At the end of June, Congressman Eliot Engel lost the Democratic Primary in New York. Engel is a central figure in the Democratic Party, as well as the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of Representatives. He lost to Jamaal Bowman, a public school principal and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (the DSA). He is thirty years younger than Engel. The result of these elections represents not only a changing of the guards, but also significant changes within the Democratic Party. Engel was supported by the old-guard Democratic establishment, including Hillary Clinton, Andre Cuomo, Nancy Pelosi, and others. In contrast, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and AOC, supported Bowman. Engel represents the central branch of the party, while Bowman’s platform is similar to that of Sander’s and the rest of progressive branch of the party on subjects such as health care for all, the “New Green Deal”, and racial justice, etc.
Sanders lost the Democratic Primary in 2016 and 2020. Both times the party establishment and the mainstream media opposed him. They were supported by Wall Street and big donors, who were recruited to prevent the danger of the trademark social-economic domestic policy he presented: providing health care for all, raising minimum wage, canceling student debt, as well as other measures that would lead to the redistribution of wealth in the United States. Equally as important, although much less discussed, was the challenge that Sanders represented to the Washington establishment in terms of his foreign policy– and this is also the challenge that those who follow in his footsteps within the Democratic Party, such as Bowman, present.
Ever since he lost to Clinton in 2016, Sanders has set himself up to be a serious candidate – both in regards to domestic matters, as well as foreign and security issues. Sanders appointed Matt Duss as his foreign policy advisor and began to deal with international issues, integrating them into his political platform. He emphasized the importance of global human rights, the need for joint political action on climate change, and framed the high American security budget as a question of domestic social priorities and not only a question of the United States’ place in the world order. In Congress, he lead the fight to rescind American support of Saudi Arabia during the civil war in Yemen, a process that was successful and was blocked only due to President Trump’s veto. He also created an international network of political partners and built a global left-wing block that could stand against the capitalist and even authoritarian right-wing block comprised of figures such as Trump, Bolsanaro, Urban, Putin, Netanyahu, and others.
The Palestinian Question
In terms of Israel and Palestine, Sanders took a more moderate approach internationally speaking, but one that stood out on the American stage: he spoke about the Palestinians as a people with equal rights who must be taken into account ; he called into questioned American security backing for Israel, and even nurtured a relationship with the leader of the Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh, sending a video of support to protesters against Trump’s “Deal of the Century”, and the unilateral annexation plan being advanced by the Israeli government.
As Bowman’s victory shows us, inspired by Sanders, a new political camp is growing within the Democratic Party. It is clear that the leaders of the camp have been drawing the same conclusions as regards to domestic and foreign policy, and are challenging not only the Republicans, but also the center bloc of the Democratic party. For instance, in February of this year, Senator Ilhan Omar (who came to the United States as a Muslin refugee, and is the first refugee to have been elected to Congress) presented a seven-part legislative package called Pathway to PEACE. Among the suggested laws are that the United States join the International Court of Law, the establishment of a fund to promote peace financed with money transferred from the Pentagon, making it illegal to sell weapons to countries that do not uphold human rights, and giving Congress the ability to regulate the imposition of economic sanctions on other countries. Accepting any one of these laws would be a significant change in policy relative to both Republican and Democratic governments over the last few decades.
Bowman’s case illustrates the central position of the Palestinian issue during these elections. Supporting Engel, a member of the Jewish community, were AIPAC and other lobbies connected to the organization in terms of public support and funding. Supporting Bowman, who is Black, were Jewish organizations that deal with social justice and the fight against the occupation, such as JFREJ and IfNotNow. Engel represents a hawkish pro-Israel position, and expresses very few doubts regarding the relationship between Israel and the US, while Bowman announced that Palestinian human rights must be preserved and that American military support of Israel must be tied to maintaining those rights.
These changes in the character of the Democratic Party have deep roots, but it is clear that events of the last few years have made the party ripe for these changes to occur. The widening gap between the two parties over the course of Trump’s presidency, Netanyahu’s controversial moves regarding the nuclear deal with Iran, and the strengthening of left-wing Palestinian and Jewish American organizations among the party’s supporters all should be noted. In addition, indications of the changing trends within the party can be seen in the fact that politicians such as Warren and Sanders and Buttigieg and Klobuchar boycotted AIPAC’s conference. They can also be seen in the open opposition of many Democrats to Trump’s “Deal of the Century”, as well as the support among of many members of Congress, including a good number of Democrats, for making American foreign aid conditional upon Israel following international law in regards to the Palestinians. Whether it comes to pass in the end, or not, the very fact of Netanyahu’s annexation plan is expected to reinforce these changes within the Democratic party, and might threaten the unconditional American support of Israel in everything regarding its policies towards the Palestinians already in the near future.