Jerusalem — Jon Ossoff’s historic win was presented as defying America’s far-right. His election to office helped flip the Senate blue and after six long years, changed Mitch McConnell’s title from majority to minority leader. He defeated Donald Trump ally Sen. David Perdue by teaming up with a Black reverend associated with the late civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis. And he was the first Jew to win a Georgia Senate seat while a racist, anti-Semitic mob raided the U.S. Capitol.
Despite these progressive feats, Ossoff’s political experience and campaign donations reveal he’s more aligned with the Democratic establishment than meets the eye.
Ossoff’s undeniable love affair with the Israel lobby
Ossoff was one of the pro-Israel lobby’s top donation recipients for the 2019-2020 campaign cycle, ranking at number four with a total of $607,915. J Street, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), New Israel Fund, and the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs (JACPAC) all funded his campaign. Out of the Israel lobbying groups, JACPAC handed Ossoff the most money with a sum of $12,250. Pro-Israel groups J Street, DMFI, and the Jewish Democratic Council for America endorsed him as well.
Before becoming a senator, Ossoff didn’t have many political credentials to his name. According to The Forward, he handled foreign policy issues as a congressional aide for Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson. In the role, he “work[ed] on legislation improving military funding for Israel and mandating tougher inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.”
While he supports the Iran Deal and opposes Israeli annexation of the West Bank, the senator has openly embraced Zionist views. He is opposed to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, has supported Israeli attacks on Gaza, commended Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab countries, and supports a two-state solution. A two-state solution is a longtime Democratic Party position, but progressive public support for it is diminishing with the growing momentum for the One Democratic State Campaign.
Foreign policy wasn’t a large section of Ossoff’s campaign platform. As a state senate hopeful upholding a “Black-Jewish alliance,” he focused more on domestic race relations than geopolitics. However, Ossoff’s campaign did publish a document outlining his stance on Israel. In it, he pledged unwavering support for the state, specifically lauding his commitment to Israel’s security and his opposition to BDS as well as any legislation permitting the U.S. to divest from Israel.
“Israel’s security requires the Israel Defense Forces to maintain a Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region. U.S. foreign assistance ensures that Israel has the military and intelligence capabilities necessary to maintain that QME, to defend itself against missile and rocket threats, and to prevent terrorist attacks within Israel,” the statement read.
“In the Senate, I will push for strong, mutually beneficial, and mutually respectful U.S.-Israel relations, whose strength can sustain Congressional support for the appropriation of U.S. foreign assistance vital to Israel’s security,” Ossoff said.
This excerpt suggests Ossoff supports continuing U.S. military aid to Israel—an issue that received nationwide condemnation after Congress voted to give $600 to Americans amid a pandemic-spurred recession yet handed $500 million in aid to Israel.
In addition to the pro-Israel endorsements Ossoff snagged, he often touts his connections to pro-Israel politicians. His June, 2020 position paper cited his relationship to Michael Oren, the far-right Israeli ambassador he studied under at Georgetown University. Ossoff also credits his historic rise in politics to Rep. Lewis. While Lewis is remembered as a prominent civil rights activist, he was also staunchly pro-Israel. Like Ossoff, he opposed the BDS movement and was considered a friend to Israel.
The Democratic Party toeing the line with pro-Israel funds
Along with Ossoff being the first Jew elected to Georgia’s senate, Rev. Raphael Warnock also made history as the first African-American elected to Georgia’s senate. Together the Democratic pair attributed their success to having fostered a strong Black-Jewish alliance.
Despite his win, Warnock’s campaign was marred with controversy prior to the state’s highly-publicized runoff election in January. Warnock’s Republican opponent, Kelly Loeffler, targeted the reverend’s past criticism of Israel in an attack ad. Warnock signed a letter in 2019 comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa. He also criticized Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and slammed Israel for shooting Gazan protesters.
Loeffler’s smears worked. His campaign was losing public support and funding was drying up. Two days after Loeffler’s attacks, Rev. Warnock immediately backtracked and released a statement “condemning” the BDS movement and declaring his support for Israel. His quick reversal earned him an endorsement from the Israel lobby group DMFI. Similar to Ossoff, Warnock was also part of the Israel lobby’s top 10 campaign donation recipients, securing funding from J Street, DMFI, and the New Israel Fund. Warnock may not have been as successful with fundraising if he had maintained his previous position on Israel.
Sut Jhally, documentary filmmaker and communications professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was surprised at how easily Warnock caved to pro-Israel pressure.
“He was persuaded by the mainstream Democrats to win the Georgia election, so he had to make this horrible statement about Israel and BDS,” Jhally told MintPress News.
Warnock and Ossoff ran for Senate on a civil-rights-branded agenda. But for Jhally, you can’t call yourself a progressive if you ignore Palestine.
“The test of whether you’re a true progressive is your position on Israel,” Jhally said. “Because you can’t be progressive about everything else and espouse human rights for everyone else and not espouse human rights for the Palestinians.”
Warnock’s swift 180 on Palestine-Israel demonstrates just how strong of a grip the Israel lobby has on the Democratic Party. While the Trump administration’s policies favorited Israel, the Democratic Party is largely kept in check with pro-Israel funding.
An analysis by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs shows the pro-Israel lobby contributes significantly more money to Democrats than Republicans. And those campaign funds appear to be doing their job in scratching both the Democrats’ and the lobby’s backs. The top recipient of Israel lobby donations in 2020, President Joe Biden, has made it clear he’s willing to reverse every Trump-era policy except those related to Israel.
Keeping with the status quo
Criticism of Israel is growing louder in the Democratic Party with remarks from more progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib. And while Professor Jhally agrees there’s an unprecedented divide emerging in the party over Israel, that will only generate discussion and not substantial policy reform.
“The Israel lobby is still very powerful within both the Republican and Democratic parties and their role right now is to make sure policy does not change,” Jhally said. “And that is about putting pressure on progressives and making sure BDS becomes delegitimized.”
With BDS—arguably the best international strategy available to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine—still seen as a dirty word in American politics, Democrats will likely adhere to the Israel lobby’s agenda rather than risk losing money or being perceived as anti-Israel. And that means sticking with the status quo in the Democratic establishment: condemning BDS, promising U.S. aid to Israel, and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against “terrorists.” Just like the self-proclaimed progressive Ossoff did in cementing his election win.
Feature photo | Artist Brandon Litman holds up a U.S. Senator-elect Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., campaign poster on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Atlanta. Brynn Anderson | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab, and Gulf News.
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