WASHINGTON ― A pair of Republican lawmakers launched a caucus on Thursday aimed at ensuring the “victory of Israel in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” The legislators seek to replace peace talks with a policy that could be seen as greenlighting Israeli aggression towards Palestinians.
“Israel Victory Caucus” co-chairs Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) are partnering with Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has described Pipes as an “anti-Muslim activist.”
In various writings over the years, Pipes has encouraged law enforcement to profile Muslims; called for the banning of burqas and niqabs, coverings worn by some religious Muslim women; argued that Obama was “born and raised a Muslim,” and opposed the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, warning that “this initiative carries the unmistakable odor of Islamic triumphalism” and was lead by “unsavory Islamists.”
Pipes has also blogged for the Center for Security Policy, a group headed by fellow anti-Islam extremist Frank Gaffney, who was seated in the audience on Thursday.
The presence of figures like Pipes and Gaffney on Capitol Hill highlights the increasing role that far-right figures playing in the policy world under President Donald Trump. The speakers on Thursday’s panel praised the president’s campaign promise to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but their recommendation to abandon efforts to reach a peace deal between the two parties goes far beyond any policy statement by the Trump administration.
DeSantis, Johnson, and Pipes made no mention of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, now reaching its 50th year. They described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the result of Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. (Palestinian leadership has vocalized acceptance of Israel’s right to exist at various times over the years and it is widely accepted that this type of recognition would be included in any two-state solution.)
The definition of Israeli victory and how it should be achieved, according to the caucus, was vague. “Victory means imposing your will on your enemy so he no longer wants to continue to fight,” Pipes said. “What I want the U.S. government to do is say, ‘Israel, do what you need to do to win your war.’”
“Victory means imposing your will on your enemy so he no longer wants to continue to fight.”
This scenario, according to Pipes, would benefit the Palestinians, much in the way Germany benefited from the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. “They became a normal country. Well, Palestinians need to become a normal people and this is the way to do it,” he added.
When a pair of protesters from the anti-war group CodePink entered the room, Middle East Forum Director Gregg Roman ordered them out before they could speak. They squeezed in a few calls for justice for Palestinians as they were escorted out, but were partially drowned out by an audience member who yelled, “Terrorist supporters out!”
Throughout Thursday’s launch event, members of the Israel Victory Caucus invoked religious references to explain their policy in the region. DeSantis talked about the “shared Judeo-Christian” values between the U.S. and Israel. “I don’t know who man thinks we are to refute the deed that God put in place, but I can tell you I believe that Israel’s homeland is the land that God set aside for her,” Johnson said.
“I don’t know who man thinks we are to refute the deed that God put in place, but I can tell you I believe that Israel’s homeland is the land that God set aside for her.”
Neither lawmaker discussed the territorial boundaries they believe would constitute an Israeli victory ― but Johnson appears to view areas in the occupied Palestinian territories as part of the land God “set aside for Israel.” Recalling his first trip to Israel, Johnson said the hair on the back of his neck stood up when he zip lined over the Hebron Valley and realized he was traveling the same path as the biblical figures Abraham and Isaac.
Today Hebron is a Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank with a significant population of Israeli settlers. It is a flashpoint for violence between the two parties and human rights groups have documented Israeli authorities’ failure to hold settlers responsible for attacks on Palestinians.
DeSantis and Johnson’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which run counter to decades of Republican support for negotiated peace for a two-state solution, do not appear to be attracting widespread support. Only three other House Republicans ― Reps. Keith Rothfus (Pa.), Alex Mooney (W.V.), Doug Lamborn (Colo.) ― appeared at the launch event on Thursday. Asked for a full list of caucus members, a DeSantis spokeswoman said she could only confirm her boss and Johnson as co-chairs.
Dylan Williams, the vice president of government affairs at J Street, a left-leaning pro-Israel group, warned against dismissing what he described as a “small fringe of the Republican party.”
“They are small, but increasingly influential ― and we saw their impact when all mention of two states was removed from the GOP platform last summer,” Williams said in a statement.