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To Deter Israeli Strikes on Gaza, US House Reps Should Prepare Floor Fight

Floor fights should focus on Israeli military abuses of Palestinian civilians rather than Iron Dome funding.

Hundreds are gathered at the Columbus Circle and marched on streets as "Free Palestine" rally to protest Israel's aggression on Gaza in New York City, on September 17, 2021.

Part of the Series

There is a substantial grassroots clamor for floor fights in the House to oppose unconditional U.S. military aid to Israel. This grassroots clamor would be much better served, however, if the floor fights were focused not on funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system but instead on Israeli military abuses of Palestinian civilians.

The main reason that the focus has been about Iron Dome funding in the past is because that was the terrain chosen by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer — likely because it was the terrain they could best use to isolate and marginalize dissenters.

But there are paths dissenters can use to force their way to the floor on their own terms, rather than on the terms set by AIPAC, Pelosi and Hoyer. One such path is amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Another such path is invoking the War Powers Resolution of 1973. Each of these paths has its advantages and disadvantages if used alone; but they can be used in combination, getting the advantages of both. These paths can reorient the floor fights to discuss goals like ending the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and ending the Israeli military demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.

The recent floor fight on supplemental funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system proves that there is substantial grassroots clamor for a floor fight in the House to oppose unconditional U.S. military aid to Israel.

There were nine votes in opposition. There are likely many more votes to be had in the House against unconditional military aid to Israel, but these votes are not likely to emerge if the fight continues to be framed around the question of funding for the Iron Dome, which is widely perceived as a defensive weapon protecting Israeli civilians from Hamas rockets. This makes it relatively easy for AIPAC to mobilize its supporters. If AIPAC had to try to mobilize its supporters to defend knocking down Palestinian homes in the West Bank, or to defend preventing Palestinian children from leaving Gaza to get medical treatment for cancer, its task wouldn’t be so easy.

There would be many more votes for a fight against an offensive weapon being used to attack civilians, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act, which is U.S. law. (Note that Israeli military bulldozers being used to knock down Palestinian homes are such a weapon — indeed the weapon that killed Rachel Corrie.)

The main obstacle to this approach is that on a typical day, Pelosi and Hoyer control what sees the light of day on the House floor. But the Pelosi-Hoyer opposition can be overcome in two ways: forcing the House Rules Committee to allow a vote on an NDAA amendment by threatening to vote with Republicans to take down the rule if the amendment is not allowed, as Rep. Jamaal Bowman just did on his Syria War Powers amendment, or by going straight to the floor with a privileged War Powers Resolution to end unauthorized (and therefore unconstitutional) U.S. participation in hostilities, as Rep. Ro Khanna has done against U.S. participation in the Saudi war and blockade on civilians in Yemen.

The Case for NDAA Amendment, Compared to War Powers Resolution

The timing and process of the House NDAA consideration is somewhat predictable. Any member of the House can offer an amendment. It’s an authorization bill, so lawmakers can offer conditional prohibitions, which can attract much more support than straight prohibitions, and foster debate and focus on specific abuses. These follow the structure of “prohibit X, unless Y.”

For example, the Bowman Syria War Powers Amendment didn’t just say Get out of Syria. It said: Get out of Syria, unless you pass a specific statutory authorization for the use of military force, as required by the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

So on an NDAA amendment, a conditional prohibition could say something like: Export of such-and-such weapon to Israel is prohibited, unless the secretary of state certifies that the Israeli-Egyptian blockade against civilians in Gaza is over. Or: Export of such-and-such weapon to Israel is prohibited, unless the secretary of state certifies that this weapon is not going to be used to knock down Palestinian homes in the West Bank.

Compared to invoking the War Powers Resolution, offering NDAA amendments is widely seen among House Members as “playing by the rules,” not being “too radical,” not directly attacking the power of the House leadership to determine what comes to the floor. Bowman proved with his Syria War Powers Amendment that with the support of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he could force a floor vote on a War Powers amendment that the House Democratic leadership didn’t want to allow a vote on.

The Case for War Powers Resolution, Compared to NDAA Amendment

Lawmakers can introduce a privileged War Powers Resolution (which is a bill, not an amendment) and force their way to the floor any day the House is in session, which means the dissenters get to choose the timing that suits them best, like when a war is taking place, or when the Saudi dictator happens to be visiting the United States, as Senators Sanders, Lee and Murphy did in March 2018 when they brought their Yemen War Powers Resolution to a vote. Sponsors of a War Powers Resolution enjoy the full focus of activists and the media, because their resolution is the only thing happening on the floor, unlike the NDAA, which is a fire hydrant of amendments, each one only getting a little bit of the focus and attention.

Here’s the beauty: these two strategies can be used in complementary combination, as Khanna has done on Yemen War Powers. He turned to the War Powers Resolution when House leadership wouldn’t allow a vote on his amendment against refueling the Saudi warplanes bombing Yemen. Once the Yemen War Powers issue was publicly joined in view of the multitude, once the issue was already joined in the media, House leadership didn’t dare try to block his amendments any more. And he still had — and still has — the Yemen War Powers Resolution threat, any time he wants.

If House members adopt a strategy similar to what I have suggested here, the lawmakers could offer conditional prohibitions as part of a bill that functions as a public preview and preparatory organizing vehicle for amendments. For example, a bill could stipulate that “the export of such-and-such weapon to Israel is prohibited, unless the secretary of state certifies that the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of civilians in Gaza is over.” They could then get co-sponsors for the bill and popularize the idea, and when the opportunity for an amendment comes, they could introduce the amendment. To force a floor vote on the amendment requires political pressure on the House leadership. Previous organizing around the bill that had the same ideas as the amendment would make it much easier to quickly organize support for the amendment, thereby increasing pressure on the House leadership to allow a floor vote. Once a floor vote on the amendment is forced, previous organizing around the bill with the same ideas would make it much easier to get other lawmakers to vote for the amendment, because they would have already supported the idea previously, or at least would have been lobbied to support the idea.

After laying the groundwork with this organizing, the lawmakers who offered the conditional prohibitions would be ready to respond quickly the next time that Israel attacks civilians in Gaza: the lawmakers could call the question immediately on U.S. participation on the House floor by invoking the War Powers Resolution, proposing a straight prohibition of U.S. participation in Israel’s attacks.

Organizing in advance around a vote to prohibit U.S. participation in a future war could serve three vital purposes: 1) To deter Israel from having another Gaza war; 2) To pressure Israel to end the Gaza blockade; 3) To be ready for a House floor fight to end the war, if the war deterrence fails and if the pressure to end the blockade also fails.

During the recent Gaza war, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders introduced Resolutions of Disapproval against a U.S.-Israeli arms deal that had just been notified by the Biden administration to Congress. The media coverage of these efforts added significantly to the pressure on President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to agree to an immediate ceasefire. But because the opportunity to oppose such a weapons deal depends on the administration’s notification of the deal to Congress, the timing of which is controlled by the administration, it is impossible to know in advance if there will be such an opportunity, and what the opportunity will be. Thus, in order to prepare in advance, it is necessary to prepare something else. Moreover, under current law, a Resolution of Disapproval on a weapons deal cannot be used to force a vote in the House, only in the Senate. So to force a vote in the House requires preparing something else.

It is a key strategy of defenders of the status quo to try to ensure that the only vote on Israel-Palestine on the House floor is a vote on Iron Dome funding, to isolate and marginalize critics of the status quo. In order to change the current dynamics in the House, it is crucial that we figure out how to force a floor vote in the House on supporting Palestinian human rights that is not a vote on Iron Dome funding.