Dave Harden’s quest from the Middle East to the Eastern Shore

Dave Harden spent a decade working in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel for USAID. Now he wants to represent Maryland in Congress

Dave Harden represented the United States abroad as a government official promoting U.S. ideals around the globe for more than two decades. After watching the riot unfold at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, he decided he wanted to put diplomacy aside and represent Maryland’s 1st Congressional District in Congress — his first foray into partisan politics. 

“My son was overseas during this attack — with the military in the Middle East — and that attack deflated our young men and women that are trying to defend America. It was horrific, what happened on January 6,” Harden told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “[Rep.] Andy Harris (R-MD), who is a strong supporter of [former President Donald] Trump, helped fuel the insurrection,” Harden argued, “and I decided that Andy Harris had to leave.” 

Harris, who currently represents the district, was one of the leading voices on the Hill supporting investigations into claims of election fraud soundly rejected by nonpartisan election officials and dozens of court rulings. In the early morning hours of January 7, after the Capitol had been secured, Harris joined 138 other House Republicans to vote against certifying the electoral college results that affirmed Joe Biden’s victory.

“It’s disingenuous for Mr. Harden to claim I sided with rioters on January 6th, as I condemned the violence then and do now,” Harris told JI in a statement. 

Harris, the sole Republican member of the Maryland delegation, is not unpopular in his district; last November he defeated Democrat Mia Mason, who is also running in 2022, by 27 percentage points. 

Yet Dave Wasserman, an editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, predicts that with redistricting following the 2020 census, the state’s congressional districts will be redrawn so that the 1st District — a massive, 3,600-square-mile district that includes Maryland’s entire Eastern Shore and some Baltimore exurbs — will become solidly Democratic. Maryland’s Democratic legislature, Wasserman tweeted recently, will likely take “a sledgehammer” to the district. 

Harden, a Democrat, is a recent arrival in the district, having returned to the U.S. in 2019 after a two-decade international career with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He grew up on a farm in Westminster, a northern suburb of Baltimore that lies in the district, in the same area where his family has resided for nine generations. “You can get deployed overseas and work in embassies, but at the end of the day, you go home,” said Harden, who is 58. 

Harden wasn’t planning to leave diplomacy but changed course following the 2016 presidential election. “I felt that [the Trump administration was] extremely amateurish, and I did not want to continue to represent them.” So he left, and embarked on a well-trodden path for Beltway insiders: He started a consulting firm, working on private-sector economic development with companies based in some of his former postings, including Gaza and the West Bank. 

At the start of his career, after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, Harden’s tenure with USAID took him across the Middle East and Asia, including 10 cumulative years in Israel. His wife and children stayed even longer, remaining in Herzliya while Harden went on to postings in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. 

He calls himself a “deep friend of Israel,” noting that his daughter became fluent in Hebrew during his family’s time in the country. “How many non-Jewish girls speak Hebrew?” he asked. 

Dave Harden (Courtesy)
Dave Harden (Courtesy)

For Harden, Middle East foreign policy is not a theoretical matter, or a way to prove his partisan bona fides. As violence again flares in the region, Harden can recall living through previous wars between Israel and Hamas.

“During the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, our family went to the bomb shelter more times in a single month than I did during my 17 months in Iraq,” Harden, who first arrived in the region in 2005 as deputy mission director at USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2016. 

Harden described his work as “connecting people and communities and companies to the global economy,” which he told JI would benefit him in his district.

“I actually have worked on the toughest economic challenges of our time, so I think that the voters really do appreciate the fact that I’m able to bring three decades of economic experience to communities that have been forgotten and aggrieved and left behind,” Harden noted.

“He really excelled building relationships across Palestinian society and across Israeli society,” said Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. “He had a healthy dose of skepticism about the power of big government, and really looked at how people who are entrepreneurs or farmers could really sort of make things better.”

Should Harden make it to Congress, he will be greeted in Washington by a Democratic Party whose long-held consensus of support for the Jewish state has begun to splinter. On one side, far-left House members, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), have called Israel an “apartheid state” and condemned its recent actions in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. On the other, mainstream Democrats are urging Washington to maintain its support for Israel as the country comes under heavy rocket fire from Hamas. Harden could find himself on his own, pushing heterodox critiques of U.S. policy and solutions in the region that don’t align with either group. 

“What happens is, on all these issues, they’re so overwhelming that everybody just gets lost, right? You’re talking about a few issues, and it’s essentially binary, and that’s not how I approach conflict in the least,” Harden said. 

Harden’s views on the Middle East are complex, rooted in his years of working directly with both Israelis and Palestinians on crucial issues like economic development. But in attempting to stake out his own position on the conflict, he avoided choosing sides on one of the more heated debates happening on Capitol Hill: regulating aid to Israel to pressure the country to pause settlement construction and cease certain military operations.  

When asked whether Congress has a role to play in putting pressure on Israel with regards to settlement construction in the West Bank, Harden did not offer a direct answer. He called it an “extremely thorny question,” and said that “having uninformed, not nuanced answers probably doesn’t help anybody.” 

“The Israelis are the stronger party on Israel-Palestine matters, and so they have to decide what it is that they want,” he said instead. 

While he did not declare where he stands on congressional efforts to regulate aid to Israel, Harden acknowledged that he views American military assistance to Israel as a tricky proposition when broader U.S. policy regarding the region is unclear. When he served in Israel, “I knew what our goal was. Our goal was a two-state solution. We were putting effort into it,” Harden said. “What I think is missing now is the clarity about what our goal is. So I understand the role to be, we want to preserve the prospect of a two-state solution for some indefinite time in the future. That’s not a goal.” 

Harden wants to better understand the strategic benefit to sending aid to the region. In a February 2021 op-ed in The Hill, Harden argued that unless the U.S. provides a better answer to the question of what it is “buying” with its aid to both Israel and Palestinian aid organizations, the money could be better spent feeding children who have gone hungry during the pandemic. 

The current aid model is outdated, Harden claims, a remnant of an Israel that could not defend itself. “Israel is not the plucky little nation of 1949 that is struggling to survive, right? It’s not scratching around, an impoverished country that is just barely making it now,” he said. “What I’m envisioning, what I’m describing, is a 21st-century relationship. Right now, we still have a 20th-century relationship.”

Harden believes the U.S. has a role to play in de-escalating the ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas. “I think that the United States can and should aggressively seek to get a cease-fire or humanitarian pause in place to de-risk the situation and to protect civilians,” he said. 

Harden also expressed concern over Hamas’s escalating military capabilities. 

“The notion that Hamas would be deterred through [wars with Israel] beginning in 2008 has not borne out, right? Hamas is not deterred. And in fact, Hamas is more capable today than they were in the first Gaza war,” Harden said. “That should give some first pause about what everybody’s doing and what the results are, because in four wars Hamas has gotten more favorable, so that means that that’s a problem.” 

“I think the Biden administration really needs to double down on getting people out there and on the ground and engaged,” Harden said. “They don’t have an ambassador. They don’t have an assistant secretary of state [for Near Eastern affairs], they don’t have a consul general, they don’t have a USAID mission director. These things make it very difficult to manage and de-risk the immediacy of the conflict.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr visited the region last week, but other key postings remain unfilled or unconfirmed by the Senate.

Dave Harden (Courtesy)
Dave Harden (Courtesy)

Present fighting aside, Harden noted that power dynamics in the region have shifted in Israel’s favor in recent years. “I am really happy about the Abraham Accords,” he said. “But at the same time, the Palestinians are going to want a future. You can’t get divorced. That’s the problem: Israelis and Palestinians are not getting divorced. They have to live together forever.” 

In a statement, Harris — whom Harden is challenging — praised Trump’s actions in negotiating the Abraham Accords, and said that “I stand with Israel and support [Israelis’] right to defend themselves.”

During his stint as mission director for the USAID in West Bank and Gaza, Harden worked with the Palestinian Authority and with UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), the organization that provides humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees. 

“Many could talk about international economic assistance to the Palestinians, but Dave knew everyone on the ground on a first-name basis who could make a difference. He could distinguish between reality and fiction, and acted accordingly,” said David Makovsky, director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

In 2018, the Trump administration stopped all U.S. funding to Palestinian aid organizations, a move quickly reversed by the Biden administration in its first months. Congressional Republicans have criticized the policy, arguing that the aid could end up in the hands of terrorists or their families. Harden supports the aid, noting that “there are ways to make sure assistance goes to those who need it in the West Bank and Gaza.” 

Harden added that the 2018 Taylor Force Act, which restricts U.S. aid money from being given to the families of terrorists by the Palestinian Authority, “is important to change PA behavior relating to payments to those who committed terror acts.”

Harden admits that UNRWA is flawed, but argues it still serves a crucial role in the region. “UNRWA is the only counterpoint to Hamas” in providing humanitarian aid in Gaza, he said. “If it’s important to have a counterpoint to Hamas, then UNRWA is your only vehicle.” A bipartisan bill introduced last month would mandate a State Department review of UNRWA educational materials that have been criticized as antisemitic. 

Still, he said, “I do think that UNRWA is antiquated in many ways, and it needs fundamental change.” What he proposes is tailoring the body’s work, and humanitarian aid to Palestinians, to reflect the situation of each distinct group of people — and acknowledging that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria and Jordan have different needs from refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Ultimately, though, Harden notes that reforming UNRWA will not solve the conflict. And negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what he views as the most important task in the region. “The Palestinians have aspirations, and those aspirations are not going away,” Harden explained. “By the way, those aspirations aren’t to receive a bag of rice for the next three generations, and here’s your little voucher card; be happy. That’s not their aspiration. I don’t think they want those handouts from UNRWA either.” 

Harden’s foreign policy goals extend beyond the Middle East. He thinks the U.S. has a role to play in entering a new era of challenges, including climate change, displacement and the rise of China. “We’re closing the chapter of the post-World War II era, so I would like to help shape America’s position in the world for the next century,” he explained.

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