“Who’s Afraid of Bibi?”

“Who’s Afraid of Bibi?” The Root, 15 June 2009.

Rep. Donna Edwards and American progressives face down the Israeli Right.

57683100Before Rep. Donna Edwards, of Maryland’s Fourth Congressional district, traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first time in May, she hadn’t thought much about minorities in the Jewish state: “As an African-American woman, I really didn’t have a perception of a significant minority population in Israel, and there is,” she told the Washington Jewish Week, adding that minority rights in Israel are “a work in progress.”

Since returning, she has inflamed some tempers in Washington and in her district, which straddles Montgomery and Prince George’s County, by wading into the debate over Israeli settlements that extend into the West Bank: “Settlements really get in the way of a lasting peace,” she said.

Some members of the Jewish community in her district attacked her for the remark,  which is at odds with the pro-settlement stance of  Israel’s newly elected conservative Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—reinforced in a recent policy speech. Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told Politico that his organization’s  relationship with Edwards “got off to a rocky start,” and that there was “concern” over her record on issues regarding Israel. “It has really raised eyebrows in the Jewish community,” he said.

Edwards defended her position in an exclusive interview with The Root. Her visit to the Middle East, she maintains, “clarified for me that continued settlement growth and expansion is really an impediment to long-term peace and security in the region.”

Edwards’ articulated stance is in line with the policy that President Barack Obama outlined in his early June speech in Cairo, Egypt. But the bad blood with the Jewish right had been brewing since January, when Edwards, along with 21 other representatives, voted “present” on a nonbinding resolution that backed Israel’s right to defend itself, and condemned Hamas, the extremist political party that has been engaged in a violent struggle with Israel in Gaza for years. It has also fueled rumors that Edwards might face a primary challenge from another black politician with a more conservative stance on Israel.

“I’m not sure how much of the criticism is coming from my district so much as it’s coming from national pro-Israel leadership,” Edwards says.  Jews make up about 15 percent of her constituents. But the cosmopolitan, heavily Democratic, majority-black district also houses a significant Muslim-American community and is among the wealthiest African-American populations in the nation. And Edwards isn’t worried about alienating these voters. “I feel like I very much represent the sentiments of people in my district, who agree with President Obama that the United States needs to play an active and engaged role, and we have to have a much more moderate approach.”

Middle East policy has been a signal priority of the Obama administration, which has made no secret of its aggressive pursuit of a two-state solution in the holy land. But, even as the geopolitics of the region—and U.S. relations with Israel, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other parties—evolve, the Edwards flap, and her measured response to it, illustrate the new dynamics in play on the American political left. In part because of the new tone the president has set on the Israel-Palestine debate, progressives are no longer easily rattled by threats from the Jewish right.

Keith Ellison, the only Muslim member of Congress, who visited the Holy Land at the same time as Edwards, says he shares Edwards’ views, and that the whole country, especially diverse, well-educated districts like Edwards’ and his own, cares deeply about foreign policy and the Israel-Palestine conflict in particular. “Foreign affairs is important for people in this post-9/11 world. People have a sense that what happens abroad matters to us,” he says.

The images of young protesters and police clashing on the streets of Iranian cities after the nation’s widely disputed presidential election last week only underscores the relative urgency of informed, progressive leadership on issues such as democracy in the Middle East and international nuclear security.

Edwards explained the controversial January vote as a protest of sorts against unnecessary political posturing, indicating her belief that multilateral partnerships could better address these conflicts. “It was really just the wrong time for something like that, when the United Nations had already acted,” she said. “Frankly, I think that the last thing that we need is the U.S. Congress directing the day to day of foreign policy.”

Edwards also points to a 150-person town-hall meeting, held the same week as the present vote, and featuring experts on Israel-Palestine, as evidence that she is engaging the entire district. “I invited an Israeli human rights organization and another nonprofit group that was doing humanitarian work on the ground in Gaza,” she says. “We had a really interesting discussion, and I think I received really positive feedback from that.”

The town hall, however, only made things worse in the eyes of more conservative Jews in Edwards’ district, who say they would like to see her challenged by a black candidate more sympathetic to Israel in her district’s 2010 primary.  State Delegate Herman Taylor has been floated as a potential challenger, and some see parallels with the 2002 primary losses of two black Democrats—Earl Hilliard of Alabama and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia.  Both were accused of being anti-Israel, and McKinney vocally blamed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, for her loss.

But just as President Obama is sending a new signal to the Middle East with his assertion, in Cairo, that “we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs,” a similar change in the domestic political calculus may mean that same forces that bounced Hilliard and McKinney might not apply. This is particularly true for Edwards, who took office last summer after soundly defeating the AIPAC-friendly incumbent Al Wynn. She rode into office on the backs of progressive organizations such as Blue America PAC and Web sites such as OpenLeft, which endorsed and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for her.  And the same lefty, Web-roots forces that helped elect Obama are now pushing back on her behalf.

J Street, the liberal think tank that promotes a “pro-peace, pro-Israel” agenda, and endorsed Edwards in her 2008 primary, rushed to her defense with an e-mail to supporters when the first reports of the challenge emerged. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s president, wrote to J Street’s mostly Jewish base: “This is exactly how—for decades—established pro-Israel groups have enforced right-wing message discipline on Israel in Congress. They intimidate Members of Congress, particularly junior ones, and threaten to fund a challenge. But not this time—and not to our friend Donna Edwards.”

In the first four hours after the e-mail went out, J Street raised $15,000 from 270 contributors, and as of this writing, had collected $30,000 from around 600 contributors, many of whom came from the Maryland area, a spokesperson for J Street told The Root.

“We decided we’re not going to let them get away with it this time,” she said.

Edwards said she had been in touch with J Street regarding their support, and maintains good relationships with J Street and many liberal nonprofits for both fundraising and expertise on issues from Israel to Iran and beyond.

And she is still sure that she has made the right call on Middle East peace: “Across the board and throughout the region, they want security; they don’t want to live in violence anymore, and they are looking at the United States’ leadership as an active partner to provide peace.”

Dayo Olopade

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