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‘Squad’ members face Democratic primary challenges over Israel stances

St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell announced this week he was dropping his months-long bid to unseat one of the country’s most outspoken Republican senators, Josh Hawley, to launch a primary campaign to oust fellow Democrat Rep. Cori Bush.

When asked to explain his switch, Bell pointed to Bush’s criticism of Israel.

“Our world is in a dangerous place, and we need steady and effective leadership,” Bell told reporters Monday. “And we’re not getting it” in the district.

“I think we have to stand with our allies, and Israel has always been an ally,” Bell added.

Since entering Congress in 2021, Bush has publicly spoken about what she has described as the “outright massacre in Palestine” and argued that “the Black and Palestinian struggles for liberation are interconnected.” On Oct. 7, the night Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded with airstrikes, Bush wrote on social media to condemn the killing of civilians and called for “ending U.S. government support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid.”

Before setting his sights on Bush, Bell had unseated an incumbent to become a county prosecutor in 2018. Now, five years later, he is joining a growing cadre of people looking to issue primary challenges to liberal Democrats — several of whom are members of the House Democrats’ left flank, known as “the Squad” — who criticized the Israeli government over its policies toward Palestinians.

Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Summer L. Lee (D-Pa.) also drew primary challengers who cite their criticism of Israel as an issue. George Latimer, the executive of Westchester County, N.Y., said he is weighing a challenge to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), another member of the Squad, with Israel as a potentially defining issue in the race. “It might be that this becomes a proxy argument” between “the left and the far left,” Latimer told The Washington Post.

Support for Israel by the United States is a source of growing tension within the Democratic Party. While party leaders and establishment figures have largely been united in support of the 75-year-old democratic nation, the liberal wing of the party has grown louder in challenging the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee — which has helped fund challenges to incumbents it considers insufficiently supportive of Israel — declined, for now, to comment on the brewing congressional races. “There will be a time for political action,” Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for group, said in a statement Tuesday, “but right now our priority is building and sustaining congressional support for Israel’s fight to permanently dismantle Hamas, which perpetrated this barbaric, terrorist attack on the Jewish state.”

Liberal political action committee Justice Democrats said AIPAC is targeting Democrats who criticize Israel and who also challenge economic policies that hurt poor and middle-class people. “What they really are is a vehicle for Republican dollars to be spent in Democratic primaries to elect Republican-adjacent Democrats,” Usamah Andrabi, spokesperson for the PAC, said in an interview Tuesday.

Wittmann disputed the characterization from Justice Democrats, saying in a statement, “Our sole criteria for supporting candidates — both Democrats and Republicans — is their position on supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship. In fact, our PAC has supported almost half of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It is entirely consistent with progressive values to stand with the Jewish state.”

During Omar’s first term, she wrote in a 2019 social media post that Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle, playing into historical stereotypes about wealthy Jews. House Democratic leaders publicly rebuked Omar’s comments, to which Omar responded with a statement that said, “I unequivocally apologize.” Then, in June 2021, Omar wrote on social media: “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan and the Taliban.” After Democrats and others criticized her remarks, Omar said she was “in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”

Shortly after Republicans took the House majority in 2023, they voted to remove Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee — with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was House speaker at the time, saying Omar made “repeated antisemitic and anti-American remarks.”

Last week Omar said the United States should “fully oppose” the expected Israeli ground invasion into Gaza, citing concerns about civilian deaths and broadening the conflict globally. Omar is now facing two challengers in the Democratic primary. One of those challengers, Air Force veteran Tim Peterson, criticized Omar’s comments on Israel and said in an interview with The Post, “This isn’t the first, or last time, Ilhan will parrot Iran’s talking points.” A spokeswoman for the other Democratic challenger in the race, attorney Sarah Gad, pointed to Gad’s previous comments accusing Omar of using “divisive rhetoric” that “serves no useful purpose other than to inflame the situation.”

Omar’s campaign did not respond to requests seeking comment on her challengers.

A local lawmaker in Western Pennsylvania, Bhavini Patel, announced early last month that she would challenge Lee in the Democratic primary. Days after that announcement, Hamas attacked Israel. Lee, whose congressional district includes Pittsburgh, explained her opposition to the “Standing with Israel” resolution in the House, writing in a statement that the measure “does not acknowledge the overwhelming loss of life and humanity of Palestinians which moves us further from — not closer to — a just and lasting piece.”

Patel said in a Monday interview that she would have voted for the resolution. “Our current representative has been voting on the fringe,” Patel said. “You have an obligation to be there for your community, when they’re suffering, to understand their pain and reflect that when you vote,” she said, noting that the district includes the Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman killed 11 people in 2018. (Lee noted the fifth anniversary of that attack last week, writing on social media, “I introduced a resolution honoring their memories and pledging to fight all forms of antisemitism and bigotry.”) A spokesman for Lee’s campaign declined to comment on Patel’s candidacy.

In 2022, Lee was elected to Congress despite an ad blitz in the primary by a pro-Israel super PAC. She won the primary by fewer than 1,000 votes, beating a candidate who had, among other things, called for strengthening the relationship between the United States and Israel.

Bowman was an educator who ran in a Democratic primary in 2020 to challenge the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a staunch defender of Israel. Bowman won, despite millions of dollars in ads from pro-Israel groups that supported Engel. According to a June 2020 letter by Bowman published in the Riverdale Press, the future congressman said he opposed the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement” aimed at seeking changes to Israeli policy and supported U.S. aid to the country so people there can “live in safety and peace, free from the fear of violence and terrorism from Hamas and other extremists.” He added, “I also believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same human rights, safety from violence and self-determination in a state of their own.”

In July, amid growing tensions in the region, Bowman boycotted a joint session of Congress where a top Israeli official was scheduled to speak. “From Israel to India, we must hold our allies accountable when it comes to human rights violations and the abuses of far-right governments,” Bowman wrote on social media, “which is why I will not be attending Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress tomorrow.” Last week Bowman voted against the “Standing with Israel” resolution in the House.

The Rev. Michael Gerald, a pastor in Westchester who had previously launched a primary challenge against Bowman, said he supported the Israeli government’s action in response to the attack by Hamas. “We can’t bring peace in after somebody kills my family,” Gerald told The Post in an interview. Gerald said he has paused his campaign to give Latimer time to make a decision. The attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 “changed a lot, for a lot of people,” Gerald said. He added that he considers Latimer a friend and would support him if he entered the race.

Latimer said Monday that Israel was one issue on which he could distinguish himself from the incumbent Bowman in his potential primary campaign. He said he would make a liberal case for supporting Israel but wouldn’t yet commit to running. “It might become a hot race,” he said. “If it happens.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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