After signing on to and then backtracking from a bill to bar Israel from using U.S. military aid to detain Palestinian children, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is claiming that she was inadvertently added to the legislation without her approval. But five weeks before DeLauro co-sponsored the bill, a legislative aide to the Connecticut Democrat explicitly told backers of the bill that DeLauro would be a sponsor — something that doesn’t typically happen without the consent of their boss — according to emails seen by The Intercept.
“I was inadvertently added as a cosponsor to this legislation without my approval,” DeLauro said in a statement to The Intercept. “After being made aware of this error, I removed my name as a cosponsor of the legislation.”
DeLauro added that she was opposed to the bill because it “seeks to single out Israel for criticism, and seeks to appropriate money to investigate, document, and report only on Israeli abuses.”
The emails sent from DeLauro’s office were part of a monthslong exchange between Palestinian rights advocates and DeLauro over her positions on Israel. Her office’s agreement to sign on to the legislation, authored by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., was a significant victory for the groups, and her quiet withdrawal came as a surprise.
DeLauro’s reversal is only the latest illustration of how charged the debate over Israel has become in Washington. Progressives are challenging the Democratic establishment’s unwavering pro-Israel stance, which includes a history of voting to give Israel billions in military aid with no strings attached. But they’re finding that imposing conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel remains a bridge too far for many in the caucus.
DeLauro’s co-sponsorship of McCollum’s bill was a surprise, particularly given her status as a member of Democratic leadership and a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. DeLauro is a quintessential member of the Democratic establishment when it comes to Israel. She has voiced unflinching support for the Jewish state. DeLauro’s husband is Stanley Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster who has advised Israel’s Labor Party.
But she appeared to make a significant break from the establishment’s pro-Israel line by signing on to the legislation to prohibit Israel, and any other country in the world that gets U.S. military aid, from using that aid to detain and abuse children. Her co-sponsorship seemed to signal that the bill was inching closer to mainstream acceptance.
One member of Congress, who asked not to be named in order to talk openly about the process, said that it was her understanding that DeLauro’s co-sponsorship of the bill was related to her longtime championing of the rights and welfare of children, for which DeLauro is rightly known. She was not sure, the member said, why DeLauro jumped off the bill.
On June 20, DeLauro quietly withdrew her name from the legislation, which McCollum first introduced in 2017 and reintroduced this year in significantly strengthened form. Instead of directing the secretary of state to certify that U.S. aid is not being used by Israel to detain children, as the 2017 version does, the new bill amends U.S. law to explicitly ban U.S. aid from going toward the abuse of children, a move that takes discretion over such a ban out of the hands of the State Department.
“She misunderstands the expectations of the progressive voters in her district.”
Palestinian rights advocates, who argued to lawmakers that this was a commonsense bill to prevent a U.S. ally from using taxpayer dollars to abuse Palestinian kids, were disappointed by her reversal. They suspect DeLauro came under pressure to backtrack from pro-Israel groups
“It’s shocking,” said Shelly Altman, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Connecticut chapter who pressed DeLauro to support the bill and had conversations with DeLauro’s staff. “She misunderstands the expectations of the progressive voters in her district.”
Pointing out that DeLauro has spoken up for children detained on the U.S.-Mexico border, Altman added, “She’s betraying her own progressive values.”
Support for Israel as its government lurches far to the right — expanding illegal settlements, waging wars on Gaza, and laying the groundwork for annexing the occupied West Bank — is no longer a given for many rank-and-file progressive Democrats, a shift that is worrying the establishment. A March Quinnipiac University poll found that 27 percent of Democrats said they sympathized more with Israelis — a 15-point drop from a January 2017 poll. The Palestinian rights movement has also capitalized on President Donald Trump’s bear-hug embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has alienated Democratic voters, and in the process put traditional supporters of the U.S.-Israel alliance on the defensive.
When McCollum first introduced her bill in 2017, it was heralded as historic, the first-ever legislation to center Palestinian human rights introduced in Congress. McCollum became known as the most outspoken defender of Palestinian human rights in Washington.
Two years later, McCollum is no longer alone in her willingness to boldly criticize the conduct of Israel’s military. The debate in Washington has been reinvigorated by the arrival of Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., both of whom support McCollum’s bill in addition to the more controversial Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which calls for imposing a cost on Israel over its human rights violations.
The duo’s criticisms of Israel have led to widespread accusations of anti-Semitism — a charge often levied at Muslims who enter U.S. politics — and a particularly toxic debate on Capitol Hill. Indeed, in March, after Omar criticized those who “push for allegiance to a foreign country” — a thinly veiled reference to Israel — McCollum delayed her planned introduction of the bill because she felt the political environment was not conducive to championing Palestinian rights.
It’s an opportunity to build power in Washington and educate members of Congress on the conditions Palestinian children face under military occupation.
McCollum’s bill is now forcing Democrats to choose a side on a key question: Should Israel get $3.8 billion in annual military aid with no strings attached, or should respecting children’s rights be a condition of that aid? For now, it’s a symbolic question; Pelosi is not expected to bring the bill up for a vote, nor would it stand any chance in the Republican-dominated Senate. But for advocates, it’s an opportunity to build power in Washington and educate members of Congress on the conditions Palestinian children face under military occupation.
Twenty-one Democrats, including Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash, and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., have so far co-sponsored McCollum’s legislation.
“These are real human rights champions who are committed to peace, justice, and equality for Palestinians and Israelis. This should be a very simple, clear issue for any member of Congress: either you support U.S. funds to Israel being used to abuse and torture Palestinian children or you don’t,” McCollum told The Intercept. “As Americans, it’s a matter of our values. We should universally condemn the abuse of Palestinian children, not pay for it.”
The bill isn’t one that Democrats are eager to talk about, and many remain disengaged from the conversation. “I’ve not seen that bill at all, but I’ve been focused on the southwest border,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md. “I was there in August. I just filed a bill today ensuring legal representation for asylum-seekers that don’t have paid representation. I have a bill on alternatives to detention. I’ll take a look at Betty’s bill and give it some thought, but I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Can I look at the bill?” said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. “Let me look at the bill first.”
Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., said the same. “I haven’t seen that bill and I’d like a chance to think about it before I speak. I often do that,” he said.
Israel’s army routinely raids Palestinian homes in the middle of the night to wake children and arrest them. Human rights groups have accused Israeli forces of beating children and pressuring them to sign confessions, often to throwing stones at soldiers or Israeli settlers, in Hebrew, a language most of them do not understand.
McCollum’s bill would bring U.S. pressure to bear on Israel over this practice. The legislation amends the Leahy Law, a 1998 law authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that bars the U.S. from giving aid and training to foreign military units or individuals credibly accused of “gross human rights violations.” Under the State Department definition, that includes torture; cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment; prolonged detention without charge or trial; extrajudicial killing; enforced disappearance; politically motivated rape; or other denials of a person’s life, liberty, or security. McCollum’s bill would make the Leahy Law even more explicit by barring foreign security units from using U.S. aid to carry out the “military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of children.” The bill’s amendment to the Leahy Law would apply to all countries that receive U.S. military aid, but its focus on Israel has made it particularly controversial.
Because the law would impose conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel, nobody expects the House Democratic leadership, which, in addition to Pelosi, includes pro-Israel stalwarts like Hakeem Jeffries, D-NY., to sign on to the bill. The bill is in the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s jurisdiction, and Omar is so far the only member from the panel to sign on.
The invocation of the Leahy Law is giving even some progressive Democrats pause, said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Khanna co-sponsored the 2017 bill, but he has yet to sign on to the current version. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the leading progressive member of House leadership, has also withheld his name so far, telling The Intercept that he’s still studying the legislation.
The invocation of the Leahy Law is giving even some progressive Democrats pause.
The hesitation could be due to the strength of the bill’s language around the restriction of aid as compared to previous versions. Indeed, some members of Congress have wondered whether they’d be voting to cut off aid in a major way. Backers of the bill say it would not cut aid to Israel, but would instead bar specific Israeli units found to abuse Palestinian children from using U.S. military aid.
Khanna’s misgivings about the Leahy Law is shared by J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group that advocates for continued U.S. military aid to Israel, as well as Israeli withdrawal from most of the occupied Palestinian territories. J Street’s endorsement could provide wavering members of Congress enough political cover to back the bill. But J Street is still debating whether to ultimately endorse it. “We haven’t taken a position on this bill yet. We are still looking at the language and researching the very important issue it deals with,” said Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for J Street.
Advocates for the bill have heard from congressional staffers that J Street is skeptical about using the Leahy Law to bar aid because, in J Street’s eyes, the law should be applied to only the most extreme human rights violations like mass sexual violence, massacres, or ethnic cleansing. (Bayroff did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about whether this was its objection to the bill; J Street sources, not authorized to speak publicly, said that the group’s board was split on the question, and McCollum’s bill was forcing a reckoning with just how far J Street is willing to go in opposing the occupation.)
Human rights advocates reject this line of thinking.
The legal threshold “is not the most extreme conduct but whether conduct violates these well-established, universal, and fundamental norms included in the Leahy Law,” said Brad Parker, the senior adviser on policy and advocacy for Defense for Children International-Palestine. “For torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment the threshold is lower when involving child victims. HR 2407 simply seeks to ensure that U.S. taxpayers funds do not support ill-treatment of child detainees in any country, including Israel.”
According to pro-Palestinian advocates who’ve had conversations on Capitol Hill about the bill, J Street is also voicing skepticism in part because, the group says, the bill’s language implies that all U.S. military aid to Israel is being used to abuse Palestinian children, something it believes is not accurate.
Despite this resistance among some progressives, Palestinian rights advocates are confident that they will end the congressional session in 2020 with perhaps a total of 60 co-sponsors on the bill, double the amount a version of McCollum’s bill got last session. They also say the bill’s importance lies mostly in its symbolic power and as a tool for education.
“It would be amazing if we can get Palestinian children to share their stories.”
“I’m less concerned that Pelosi passes the bill and more concerned that the members have a committee hearing on the bill with testimony and actually talk about it,” said Noura Erakat, a Palestinian human rights attorney who has spoken with members of Congress about the measure. “It would be amazing if we can get Palestinian children to share their stories [in front of Congress].”
Meanwhile, advocates are hoping the debate over imposing conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel spills out of Congress and onto the presidential stage. On June 4, McCollum sent a letter to Bernie Sanders, a presidential candidate and Vermont senator, asking him to introduce a companion bill in the Senate. Sanders, who has expressed openness in the past to cutting U.S. aid to Israel, has not yet responded to McCollum, and his office did not respond to requests for comment from The Intercept about whether he supports the legislation. Neither did the office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who is also running for president, co-sponsored the legislation last year but has decided not to support the bill this time around because it threatens “our aid to Israel in its entirety,” he said in a statement.
But even with the tepid response from many lawmakers in the House and Senate, Palestinian rights advocates say the introduction of the bill, and the support it has gotten so far, make clear that the conversation within the party over Israel is changing.
“Everyone’s starting to understand there’s a massive injustice that the U.S. is complicit in,” said Leah Muskin-Pierret, manager of congressional and grassroots advocacy at the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “They’re slowly getting around to doing the right thing.”