.S. or Israeli policy hurts the long-term security of Israel by diminishing the chances for a two-state solution.”

“She has rightly championed the cause of Palestinians who may be treated unfairly. In this conflict, we see that as a pro-Israel and a pro-Palestine position.”

‘Private war’

But McCollum’s actions have made her one of the most vilified members of Congress among the pro-Israel right.

The right-wing site FrontPage once wrote that McCollum was “waging her own private war on Israel,” and alleged that she and other members, like Ellison, were motivated to criticize Israel in order to get financial support from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group that is a bete noire on the right. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified FrontPage as a “financier of radical anti-Muslim extremism.”)

Other organizations oppose McCollum’s brand of advocacy on the grounds that it singles out Israel for special scrutiny on human rights. (The U.N. in particular is criticized for a focus on Israel’s record on human rights at the expense of examining other countries’ records.)

In that vein, McCollum’s vote on the U.N. resolution was criticized by the Minneapolis chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which said it was disappointed that McCollum, along with Ellison and Nolan, “failed to join the majority of their House Democratic colleagues in objecting to a one-sided, anti-Israel UN resolution which makes peace in the Middle East that much more elusive.”

For her part, McCollum said H.R. 11’s language was “over the top” and designed to slam Obama one last time before he leaves office. (The bill framed the U.N. resolution as anti-Israel, saying its approval harms diplomatic efforts, and contributes to the boycott, divest, and sanction movement to isolate Israel.)

Like other critics of Israel in Congress, McCollum frames her advocacy as looking out for a partner’s best interest.

“Israel is a strong ally,” she said. “I’m free in this country to criticize my own government when I don’t agree with them. I have that same freedom of speech when I don’t agree with one of our allies, whether it’s Norway, Israel, a country anywhere in the world.”

“I want to move people to a position where we can have peace, hope and prosperity,” McCollum said. “That means being an honest broker. When you think someone is not doing something in the best interest of moving toward peace, you say something.”

That sentiment is echoed by Ellison, who is less vocal than McCollum on Israel issues, but typically receives intense scrutiny on the subject because of his Muslim faith and his past association with the Nation of Islam — scrutiny his bid for Democratic National Committee chair has renewed.

In a statement after his no vote on H.R. 11, Ellison said that “a two-state solution has been the longstanding bipartisan, international consensus, and I believe it is the only way to truly achieve peace. This resolution makes that goal less achievable.”

Why?

But why is McCollum, a progressive Catholic from St. Paul, so vocal on Israel policy?

She partially credited her upbringing, which she called “eclectic” and that included exposure to people of different faiths.

But McCollum also framed her fight as the right one, despite the political headwinds against it.

“Israeli children should be able to go to school and live their lives in peace and security,” she said. “Palestinian families should know there’s hope to open a business, to have a farm.”

“That’s what we should be about, not playing politics with these votes for money or influence, or saying it doesn’t make any difference, I don’t want to get hassled on this. These are people’s lives. That’s why I vote and speak out the way I do.”

McCollum says the looming administration of Donald Trump hasn’t given her much hope that U.S. leaders will take her message to heart.

Trump criticized the Obama administration for declining to veto the U.N. resolution, promising in a tweet that things “will be different” at the international body after he takes office. He has also vowed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move favored by conservatives.

“I think we could see a series of these extreme types of resolutions coming forward from the Republicans and the Trump administration in the future,” McCollum said, adding she was very disappointed in Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, an Israel hard-liner who heads a group that financially supports Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Even so, McCollum isn’t completely discouraged. She credited J-Street, saying the organization is advancing the idea that one can be a supporter of Israel and its people, but still have honest disagreements with its government.

“That’s what democracy is about.”

Correction: A previous version of this story failed to acknowledge that Amy Rotenberg disputes Bill Harper’s version of her remarks about Rep. McCollum. It also misstated the year McCollum was first elected to Congress.

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Comments (21)

The Essence of the article

“Israel is a strong ally,” she said. “I’m free in this country to criticize my own government when I don’t agree with them. I have that same freedom of speech when I don’t agree with one of our allies, whether it’s Norway, Israel, a country anywhere in the world.”

“I want to move people to a position where we can have peace, hope and prosperity,” McCollum said. “That means being an honest broker. When you think someone is not doing something in the best interest of moving toward peace, you say something.”

“Israeli children should be able to go to school and live their lives in peace and security,” she said. “Palestinian families should know there’s hope to open a business, to have a farm.”

“That’s what we should be about, not playing politics with these votes for money or influence, or saying it doesn’t make any difference, I don’t want to get hassled on this. These are people’s lives. That’s why I vote and speak out the way I do.”

Ellison said that “a two-state solution has been the longstanding bipartisan, international consensus, and I believe it is the only way to truly achieve peace.........”

That's my representative!

Many heartfelt thanks to Betty for standing up "despite the political headwinds." We will need this strength in the coming months, nay, years. Rock on, Betty!

Thank you, Rep. McCollum

As a former constituent, I voted for Rep. McCollum repeatedly. I believe she works hard to achieve admirable, honorable goals. In my 70 years, I have too often seen Israel as a formidable bully (using U.S. resources) in the mid-East. If I had any power, I would choose to stop the bullying actions of Israel and do everything possible, working tirelessly, to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine. That's what Rep. McCollum appears to have done during her years of service in Congress.

Israel vote

Thanks Betty for your courage.

Betty's courage

Bravo for Betty McCullom.

“That’s what democracy is about.”

It is not, however, what the incoming administration, especially the president-elect, is about, so I expect to see plenty of negative publicity about McCollum, Ellison, and anyone else who has the temerity to question the infallibility of GOP policies.

More on Israel and Palestine

The “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian divide, where two separate nation-states are created, is no longer viable. Israel and Palestine can no longer be separated. There is the wall, the water, the right of return, and many other issues. The “two-state solution” has become an excuse for continuing to support the right-wing regime in control of Israel. Instead, the only real option now is the “one-state solution” where a single nation-state is formed on the footprint of the Palestine that existed before the creation of Israel. That new state must be democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, secular, and based on equality of all citizens. This will require the disarming and dismantling of Zionist Israel is it currently exists as a Jewish state.

False dilemma's

The two state solution isn't dead, on the contrary it remains the only viable solution. The problem with declaring it: "dead" is that such a declaration assumes that is was: "alive" in the first place.

The truth is that the Israeli government has never taken a two state solution seriously. Clearly the decades have shown that the Israeli "solution" that evolved in the early 80s was to convert the Palestinian territories into "reservations" like those the US government created for Indian people in this country. Palestinian reservations would be dependent sovereignty's under Israeli control, subject to Israeli settlement, much like the Allotment Act effectively stripped land from the reservations.

The US reservation model may have (and may still) look attractive to some Israelis but it's a recipe for perpetual conflict and violence in the Middle East. The level of murderous and genocidal oppression that the US government used to force American Indians onto reservations is simply not feasible for the Israelis. Furthermore the military realities on the ground and the nature of Palestinian resistance is completely unlike anything the US Government faced in the Indian Wars. Truth be told the reservation system hasn't even worked in the US, Indian people continue to fight for their sovereignty, albeit non-violently. The Palestinians clearly will never accept kind of dependent sovereignty reservations offer them.

As to Israel's status as a Jewish State, the idea that Israeli's must abandon their state in order to become a different kind of democracy is a false choice. It's up the Israeli's to decide what kind of government they will live with, and anyone who thinks that stripping out the Jewish nature out of the Israeli government is more feasible than creating an autonomous Palestinian State nearly delusional.

Thank you, Betty.

Years will pass, and eventually everyone will realize that your position is the right one - both for Israel and the Palestinians.

Yes

Hang in there, Betty.

Thank you Rep. McCollum

I appreciate your stance in support of a solution fair to all parties involved. Too many politicians just want to take the easy route. I'm proud of Minnesota's three willing to seek a real two state solution and the steps to get there.

This is what it is about

The last post is exactly what this is all about - no Jewish Israel, which is obviously an anti-Semitic statement (just like saying that no Arab state would have been anti-Arab statement). Of course, the first UN resolution explicitely called for a Jewish state but who cares... Speaking of that resolution, can anyone explain why the Arab state was never created along the Jewish state before the first settlement was built (which was 20 years, actually, plenty of time...) Does Ms. McCullum know the answer? Does she care? Do her constituents care? Does she care that there were more anti-Semitic hate crimes in America in 2015 (and all years before) than anti-Muslim ones?

I think what AIPAC means

Is McCollum is not pro right wing Israel, not rabidly anti Palestinian and does not blindly endorse everything Israel does, like egregiously interfere in American politics.

I have always supported Israel but am seeing less and less difference between the Netanyahu government and the Iranian theocrats. Both use religion to excuse human rights abuses. Getting tired of both of them. And AIPAC.

Yeah, Betty!

I am so thankful to have Betty McCollum as my House Representative now. She has never disappointed me when it comes to standing up for "people's lives." And that she mentions J Street related to this issue lets me know that she is staying informed by the best sources. Thank you, Betty!

Just one voice speaks out?

Thank You MCCollum and Jew Folk and their support by questioning what is happening as our country slips slowly under the influence of self- indulgent power brokers?

Martin Buber Jewish philosopher and one of the most powerful voices who supported the two-state solution many years ago and his voice was essentially silenced by hard core leadership and the likes of Net the Israeli power broker?

What of Trump and his son-law/ handler Kushner?

Will there be check points on our borders and police with guns trained in the style of Israeli police?

Who is the real voice of Israel by those who have no power?

Who is the real voice of our next presidency as Donald flip-flops and plays war games on the floor of the Oval room as son-in-law plays 'real estate' with the nation and the people of this once upon a time free nation?

Lots of questions...few good answers...just wondering?

Parenting choices

You have parents who lavish tons of money on their children, then let them act up in public without any discipline, no corrections, only to let them act out obnoxiously. The money doesn't stop, the parents just look the other way. The kids become socially inept.

Then you have parents who may be just as generous but who practice tough love, teach the children how to behave and won't allow chronic misbehavior. Their kids tend to be more popular with their neighbors.

Thanks to the 3 DFLers who are in the latter camp of "parents."

Why give Israel any aid?

One has to wonder why we give aid to a country which has a stronger economy than many parts of the US. The cost – per American taxpayer – of the new ten-year $38B military aid package is only $119, but multiply that amount by the population of a town or state and it becomes a significant chunk of money that subsequently can’t be used to improve highway infrastructure, or help struggling schools in impoverished parts of our country, or help the veterans of our endless wars.

The ultimate slap in the face to President Obama - really, to all Americans – was the lack of gratitude by Prime Minister Netanyahu for this recent increase in annual aid. After the new aid package was announced Netanyahu continued to show nothing but arrogance and contempt for Obama.

Anti-Semitism

When I posted my last message, the last post was by Mr. Gehan and that is what I was referring to as "last post." If before anti-Semitism always came from the right, now it mostly comes from the left, under the guise of "anti-Zionism," helping Palestinians, or "tough love." Again, why wasn't there peace in the Middle East before settlements? What about taking money away from the Palestinian Authority due to incitement for terror? How about having a condition that Hamas must be gone from Gaza before anything moves forward? Or recognition of Israel as a Jewish state by all Arab countries (after all, that is what the original UN resolution called for, the one they rejected)? How about protecting the weak in the UN, where Israel was condemned more than all other countries combined, including Syria, Iran, China, Cuba, etc.? Has Israel ever been on the Security Council? And all of that after the calls to be "objective."

ilya's list

Ilya's list should be negotiable, that's what it's all about. Land grabs are another story.

What is negotiable

Settlements are not an obstacle to peace, as I have shown before, nor are they land grabs since, in theory, they may stay within future Palestinian state (why Palestininas object against that is another matter). And of course, Israel abandones settlements in the past (Sinai, Gaza). On the other hand, Israel's Jewish nature and security cannot be negotiable...

Palestinians

To Ilya: How about if there were NO preconditions. Just create two States and then negotiate. After all, were there preconditions for the creation of Israel?
I agree with Jimmy Carter. The current State of Israel is as guilty of apartheid as was South Africa. Until this changes, the US should withdraw all aid.