Potholes over foreign policy: City leaders want to move on from Israel-Gaza debate

City governments across the country have become embroiled in the bitter debate over the Israel-Gaza war, holding contentious public hearings before issuing symbolic proclamations that call for an end to the hostilities.

But many Democratic city leaders would just like to stay out of foreign policy. Dismayed by the intensity of the divisiveness, or just weary of the distraction, officials have been calling for limits on the lofty proclamations — or just dropping them altogether.

“We need to focus on doing the job we were elected to do and the job we actually have the ability to influence or have an impact on,” said Joel Engardio, a Democratic member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which adopted a hard-fought compromise resolution in January that condemned Hamas along with the Israeli government.

Last month, with emotions still raw, Engardio, who voted for the resolution, proposed legislation to limit future non-binding resolutions about foreign policy, a bold move in the famously liberal and engaged city.

It’s not such a fringe idea, though. As protests over the war have shut down streets, bridges, and forced local government bodies to step up security and recess meetings, officials across the country, often Democrats in deep-blue cities, have been grumbling about weighing in on matters way beyond their control and sticking to fights over parking and zoning laws.

“Foreign policy is not my job and I’m not going to tell members of our congressional delegation how to do their jobs,” Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson, a Democrat, said as she and two other members abstained from a cease-fire resolution after a five-hour public hearing in November.

Impassioned calls for resolutions began soon after Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking roughly 250 hostages, and they have continued through an Israeli response that to date has killed at least 34,000 people, including many civilians in Gaza.

Activists have packed public hearings, trading accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia, as local leaders painstakingly debate the language of resolutions that carry no force of law.

The debate has been particularly tense in college towns, including Berkeley, California, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Bloomington, Indiana.

In Berkeley, which has a University of California campus considered the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, Mayor Jesse Arreguín has repeatedly blocked a Gaza cease-fire resolution in recent months, arguing it would needlessly plunge the city into a distracting conflict.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a city government to take a position on international issues where there’s not agreement, where there’s not broad consensus,” Arreguín told POLITICO. “I think this is an area where there are deep divisions.”

The conflict permeated Arreguín’s race for state Senate, where he is matched up with an ardently pro-ceasefire progressive Democrat, Jovanka Beckles. She has called Arreguin’s move a “cowardly” act that ignored the will of constituents.

In Cambridge, home to MIT and Harvard, members of the City Council considered a resolution right after Oct. 7, but dismissed the idea as too divisive, said Councilmember Paul F. Toner, a Democrat who opted instead to write an opinion piece in a newspaper.

The council later returned to the subject as the death toll rose and community groups demanded action. They unanimously approved a resolution in January that called for an end to hostilities and the release of hostages after about 30 hours of public debate that got so intense they had to clear their chambers to restore order and have extra police on duty.

Toner decided he would only vote “present” if a foreign policy resolutions come back in the future. “I don't think these are actually appropriate for us as a City Council to be debating,” he said.

It’s not that the councilmember is not interested — he studied international relations in college. But he said the council should focus on what it can change, not picking and choosing which global crisis deserves its attention.

“When I ran for office, not one person asked me, and I don't think any other candidates, our opinions on foreign policy matters,” he said. “The top issues in Cambridge are the affordability of housing, traffic congestion, fixing our roads and sewers, the budget. Those things I got asked about.”

Officials also wanted to leave the matter to the federal government in Raleigh, North Carolina, when the City Council there rejected a cease-fire resolution in a 4-4 vote in March.

Mayor Pro Tem Jonathan Melton, another Democrat, voted against it even though he said he supports ending the conflict and the release of hostages. “Our federal elected officials are working on these efforts, but our city is very divided right now and I do not want to deepen that divide,” he said at the hearing. “But my hope is for peace at home and abroad.

In Bloomington, home to Indiana University’s flagship campus, Mayor Kerry Thomson said she would simply veto a resolution adopted by the City Council this month that condemned actions by Israel and Hamas and called for the release of hostages.

“I will not spend city time on issues well beyond the scope or influence of our city’s government,” Thomson, who is also a Democrat, said in a statement. “I encourage my council colleagues to express their positions on state, national or international issues in ways that do not require the time, energy, and resources of city employees, or the Mayor’s signature.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said she struggled with whether to veto the resolution, which she said had prompted an outpouring of “real and dangerous” antisemitism.

Breed wrote in a letter explaining her reasons that she chose not to veto it only because that would have sent the resolution back to the supervisors for more divisive hearings. “No one should feel unsafe in our communities,” she wrote. “And no one should think that while advocating for peace abroad it’s OK to stoke division and hate at home.”

Under Engardio’s proposal, which passed March 26 in a 10-1 vote, San Francisco would not prevent future proclamations on international issues, but direct the board to “prioritize municipal affairs.” The supervisor said he recognized local officials are more accessible than politicians who actually determine foreign policy.

“The average resident doesn’t have access to Gov. Newsom or Nancy Pelosi but they do have access to us,” Engardio said. “We’re the lowest rung on the ladder of government authority so sometimes it is important to hear what people have to say and we can telegraph it up the ladder, so to speak, and make sure they’re heard.”

Toner said the Cambridge council’s government affairs committee is considering how to handle these types of resolutions in the future. He doesn’t think they would ban them outright but might find other ways for residents to express their opinions on global matters.

“People felt that residents have the right to ask us to consider these things. So, I don't think there's a majority that are willing to just say ‘No, we'll never consider them,” he said. “I don’t find just having people yell at each other for four hours at a council meeting particularly useful at all.”

Sarah Grace Taylor contributed to this report.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that Joel Engardio voted for the cease-fire resolution and to add that his proposal to limit future resolutions passed.