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Rep. Betty McCollum stakes out lonely turf on Israel

In Congress, if politicians are not full-throated in their support for the Israeli government, they tend not to talk about it much. St. Paul’s representative has taken a different approach.

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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.”

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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.