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Democrats are finally willing to speak up on Israel. It's about time.

Even the most pro-Israel Democrats are more willing to call out its worst behaviors.
Photo collage: Rep. Ayanna Pressley; Rep. Ilhan Omar; Rep. Rashida Tlaib at a pro-Palestinian protest.
The time of Democrats never questioning Israel's actions is over.MSNBC; Getty Images; Reuters

On Thursday, at 7 p.m. ET, Israel and Hamas began a “mutual and simultaneous” cease-fire after 11 straight days of airstrikes and rocket attacks. In Gaza, more than 230 people were killed. In Israel, 12 people lost their lives. As of now, that fragile calm is holding.

As the dust settles, I find myself thinking of a speech Vice President Al Gore gave in May 2000, as he prepared to run for president. Gore was a guest at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy dinner, where he told the crowd a story of a meeting between Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and U.S. Ambassador Ogden Reid.

Reid arrived to find Ben-Gurion — a known yoga practitioner — standing on his head and decided to “abandon State Department protocol.” Reid stood on his head too, Gore explained, and only then did the two men begin their discussions. The punchline: ”Even if the world is turned upside down, the United States and Israel will see eye to eye … no matter what happens.”

More than two decades and four U.S. administrations later, and in the wake of the latest round of violence, I have to wonder whether Gore would say the same today.

In many ways, the latest Gaza violence was a carbon copy of the wars of 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014: the lopsided death toll; the horrific destruction of infrastructure; the global outrage and condemnation.

This time, though, there was one major difference. This time we watched as the Democratic Party, which now controls both the executive and legislative branches of the United States government, seemed to shift its position on Israel before our eyes.

Progressives, of course, have led the charge. Last week, members of “the squad” lined up on the House floor to denounce Israel’s actions in the occupied territories.

“We cannot remain silent when our government sends $3.8 billion of military aid to Israel that is used to demolish Palestinian homes, imprison Palestinian children and displace Palestinian families,” declared Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.

Nothing like this has been said by members of Congress before.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an “ethnonationalist leader,” while Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the only Palestinian American in Congress, condemned “Israel’s apartheid government.”

The next day, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., penned a blistering op-ed in The New York Times, insisting the United States “no longer be apologists for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behavior” and concluding with the words: “Palestinian lives matter.”

But it wasn’t only “the squad” or the Senate’s only self-declared socialist who took Israel to task. For the first time in my life, pro-Israel Democratic Party hawks in Congress publicly criticized the Netanyahu government’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories — mildly and tentatively, yes, but criticism, nevertheless.

Did I ever imagine Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. — chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a lawmaker who received the Menachem Begin Award for Political Courage from the American Friends of Likud in 2014 — would say he was “deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets”? That he would insist “there must be a full accounting of actions that have led to civilian deaths and destruction of media outlets”?

Or that Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. — chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, who stood next to Netanyahu in 2014 and told him, “You are our friend as we are your friend, and we will stand together” and that Israel is “our only true friend in the Middle East” — would threaten to send a letter to the Biden administration requesting a delay on a $735 million arms sale to Israel?

Could I have ever have conceived of Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. — who condemned the Obama administration in 2016 for refusing to vote against a United Nations Security Council resolution decrying Israeli settlements as illegal — leading 12 Jewish House Democrats in writing a letter to President Joe Biden saying Palestinians “should know that the American people value their lives as we do Israeli lives” and expressing concern over “Israeli police violence” and the “unjust eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem”?

Are you kidding? Of. Course. Not. None of these were within the realm of possibility before. To quote Palestinian American political analyst Yousef Munayyer: “If you don’t follow congressional statements on this stuff over time it is really hard to explain how remarkable this is.”

So what happened? Well, for a start, former President Donald Trump’s embrace of the Netanyahu government happened.

So what happened? Well, for a start, former President Donald Trump’s embrace of the Netanyahu government happened. The Donald’s greenlighting of Israeli annexation and settlements, coupled with Bibi’s lavishing of praise on Trump and his alliance with "the Israeli Ku Klux Klan" at home, made support for Israel much more of a partisan issue. The Trump-Netanyahu axis effectively gave many Democrats permission to criticize Israel’s actions in ways they would have never dreamt of before.

Growing diversity in Congress helps: Nearly 1 in 4 members are people of color, compared to 1 in 10 just two decades ago. Do you think it’s a coincidence that some of the most critical voices of Israel right now are Black and brown Democrats in the House? More and more Black Democrats in particular, such as Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., are drawing a straight line between Black Lives Matter protests against racial discrimination and police violence here in the United States and Palestinian protests against racial discrimination and police violence in the occupied territories.

The Democratic base has shifted too, moving to the left not just on taxes, health care and immigration. A Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found “Democrats and younger voters are more likely to back the Palestinian cause” than Israel’s. In March, long before the latest flare-up, a Gallup poll found “support for emphasizing pressure on Israel is also at a new high of 34 percent, with a majority of Democrats taking this position for the first time.”

Don’t get me wrong. There is still a long way to go before the United States government takes a more even-handed approach to Israel and the Palestinians. The Republican Party remains fully in Netanyahu’s corner, while a clear majority of Americans still favor Israel. As for the Democrats, the likes of Menendez, Meeks and Nadler all made sure they loudly backed Israel’s “right to self-defense” while heaping blame for the fighting on Hamas and not Netanyahu. Meeks, in fact, never ended up sending his letter to the White House.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration may have privately pressured the Israeli government to agree to a cease-fire, but it repeatedly blocked attempts at the United Nations to push for a halt to the fighting. The president reacted to the cease-fire announcement on Thursday by revealing how he had “commended” Netanyahu in a phone conversation. I can only wonder how the parents of the 63 Palestinian children who lost their lives in Gaza feel about that.

Yes, the Democratic Party continues to be dominated by PEP — “progressive except Palestine” — politicians, from the president on down. Nevertheless, as countless news stories have documented in recent days, the party’s stance is changing.

“The shift is dramatic; it's tectonic," veteran pollster John Zogby, who himself is Arab American, told the BBC, explaining how support for the Palestinians has become “a major wedge issue, particularly among Democrats, driven by nonwhite voters and younger voters, by progressives in general.”

So this particular political genie is now out of the bottle. No matter how hard supporters of Israel’s airstrikes or occupation might try, it isn’t going back in.