The lead-up to and fall-out from John Kerry’s speech at the State Department highlighted what may be a tough new normal for Democrats: As they seek to reinvent themselves (or rediscover, depending on who you ask) in the wake of the brutal losses in November, the party faces a percolating internal tension over an issue that has vexed would-be peacemakers for decades—the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Even before Kerry took to the podium for what would be one of the longest speeches in State Department history, members of his own party were already taking aim at him. House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who has been in Congress since 1981, pre-empted his address by releasing an acerbic statement the day before. Because the U.S. didn’t veto the UN Security Council resolution regarding Israeli settlements, Hoyer said, “Israel’s enemies were strengthened.” And then he all but urged Kerry not to give his speech.
“Now, it is my understanding that Secretary Kerry, in the last few days of this Administration, intends to outline the parameters of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” Hoyer said. “This flies in the face of the United States’s longstanding position that such a formulation should be reached only through negotiations by the parties and not by the United States, the United Nations, or any other third party.
“I urge Secretary Kerry and the Administration not to set forth a formula, which will inevitably disadvantage Israel in any negotiation,” he concluded.
That didn’t stop Kerry. Obviously. The secretary of State proceeded to give a lengthy address, in which he laid out theoretical principles “to provide a possible basis for serious negotiations when the parties are ready.” Hoyer didn’t seem impressed.
“Resolutions at the U.N. or one-sided declarations that impose preconditions on the parties do not help,” he said in a statement released after Kerry’s speech.
On the Senate side, Chuck Schumer—the New Yorker and Senate Minority Leader—also lambasted Kerry.
“While he may not have intended it, I fear Secretary Kerry, in his speech and action at the UN, has emboldened extremists on both sides,” he said in his own post-speech statement.
Beyond these warring words, though, some argue there’s a deeper, and growing, rift among Democrats regarding Israel. Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads the liberal advocacy group J Street, told The Daily Beast he sees two emerging camps: One that believes the U.S. government should be a more vocal and active critic of certain Israeli government policies (including settlements—what Kerry did on Wednesday) and one that doesn’t endorse that route.
The latter group would include Schumer and Hoyer, as well as House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot Engel, all of whom opposed the Iran deal and argue that speeches like Kerry’s undermine the peace process.
Ben-Ami said he believes far more Democrats are comfortable with U.S. governmental criticism of Israeli policies than with Schumer’s view on the issue. He pointed to the growing number of settlers as particular concerns for Democrats in Congress.
“Those things make a very large portion of the Democratic caucus uneasy at this point, and I think that’s where the rift is at,” he said. “It’s not a question of supporting or not supporting Israel—it’s a question of how.”
Hoyer and Schumer, he argued, are out of touch.
“The loudest voices coming from established institutions reflect a minority view,” he said.
Jim Manley, a former staffer to Harry Reid who’s been critical of Congressional Democrats taking stances like Kerry’s, said the rift is real, and may grow.
“This issue’s not going away for Democrats,” he said, noting efforts from Bernie Sanders’s allies to put language into the party platform at the DNC that would have rebuked the Israeli government over the settlements.
“There’s still going to be plenty of folks on the left that have a strong anti-Israeli bias,” Manley added, “but most Democrats are going to continue to be strong supporters of Israel.”
Others suggested the Hill acrimony might not necessarily foreshadow intra-party ugliness. One longtime Democratic Senate staffer said he thought Schumer’s and Hoyer’s angry responses had more to do with anger about the White House’s poor communication with Congressional Democrats than with deeper policy differences. If Kerry and his team had done more to partner with Hill offices and try to get them on board with a broader strategy, he argued, then the worst of this unpleasantness might have been avoided.
Regardless, Democrats are going to have an interesting few years.