‘Enough death and suffering.’ Missouri, Kansas Democrats illustrate divide over Gaza

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For weeks, progressive activists, faith leaders and Palestinian Americans have pushed Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, to support a ceasefire in Gaza.

They protested, called his office and met with Cleaver, the 10-term congressman and former pastor of St. James United Methodist Church. Cleaver on Monday officially called for the Biden administration to use its diplomatic tools to encourage an immediate, bilateral ceasefire in exchange for the release of hostages and humanitarian aid into Gaza.

“My hope is that this ceasefire will enable the difficult but necessary work of a negotiated, durable agreement to move forward and provide a framework for long term peace and a two-state solution — something that I strongly support,” Cleaver said.

Cleaver’s comments came as the White House was already in negotiations over a temporary ceasefire, which was made official late Tuesday. Israel and Hamas agreed that Hamas would release 50 hostages in return for 150 Palestinian prisoners and a four-day halt to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The temporary ceasefire will ensure that hostages with American citizenship will be released, according to the Biden administration.

But Cleaver’s public statements about the war and the pressure he’s faced from activists in Kansas City illustrate the rift in the Democratic Party over the war in Gaza, as a vocal activists push for a permanent ceasefire while an influential, pro-Israel faction calls on lawmakers to back America’s closest ally in the Middle-East in its effort to destroy Hamas.

The divide is evident in the Democratic lawmakers from Kansas and Missouri. Progressive Rep. Cori Bush, a St. Louis Democrat, has pushed for a ceasefire. Cleaver, a more establishment Democrat, has taken a more measured approach. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Johnson County Democrat who touts her moderate bona fides, has avoided taking much of a public stand.

Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, when Hamas militants killed more than 1,200 people and took more than 200 people hostage, Israel has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Only a minority of Democrats have called for a permanent ceasefire. Instead, it appears likely that Congress will pass a package providing around $14 billion in military aid to Israel, part of a larger package that would also support Ukraine and fund border security.

Even if lawmakers were united in supporting a ceasefire, there is relatively little Congress can do, aside from encouraging the Biden administration to push for a softer approach in negotiations.

Democrats from Missouri and Kansas have faced pressure as they navigate the contentious issue and grapple with the U.S. role in the conflict.

On Oct. 16, less than a week after Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, Bush sponsored a resolution in the House calling for a ceasefire.

“I am grieving for every Palestinian, Israeli, and American life lost to this violence, and my heart breaks for all those who will be forever traumatized because of it,” Bush said in a release. “War and retaliatory violence doesn’t achieve accountability or justice; it only leads to more death and human suffering.”

The resolution talked about both Israeli and Palestinian deaths and urged the Biden administration to send humanitarian relief to Gaza. But it had little chance of passing Congress, where a majority of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers were offering support for Israel.

Less than a week later, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell announced he would drop out of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate to challenge Bush for her seat in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, the state’s most diverse and heavily Democratic district.

He will likely get backing from AIPAC, a pro-Israel group that has said it will spend more than $100 million in 2024 in primaries against lawmakers it says have opposed Israel. Bush is among the members its targeting, along with the other seven members of the progressive “Squad” in the House Democratic Caucus.

Davids, meanwhile, has largely avoided public pronouncements about the war. She issued a statement condemning the attack on Israel and has signed onto letters calling for humanitarian aid.

“I unequivocally condemn this violence,” Davids said after the Hamas attack. “I have always supported security assistance for Israel, our close ally in the Middle East. I remain committed to that support as Israel confronts this ongoing threat and will stand by efforts to protect Israelis and reaffirm Israel’s right to self-defense.”

But Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District is one of the top targets for Republicans in 2024 – despite Davids’ double digits victory in 2022. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been quick to criticize her votes against a Republican sponsored Israel defense package that would cut IRS funding and her vote against censuring Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat and the only Palestinian American member of Congress.

For the most part, Davids has mirrored the response of the Biden administration.

The White House has been steadfast in its support for Israel. While it has pushed for Israel to avoid civilian casualties and has supported “humanitarian pauses” to the fighting in order to get aid to Palestinians in Gaza and allow people to move from areas that may be attacked, officials have been adamantly opposed to a ceasefire, saying it would be a victory for Hamas.

Cleaver, too, appeared to be following the Biden line.

After protesters showed up at his Kansas City office, Cleaver released a statement calling for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to get aid for Gaza. The White House, too, had been pushing for humanitarian pauses.

He then sponsored a bill directing financial institutions to provide support for Palestinians who flee Gaza. He withdrew the legislation after faith leaders and Palestinian Americans told him it was counter-productive.

His latest call for a ceasefire, in which he hoped that a pause to the fighting would lead to broader talks that would encourage a two-state solution, was the first time he adopted stronger language than the White House.

While the Biden administration has said it supports a two-state solution, it is also supporting Israel in its effort to eliminate Hamas, arguing that it is possible in the same way the U.S. attempted to kneecap the Islamic State.

Cleaver, meanwhile, appears to just be pushing for peace.

“Having spent decades as a faith leader, fundamentally, I believe we are all children of the world and all worthy of love and peace,” Cleaver said. “The world has already seen enough death and suffering.”