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How a Palestinian-American won a GOP primary

After Gaza violence, even Republicans are starting to sour on Israel

August 20, 2014 2:00PM ET

On Aug. 5, Rep. Justin Amash prevailed in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District Republican primary, fending off a well-financed opponent who attempted to tar the congressman as “Al-Qaeda’s best friend.” Upon clinching a decisive victory, Amash dispensed with decorum and directly ripped into those responsible for propagating the slurs.

“You owe my family and this community an apology for your disgusting, despicable smear campaign,” he informed his vanquished foe, businessman Brian Ellis.

As a Palestinian-American, Amash was uniquely vulnerable to the Qaeda line of attack. His atypical political philosophy, an idiosyncratic blend of limited government and anti-war populism, only compounded this susceptibility. Among the foremost congressional critics of the National Security Agency’s surveillance tactics, Amash has regularly maligned federal law enforcement programs purported to combat terrorism — positions easily portrayed as anti-American by cynical rivals.

“Candidates for office are entitled to run tough campaigns against me or anyone else,” Amash wrote of the race. “But we all can agree that there are lines that should not be crossed, even in politics. I propose that an ethnically tinged charge of supporting terrorists is one of those lines.”

The intensification of the Gaza conflict added pressures on Amash. Israel’s hitherto heaviest bombardment in late July coincided with the final stretch before the Michigan election. He kept mum on the subject for a while, declining media inquiries. Then on the evening of Aug. 1, with just four days left till the primary, he voted against resupplying Israel’s Iron Dome missile interception program — one of only eight members of the House to do so.

To take a position regarded as utterly toxic by the political establishment at such a crucial juncture indicates, first, that Amash’s legislative philosophy is guided by adherence to principle, making him a distinct exception in Washington. Second, because Amash is an adroit politician, he appears to recognize that defying Israel’s interests may not actually entail the fatal risk that conventional wisdom dictates.

Questioning support

Support for Israel in Congress had been so ubiquitous, bipartisan and often virulent that the House Progressive Caucus voted 58 to 2 in favor of the $225 million measure to fund Iron Dome, with six members not voting. Another of the members who voted no, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, later commented with respect to the Israeli government’s stewardship of the funds, “We could not even get the basic question[s] answered.”

Political and media elites would have roundly deemed Amash’s calculation unthinkable, even suicidal. The Israel lobby in the U.S., so the prevailing logic goes, cannot be contravened without career-ending consequences. Many political and media elites abide by the unstated expectation that one must never affirm anything but undying pro-Israel sentiment, at least in public, even if one might privately feel otherwise. Members of Congress are especially cautious when it comes to crossing the Israel lobby, represented most prominently by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for fear of devastating ramifications.

The long-accepted theory of AIPAC’s hegemonic prowess still rings true to a degree, but there are also signs that the influence of self-described pro-Israel groups is rapidly diminishing. Amash’s victory serves as one data point in a broader trend of lessening sympathy for Israel, hastened by Operation Protective Edge.

Well before the latest round of violence in Gaza, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who abstained from a 2012 vote to establish greater U.S. military ties with Israel, was also subject to a ferocious primary challenge, in his case bankrolled by entities such as Emergency Committee for Israel, a Washington, D.C., pressure group spawned by neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol. Ultimately, Jones — who would go on to join Amash in voting against Iron Dome funding — prevailed.

Amash senses that as Americans grow uncongenial to Israel’s behavior, supporting a reckless foreign government could become a real liability.

Last month 47 percent of Democrats responding to a Gallup poll said they deemed Israel’s actions in Gaza “unjustified,” while 21 percent of Republicans agreed. Opposition to the assault was highest among young people and people of color, but the data also indicate an analogous divide between Republican elites — nearly all of whom support Israel without reservation — and conservative voters, among whom there is more variation. (Amash, again, is a notable exception here.)

None of this is to say that Israel has somehow lost its status as feared power broker. Across the right-wing media-political ecosystem, fervent pro-Israel dogma goes almost entirely unchallenged, and the one-fifth of Republicans who told pollsters they disapprove of the country’s conduct would have no representation in Congress but for a few members of the House Liberty Caucus, which Amash founded. (Jones is also a member.) Notwithstanding elected officials’ unshakable near uniformity on the issue, there does seem to exist an emerging contingent within the GOP that is unrepentantly not in favor of perpetually supplying a warring client state with limitless munitions and that casts votes accordingly. This can likely be attributed to a confluence of factors, one being a genuine commitment to anti-interventionist foreign policy and another being generalized aversion to Big Government and imprudent budget expenditures.

PR push

The ongoing public opinion shift is linked at least in part, it would seem, to the wide availability of gruesome images from Gaza. But all the same, recent public relations tactics have proved a self-inflicted disaster for Israel, imperiling the country’s reputation among crucial U.S. demographics.

Over the past month, Israeli government actors have chosen to align firmly with the most fanatical elements of the Republican Party. While hostilities raged in Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an address to the annual Christians United for Israel conference in Washington, D.C. — another installment in his long-running relationship with its founder, John Hagee, the San Antonio, Texas, mega-pastor who preaches that the U.S. must defend Israel to usher in the end of days, when Jesus Christ will rule over earth from Jerusalem. (Also addressing the event: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; best-selling author and Fox News pundit Charles Krauthammer; and former CIA Director James Woolsey.)

This is not a communications strategy suited to winning over younger, nonwhite or nonconservative Americans. Cantankerous Fox News anchor and talk radio personality Sean Hannity, for instance, was granted exclusive access to one of the alleged terrorist tunnels that Israeli officials claimed Hamas fighters use to launch attacks. He posed for cheery photos with Israel Defense Forces personnel and was even captured in a discreet moment whispering something inaudible into Netanyahu’s ear. (“I wish I could reveal what I said here,” a wry Hannity later tweeted, “but I cannot.”)

Ironically enough, some members of Congress who voted in favor of the Iron Dome funding and spoke out vociferously in support of Israel, especially those representing solidly Democratic districts, may be the ones to incur significant blowback as a result of their actions during the Gaza conflict. Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Nydia Velázquez, both Democrats from Brooklyn with significant Arab and Muslim constituencies, have already elicited scorn from constituents for their hyperbolic pro-Israel rants. At a July 28 rally that I attended near the United Nations, Jeffries likened Israel’s geopolitical predicament to life on the streets of Brooklyn. “The only thing neighbors respect in a tough neighborhood is strength,” he thundered. Velázquez went so far as to suggest Israel had the right to establish a permanent military presence in the besieged territory. “Given the network of Hamas tunnels that they have constructed, Israel has legitimate security reasons for wanting to maintain its presence on the ground in Gaza after a cease-fire,” she said.

In response, Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, noted local elected officials’ lack of regard for the suffering of Palestinians.

In his victory speech, Amash gave the impression of auguring a generational shift. “I got into politics to defeat people like you,” he said of his much older, Chamber of Commerce–backed antagonist. First elected to Congress in 2010 at 30, Amash has proved adept at channeling the grievances of voters alienated from the two-party system. He perhaps senses that as young Americans grow increasingly uncongenial to Israel’s behavior, loudly supporting a reckless foreign government could ultimately become the real liability. Especially with discourse surrounding Israel so stifled, Amash’s success lends credence to the notion that disrupting the propaganda-laden status quo can, on occasion, be a political asset.

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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