WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md), a pro-Israel stalwart in the Democratic Party, lashed out at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a J Street conference, breaking with a party tradition of avoiding confrontations with Israel’s leaders.
In his speech on Monday, Cardin stood by his bill, which would criminalize some forms of boycotting Israel. The liberal Jewish Middle East policy group opposes the bill on free speech grounds. He also extolled the closeness of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The most rapturous cheers that day were reserved for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) who was — as has been his custom — sharply critical of Netanyahu.
But Cardin’s remarks about the Israeli premier were more unexpected. Cardin noted that he had opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — a key policy win for J Street and its allies — but nonetheless criticized Netanyahu for using Congress as a platform to speak out against it.
“When the prime minister accepted an invitation to address the joint session of Congress, creating a partisan division in our own country, we speak out against that decision,” Cardin said. Democrats saw Netanyahu’s March 3, 2015 speech, coordinated solely with Republicans, as an unseemly attack on then-President Barack Obama and Democrats.
Cardin also compared Netanyahu’s plan to deport African asylum seekers to President Donald Trump’s policies, which severely restrict refugees arriving from some Muslim majority countries. He also noted Trump’s failure unequivocally to condemn white supremacists who marched in demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. In each case, he said his objections arose from “a responsibility to speak out against the policies of Israel or the United States that are not consistent with our Jewish and Democratic values.”
“We speak out!” he said, in a call and response that earned applause.
Cardin said he still was open to modifying his bill targeting the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, but defended it as a necessary means of countering pressure on companies to boycott Israel. He also defended the bill’s inclusion of boycotts targeting Israeli settlements. That policy is very unpopular at J Street, which opposes BDS overall, but does not oppose settlement boycotts.
In his speech, Sanders harshly criticized Israel’s recent actions on the Gaza Strip border, where 30 Palestinian protesters were killed and hundreds were wounded in clashes with Israeli soldiers.
“Though the overwhelming majority of these protesters were nonviolent, we know that some of them were not, and when Israeli soldiers are in danger we can all agree that they have a right to defend themselves,” Sanders said. “I don’t think that any objective person can disagree that Israel has massively overreacted to these demonstrations.”
Sanders and Cardin both are Jewish, and so is Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who called for more openness among Democrats to different expressions of being pro-Israel. He said his views on Israel, emphasizing a two-state outcome, should be considered centrist, but “In Congress I am at the left edge, and that cannot hold.”
Husam Zomlot, the Palestine Liberation Organization envoy to Washington, received a warm welcome. He noted that of the three parties to efforts to renew Israeli-Palestinian talks, only the Palestinian negotiators still were committed to two states, while the Trump and Netanyahu governments had retreated from endorsing that outcome. He especially denounced Trump for his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Jerusalem is the key to peace,” Zomlot said. The recognition “did not do justice to the history of Jerusalem.”
Addressing that history, Zomlot said that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived in the city for “millennia.” That was unusual coming from a Palestinian official; generally such representatives refrain from noting Jewish connections to the city. A Palestinian capital in the city alongside a Jewish one, Zomlot said, “will not only recognize the Jewish connection to Jerusalem but will celebrate the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.”
Zomlot earned loud applause, which Merav Michaeli, the Zionist Union Knesset member who spoke after him and Schatz, noted. She chided the audience for being more enthusiastic in cheering Palestinians than Israelis.
“Frankly it hurt me when I did not hear you applauding the last speaker,” she said, referring to Schatz “when he said he believes in the state of Israel and its right to exist.”
That earned her a round of applause.
Later she tweeted, “@jstreetdotorg is SO pro Israel that sometimes people take it for granted, it was a pleasure hearing the wonderful audience in #JStreet10 applauding Israel and peace for two states.”
JTA Wire Service