Can a Conservative Movement for Palestine Emerge?


Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) moves through Statuary Hall after talking to reporters about switching his support for Speaker of the House to Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) during the fourth day of elections at the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan.6, 2023 in Washington, DC. He has called for a debate on U.S. aid to Ukraine. (TASOS KATOPODIS/GETTY IMAGES).

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2023, pp. 29-30

Special Report
By Dale Sprusansky

THE DRAMA SURROUNDING Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) election as Speaker of the House showcased the many ways the conservative movement has evolved (or fractured) over the past decade. While conservative rabble-rousers in Congress, many of them members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, largely cited domestic policy concerns in their objections to McCarthy’s nomination, foreign policy issues were also raised. In his remarks during the nomination process, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) cited McCarthy’s support for seemingly unlimited financial assistance to Ukraine as a blemish on his resume. “We should debate the merits [of funding Ukraine],” he told his colleagues. “We should debate the ups and downs of being involved. We should debate the $45 billion [in U.S. aid].” 

Once known as the “war party” in the years following 9/11, a noticeable number of Republicans are now anti-war proponents. Unlike their pacifist-minded colleagues on the left, these anti-war Republicans are more concerned about the practical fiscal implications of unlimited wars than idealistic notions of peace and justice. Nonetheless, they comprise an important component of the growing bipartisan anti-war movement.

Amid these changing conservative foreign policy tides, views toward Israel remain unchanged. Why is not even one congressional Republican adamantly questioning billions in annual aid to Israel, a country that is more than capable of meeting its own needs? 

Yes, a certain percentage of “Bible Belt” Republicans are likely restricted by the Christian Zionist beliefs of their constituents. Others likely view Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a key cog in the global right-wing movement, given his close relationship with the likes of former President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. However, a good percentage of Republicans come from districts where voters have no strong proclivity toward either Palestine or Israel. Even if they do, such voters are likely to place “America First” concerns such as the national debt ahead of support for a foreign country. (Polls show that even the vast majority of ardent Jewish and Christian Zionists place Israel low on their list of concerns when they cast ballots.)

It thus stands to reason that there should be a pocket of criticism or at least debate regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship within the Republican congressional delegation. Aside from libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), however, no Republican member of Congress has taken a critical position toward Israel—be it regarding human rights, budget worries, or freedom of speech concerns stemming from bills targeting the right of U.S. activists to boycott Israeli goods. Surely the protection of life, speech and national resources are not far from the purported conservative agenda. So why is there an Israel exception?

It seems the power of the Israel lobby is the only sufficient explanation for the dearth of Republicans voicing concern about U.S. policy toward Israel (just as it explains overwhelming support for the country among Democrats). Indeed, with the far-left’s recent evolution toward criticizing Israel, it appears Republicans now see extra value in boasting of their unwavering support for Israel. Doing so allows them to attract niche interest voters away from Democrats, and more critically, to solidify the financial support of the pro-Israel political action committees (PACs) who fund their campaigns. Even though the bulk of their constituents don’t spare a daily thought about Israel, it’s unlikely Republicans are about to walk away from the opportunity to “own” the issue of Israel by stripping it of its bipartisan status. It turns out all politics is not local, but it is largely based on cynicism. 

Considering this reality, should advocates for Palestine be courting conservatives—both those in elected office and those in the grassroots—or is that a futile task? Should reaching out to the left be the sole focus? At the 2019 Israel lobby conference hosted by this publication and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep) in Washington, DC, I asked Brad Parker of Defense for Children International (DCI)-Palestine if his organization was doing any outreach to Republican House offices as part of its effort to gain sponsors for legislation protecting Palestinian children from Israeli violence. While he said some conversations did take place (none of which resulted in a Republican cosigning the legislation), he made it clear Democrats were the focus of his group’s efforts. (Courting Democrats outside of the two dozen or so progressives who regularly stand up for Palestine is likely hard enough work.)

While organizations such as DCI-Palestine, with limited financial capabilities compared to pro-Israel groups, are understandably disinclined to burn resources searching for an elected Republican to flip on the issue of Israel, it seems someone ought to take up the task of engaging the right on this issue. It may serve Republicans for Israel to become a partisan issue, but it does not serve Palestine. No human rights movement should be content aiming for just one segment of the population to support their cause. Even if the entire Democratic Party suddenly became supportive of Palestine overnight, that means the U.S. would fund and support Israel when Republicans are in power and then Democrats would have to tediously undo that support upon regaining control. Is the goal for the cause to become another Iran deal, prone to the fickle machinations of the two-party system?

For previously listed reasons (mostly money), it is indeed unlikely Washington Republicans will respond to any pressure from organized groups advocating for Palestine. Any change of pace within the party requires a grassroots movement. Democratic politicians themselves have only begun to reconsider their position on Israel due to grassroots pressure (proving that political contributions can’t always outbid the power of the voters). Groups like DCI-Palestine can only reinforce what politicians have first heard from their constituents. This means local groups advocating for Palestine must find some bridge to the grassroots conservative heart and mind, so that they no longer (often passively) sign-off on unquestioned support for Israel.

Does this sound impossible? It’s not without precedent. It wasn’t long ago that individuals such as the late Rep. Paul Findley (R-IL) weren’t afraid to loudly question Israel. In fact, before 9/11, plenty of Muslim- and Arab-Americans identified themselves with the Republican Party and were relatively free to voice concerns about Israel. Republican Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush all in some way refused to mindlessly toe the pro-Israel line. Today, there are still some conservative thinkers (as rare as they may be) at outlets such as The American Conservative who are willing to challenge Israel. Growing conservative opposition to endless wars provides further evidence that foreign policy prudence is not outside the ethos of conservatives. Despite the proliferation of Christian Zionism, even many devout Christian conservatives are open to human rights arguments in favor of Palestine. At the 2019 conference, Brad Parker remarked that churches were his group’s best tool in approaching conservative lawmakers.

Indeed, in my casual conversations with conservative (mostly Catholic) Christians, many are receptive to not just the fiscal arguments against aiding Israel, but also the moral concerns regarding the country’s treatment of Palestinians. I even have one conservative friend who despises Israel’s human rights record and dreams of representing his home state of North Carolina in Congress so that he can raise hell within the Republican Party by supporting Palestine! While some on the right have reservations about the pro-Israel consensus, they often don’t have the space to articulate these concerns, as they don’t share a common parlance with the left-wing critics of Israel, and the official Republican Party offers no validation of their views.

For all the talk about intersectionality on the left, perhaps it’s time to take on the greatest intersectional challenge yet: engaging right-wing critics of Israel, even if they are not natural allies and do not adhere fully to the left-wing “canon.” Maybe it’s even time to engage others (on the left and right alike) who are skeptical of the Palestinian position, helping them connect the intellectual and moral dots. No righteous cause ought to hide behind barriers or be stifled due to the assumed indifference or hostility of others. 

Perhaps with a little work, we are not far off from a future where some conservatives will phone their members of Congress to challenge them about Israel, where pundits like Tucker Carlson (regardless of one’s views about him) rail against unquestioning support for Israel, where one Republican member of Congress finds the moral or political conviction to be the rogue member of his caucus who criticizes Israel. Maybe the recent shifts in the Republican Party signal that the time is ripe for a conservative pro-Palestine movement to materialize.

Dale Sprusansky is managing editor of the Washington Report.


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