Demonstrators on the National Mall in Washington, DC, call for a ceasefire in Israel’s assault on Gaza on October 21st, 2023.
On October 16th, nine days after the Hamas attack on Israel and the beginning of Israel’s subsequent war on Gaza, Democratic Reps. Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, André Carson, Summer Lee, and Delia Ramirez introduced the “Ceasefire Now” resolution, which demands that the Biden administration call for an end to hostilities in Israel/Palestine and send humanitarian aid to Gaza. “The United States bears a unique responsibility to exhaust every diplomatic tool at our disposal to prevent mass atrocities and save lives,” Rep. Bush said in a statement upon introducing the resolution. Eight other Democrats signed on as original co-sponsors, and an additional five have since sponsored the resolution, bringing the total number of sponsors to 18.
By contrast, on October 25th, the House passed a resolution by a 412-10 margin expressing solidarity with Israel as it “defends itself against the barbaric war launched by Hamas.” The resolution made no mention of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza that have killed more than 7,300 Palestinians, more than 3,000 of them children, and displaced 1.4 million. Even Rep. Betty McCollum—the author of the first-ever Congressional legislation that would impose restrictions on how the Israeli military can use US aid—voted for the measure, explaining on the House floor that she condemned Hamas’s “heinous” attack while simultaneously calling for “an immediate regional ceasefire to avoid the loss of more innocent lives.” McCollum is one of three representatives who have called for a ceasefire without signing onto the ceasefire resolution, along with Reps. Veronica Escobar and Jim McGovern.
In recent weeks, Palestinian rights advocates have staged a series of protests at Congressional offices around the country demanding a ceasefire, which they argue would save civilian lives and facilitate the release of hostages; experts say it could also prevent regional war. But three weeks in, only about 10% of the House Democratic caucus has called for a cessation to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Bernie Sanders, a longtime critic of Israel’s human rights record, has thus far been the only senator to call for a halt to the Israeli air assault, saying on October 17th that “the bombs and missiles from both sides must end.” But he has yet to use the language of “ceasefire,” despite facing pressure from more than 300 former staffers on his presidential campaign to introduce a ceasefire resolution in the Senate. Instead, Sanders has called for “humanitarian pauses” in the bombardment, meaning a temporary cessation of hostilities in order to facilitate getting food, water, and medicine to civilians.
In lieu of calling for a ceasefire, some normally dovish Democrats have called for humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza, and for Israel to adhere to international law in its assault. “I would speak out more forcefully on the ceasefire if it became evident that the rules of the Geneva Convention”—the series of treaties that regulate armed conflict—were “not being followed,” Rep. Ro Khanna told a group of protesters organized by Palestinian rights group Adalah Justice Project during an October 20th sit-in at his office. But human rights groups say Israel’s decision to collectively punish Palestinians by cutting electricity, fuel, and water to the entire strip, as well as its bombing of civilian infrastructure, constitute clear violations of international law.
The reticence of even some of the most progressive members of Congress to embrace a ceasefire illuminates the formidable obstacles that Palestinian rights activists face. Advocates for a ceasefire point to numerous factors that explain Congress’s lockstep support for Israel and near-unanimous opposition to ending the bombing, including the shock and horror that most on the Hill felt at the October 7th attacks, and the fear that dissuades many liberals from going against Israel-advocacy groups such as AIPAC. Some emphasized that Congress’s skepticism of a ceasefire has been reinforced by the Biden administration’s entrenched opposition. “The Biden administration is trying to prevent its own party from moving to a position of a ceasefire,” said Beth Miller, the political director of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace Action. “As long as that is the message Biden is putting out publicly and sending to Democrats in Congress, there’s going to be a wall that most Democrats won’t break.”
A coalition of Palestinian rights groups have sent numerous staffers to Capitol Hill to lobby elected officials to buck the administration, but have been met with refusals and concerns. “In the House, we’re getting people saying that it’s too soon to ask for a ceasefire,” said Ayah Ziyadeh, advocacy director at American Muslims for Palestine. Hill staffers say that many members of Congress see calls for a ceasefire as incompatible with their condemnation of the October 7th attacks. “What I’ve been hearing a lot from the Democratic caucus is, ‘How could we support a ceasefire and not neutralize Hamas? With a ceasefire, they would just regroup and continue carrying out terrorist attacks on Israel,’” said a Congressional Democratic aide who requested anonymity to protect their job. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby reinforced the idea that a ceasefire helps Hamas on October 24th, adding that “war” is “ugly and it’s going to be messy, and innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward.” Many experts, however, say Hamas cannot be defeated militarily, because many Palestinians will continue to support armed resistance to Israeli rule as long as Israel denies them equal rights and subjects them to siege and occupation. “This isn’t just an organization. It is also an ideology, and that ideology isn’t going to go anywhere,” Tareq Baconi, author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, told The New York Times.
The prevailing Democratic position on the Israeli assault is of a piece with Biden’s own longstanding approach to Israel: A self-proclaimed Zionist, he has cultivated close ties with Israeli leaders and avoided public fights with the Jewish state that he believes could exact domestic political costs. That fear of electoral backlash from Israel’s defenders in the US is a factor in many Democrats’ continued support for the Israeli military campaign. Usamah Andrabi, communications director for Justice Democrats, a group that supports progressive Democratic candidates, said that looming large in at least some Democrats’ thinking is the threat of political pressure from groups like AIPAC, which in 2022 spent millions of dollars to defeat progressives who expressed concern over Israeli human rights abuses. This year, according to a Jewish Insider report, AIPAC is supporting challenges to some Democrats who have critiqued Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Ilhan Omar, both of whom are calling for a ceasefire. “The entire Democratic caucus sees that and they are terrified about the wrath of multimillion dollar negative attack ads,” said Andrabi. “The AIPACs of the world are browbeating the majority of Democrats into supporting war crimes because they are afraid of losing their seats.”
A handful of members of Congress have strayed from AIPAC’s line by supporting a ceasefire while also refusing to sign onto the “Squad”-aligned resolution. A progressive operative who requested anonymity to protect relationships with members of Congress said that in McCollum’s and Escobar’s case, this decision partly reflects a desire not to affiliate with some members of the Squad, while in McGovern’s case, it shows a preference not to buck Democratic leadership. All three offices pushed back on the operative’s analysis and directed Jewish Currents to their own statements calling for a ceasefire. McGovern’s office said his “call for a ceasefire is unambiguous and speaks for itself,” while McCollum’s office said the “language of the ceasefire resolution wasn’t strong enough in demanding all involved parties immediately stop the violence.” Escobar’s office said speculation that her refusal to sign the ceasefire resolution signaled an unwillingness to work with members of the Squad was “categorically false,” and added: “The Israel–Hamas war is changing by the hour, and it is the Congresswoman’s prerogative to issue statements and more nimbly respond to the quickly-evolving situation in the region.”
The most formidable counterweight to AIPAC and its massive campaign spending has historically been J Street, the liberal Jewish lobby group that supports the US–Israel alliance but demands an end to Israel’s military occupation. J Street’s lobbying, campaign fundraising efforts, and trips for elected officials to the occupied West Bank have sometimes encouraged more members of Congress to critique Israel’s occupation. (Bowman even credited J Street with helping him arrive at a position to the left of the organization: After he went on a J Street trip to the occupied West Bank, he reversed his support for a J Street-backed bill bolstering Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab states.) But in the wake of the October 7th attacks, J Street has not called for a ceasefire, and has instead backed the Biden administration’s approach, calling on its endorsees in Congress to support the House resolution passed on October 25th that supports Israel unequivocally. On October 26th, J Street said it supported calls for “humanitarian pauses in the fighting” to deliver food, water, and medical supplies—but ceasefire proponents have called such measures grossly insufficient, saying that only a full halt to the bombing will save lives and prevent further escalation in the region.
Hill staff say that J Street’s stance has played an important part in marginalizing advocacy for a ceasefire. “J Street is influencing a lot of Democrats, and that’s a reason why more folks have not called for a ceasefire,” said a second Congressional Democratic aide, who also requested anonymity to protect their employment. A third Democratic aide agreed: “They have played a role in providing cover. They were the bridge from AIPAC to balanced critique of Israel,” the aide said. “But what has happened over the last year is that Israel’s conduct has gotten worse and worse, and they don’t have a solution or strategy for when Israel does everything they don’t want it to do.” In response to a request for comment from Jewish Currents, Logan Bayroff, J Street’s vice president of communications, said: “J Street is staking out a nuanced and principled position that the large majority of Congressional Democrats and Jewish Americans can embrace—supportive of Israel and its right to defend itself from Hamas under international law, and demanding action to address the humanitarian crisis Israeli actions are causing in Gaza. J Street’s support of humanitarian pauses and calls for urgent humanitarian assistance are being echoed widely in the caucus.”
Some advocates say that they have detected a slight shift in the Democratic reaction to the crisis as the Palestinian civilian death toll mounts and the humanitarian situation reaches catastrophic levels, with Israel’s siege of Gaza leading to a lack of food, medicine, and clean water. “The ground has shifted quite dramatically,” said Ted Fertik, a strategist at the Working Families Party, which supports progressive candidates. “We may see growing numbers of members of Congress calling for a ceasefire as the humanitarian situation worsens.” Indeed, a US official told Reuters that “the administration had not expected Palestinian casualties to mount as fast as they have” or for “the humanitarian situation to deteriorate so rapidly.” The mounting demand for “humanitarian pauses” reflects this shift: On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made that call for the first time; the request was echoed by Sanders later in the day, and then by J Street. Meanwhile, Biden administration officials have anonymously expressed concerns in The New York Times that Israel lacks achievable military objectives for a ground invasion in Gaza. “The administration is probably starting to hear not just from people in the US, but from people in the region that this has to stop,” said Yousef Munayyer, head of the Palestine/Israel program at the Arab Center Washington DC. “The administration probably knew all along that it was going to have to end in the direction of a ceasefire precisely because there is no military solution to this.”
But even if a growing number of Democrats decide to heed progressive demands, it won’t stop the majority of Congress from agreeing to the Biden administration’s request to send Israel an additional $14 billion in aid, most of which will go toward weapons, said Jewish Voice for Peace’s Miller. While Miller anticipates that a group of progressive lawmakers will vote “no” to Biden’s military aid package, she concedes that “most members of Congress will be voting to send the Israeli government weapons, even though Israeli government officials are openly stating their intent to use those weapons to commit more crimes.”
Some advocates say that such a vote would be a further demonstration of how out of touch Democratic members Congress are with their base. Recent public opinion polling strengthens progressives’ case, with 66% of all Americans—and 80% of Democrats—telling Data for Progress that they support a ceasefire, and 53% of Democrats telling CBS News pollsters that they oppose the US sending more weapons to Israel. “We know that Democratic Party leadership and Congress don’t have a problem being out of step with their base on this issue,” Miller told Jewish Currents. Andrabi, the spokesperson for Justice Democrats, predicted that the gap between Democratic voters and their politicians will have electoral consequences. “Democratic voters,” he said, “will not forget that when they had the choice, their representatives chose to spend their taxpayer dollars on another endless war instead of investing in communities at home.”