Longtime Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel had a rough week. First, the pro-Israel Jewish lawmaker, whose district includes Riverdale, was caught in a hot-mic moment last Tuesday; on Wednesday fellow Bronx Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed his progressive primary opponent, Jamaal Bowman, who has questioned the U.S.-Israel relationship; on Friday Bronx state Senator Alessandra Biaggi and city Comptroller Scott Stringer endorsed Bowman, and this Tuesday, Bowman was endorsed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders..
“I have to acknowledge something,” Biaggi said at a news conference in front of Riverdale’s Spuyten Duyvil Library. “At the end of 2019, I stood in this community, and I said ‘It’s not the time to be endorsing Democrats who are running against incumbents’.”
“The world has changed, like, 180, practically overnight,” Biaggi told the Riverdale Press. “We would be remiss not to have leadership of the future to represent this district.”
Comparisons were being made to Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset of former Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018, with Engel’s seat seen as being in jeopardy as voters head to the primary polls on June 23, with mail-in voting beginning this week.
“Eliot Engel is a champion of the working people of New York and is one of the most effective members of Congress from any district when it comes to taking care of their constituents,” Josh Block, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and former head of The Israel Project, told JNS.
Last Tuesday Engel came under fire when he said during a hot-mic moment: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
The remark was made at a public event featuring local and state officials in which Engel asked to speak about the instability in his Bronx district over the klling of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. told Engel that there wouldn’t be time for him to speak and, in response to Engel’s “I wouldn’t care” comment, said, “We’re not politicizing. Everybody’s got a primary, you know?”
In a statement later Tuesday, Engel said, “In the context of running for re-election, I thought it was important for people to know where I stand, that’s why I asked to speak. I would not have tried to impose on the borough president if I didn’t think it was important.”
Engel, who heads the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, has served in Congress since 1989 and represents the heavily Democratic New York 16th congressional district, which currently contains parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. Over the decades that Engel has served, redistricting and demographics have led to significant changes in the composition of Engel’s district, where today black and Hispanics make up over 55 percent of its residents.
Mark Mellman, president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel — whose political action committee, DMFI PAC, endorsed Engel — told JNS that while “the hot-mic moment was certainly unfortunate” and “not the kind of thing anybody would be sort of looking for,” the incident, which “was taken out of context by some,” won’t hurt Engel in the end.
“He is a well-liked and much-appreciated figure. He’s done a lot for New York, he’s done a lot for his district,” he said. “He got $5 billion for New York hospitals” during the coronavirus.
Mellman noted that while the Jewish vote in Engel’s district, “is actually pretty small,” blacks and Latinos “in his district think very highly of Eliot Engel.”
He added that they “appreciate what he’s done for the district,” such as getting federal funds for “hospitals and other needs” and “his willingness to stand up to the evils of the Trump administration” that Mellman said include “attacks on a woman’s right to choose, attacks on immigrants, their attacks on health care” and “attacks on the rule of law.”
At the same time, Engel is also one of the most prominent pro-Israel voices in the Democratic Party. At a time when there is concern over bipartisan support for Israel and the future direction of the Democratic Party, especially with the 2018 election of “the Squad” that includes Ocasio-Cortez, as well as anti-Israel Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Engel has been viewed as a powerful and reassuring bulwark against them.
“He is also one of the strongest, most eloquent and reliable supporters of the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, because he understands that a strong and secure Jewish state is the cheapest unsinkable battleship America could ever have in a part of the world that matters to our security and economy a great deal,” said Block.
While Bowman’s positions on the U.S.-Israel relationship include opposition to the anti-Israel BDS movement and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it also includes conditioning U.S. assistance to Israel and calling Israel a country “that’s committing human-rights violations.”
“This is not about singling out Israel and targeting Israel. This is about any country that we provide aid to that’s committing human-rights violations,” Bowman told Jewish Insider. “We need to have a conversation about conditioning some aid if those violations continue.”
Additionally, Bowman accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “aggressive policies toward the Palestinian people, particularly around occupation, annexation and the detaining of Palestinian children.”
“I may be just more open to having those conversations about the humanitarian crisis happening in Palestine than Eliot Engel has been all through his career,” he said.
Engel told Jewish Insider that Bowman is “anti-Israel” as “conditioning aid for Israel is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. Foreign aid doesn’t only benefit the countries that we are giving it to; it benefits the United States.”
“This nonsense about conditioning aid is a bit arrogant because we’d essentially be telling Israel, if you don’t toe the mark, if when we crack the whip you don’t jump, we’re gonna pull it away from you,” said Engel. “That’s not how one ally treats another ally.”
“We need to maintain a quality relationship with Israel,” he said. “Israel has the right to exist. I think Israel has a right to be safe and secure. And I think Israel has a right to self-determination. I also think the people of Palestine have a right to exist, have a right to be safe and secure, and have a right to self-determination as well.”
Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz told JNS that Engel is not “in particular danger,” though “it’s good and healthy that he’s running as though he is.”
“The gaffe was a gaffe, no matter what Elliot’s people say, but hardly a career-ending one after his substantial career,” he said. “He’s so much bigger than that.”
“Chairman Engel is one of the strongest champions of the mutually beneficial U.S.-Israel relationship and he is an irreplaceable leader of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” Democratic strategist Aaron Keyak told JNS. “Our party and our country are better with him in Congress.”
“He is a tremendous leader on America’s national security and foreign policy, and his loss would not only deprive his constituents of an amazing fighting champion, but it would also mean replacing one of the most pro-Israel members of Congress with one of the most anti-Israel members of Congress, who truly is out of step with this district in New York City,” said Block.
An Engel loss would be “a significant blow, there’s no question about it,” Mellman told JNS. “He occupies a critical leadership position as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is a strong advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship and his opponent is not.”