Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) last Thursday criticized a hotly contested proposal concerning Palestinian refugees for not putting "the United States’ interests first"—a charge that critics said evokes the "Israel firster" slur at the center of the Middle East debate.
While debating an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) that would examine exactly how many Palestinian refugees benefit from U.S. tax dollars, Leahy expressed that the proposal does not put "the United States’ interests first."
"Frankly, Mr. Chairman, as a member of this committee, I always look at what is in the United States’ interest first and foremost, and this would hurt the United States’ interests," Leahy said, emphasizing the words "United States."
"It may give a momentary advantage to one side or the other after we spend all that money, but it hurts the United States’ interests," Leahy said.
Observers in the room said they were taken aback by Leahy’s comments, which evoked the ongoing controversy over the term "Israel firster," a slur that has its roots in the white supremacist movement and implies a person is putting the interests of the Jewish state over those of the U.S.
Use of the term, which has been condemned as anti-Semitic by multiple Jewish organizations and leaders, has led to the firing of several senior employees from Obama aligned advocacy groups.
Prominent Israel critic M.J. Rosenberg was forced to part ways with Media Matters for America last month after his repeated use of the "Israel firster" smear cost the organization credibility in the pro-Israel community and elsewhere.
A writer for the left-wing Center for American Progress’ Think Progress blog who had used the term in personal Tweets left the influential think tank. The writer’s editor has also since left the organization.
"When we heard this, a lot of people were taken aback, utterly surprised to hear a chairman of a powerful committee imply that several senators were pursuing an agenda that is not in America’s best interests," said one GOP aide. "In the wake of news reports about the Center for American Progress and other left wing groups using arguably anti-Semitic language in criticizing pro-Israel policies, the senator’s comments certainly created a lot of pause."
Asked to clarify Tuesday if Leahy was implying that those who supported Kirk’s amendment are making Israel’s interest an undue priority, a spokesperson for the Democratic senator bristled.
Leahy was merely "debating the amendment as written," Leahy spokesperson David Carle told the Free Beacon. He was "talking about what the goal always is in this Senate, for pro-U.S. policy."
Carle, who hung up before answering follow-up questions, said Leahy is looking to pursue legislation that is in the "best national interest of the U.S."
Leahy watered down the Kirk amendment, seen as a first step toward eliminating several million Palestinian refugees from the aid rolls, late last week.
The final language as adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee requires the Secretary of State to submit a report within a year that details the approximate number of people in the past year who have received UNRWA services, resided in Palestine, and been displaced as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The report must also identify who exactly are descendants of displaced persons.