No beating around the Bush

Cori Bush becomes the latest Squad member to pick up a pro-Israel challenger

‘We have to stand by our fellow democracies, and we have to stand against terrorism. Hamas is a terrorist organization and I will not waver in my support for Israel,’ Wesley Bell tells Jewish Insider

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Just Majority/Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) speaks at the "Just Majority" Supreme Court press conference on June 22, 2023 in Washington, DC. /Louis County Prosecutor, Wesley Bell gives remarks during the Ferguson mayoral inauguration ceremony for Ella James at the Urban League Empowerment Center on June 17, 2020 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) has emerged as one of the most stridently anti-Israel voices in Congress since Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 — to which Bush responded by calling for the end of U.S. aid to Israel. On Monday, Bush became the latest anti-Israel House member to pick up a primary challenger, who cites Bush’s stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict as one of the reasons he’s joining the race.

Wesley Bell, the prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County, announced on Monday that he was ending his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri — which he launched in June, hoping to unseat Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) — to instead challenge Bush for her House seat.

“As a country, we have to be reliable partners. We have to stand by our fellow democracies, and we have to stand against terrorism,” Bell told Jewish Insider on Monday afternoon. “Hamas is a terrorist organization and I will not waver in my support for Israel.”

In a press conference announcing his candidacy, Bell said, “We cannot give aid and comfort to terrorist organizations.” Pressed on that comment by JI, Bell noted that Bush had voted against funding for the Iron Dome missile-defense system, and said that the U.S.’s foes, including Hamas, “pay attention” to public divisions in the U.S.  

“They want propaganda to try and create confusion and disinformation,” he said. “I think it matters a lot. And then obviously how one votes. There’s certain things that we cannot politicize and that’s one of them, in my opinion. And as we see — Republicans and Democrats alike, one of the few issues that we all come together on.”

He said that the Israel-Hamas war and Bush’s comments about it had factored into his decision to challenge her for her House seat.

“It contributed to [my decision] for the surface reasons that those comments were offensive on many levels, but also from a national security level as well,” Bell said. “It’s going to take steady and effective leadership to ensure that we’re able to bring about peaceful resolutions and that often means standing with fellow democracies.”

Bell declined to say if he had been in conversation with AIPAC or Democratic Majority for Israel, the pro-Israel PACs working to recruit challengers to Squad members. But he said that he has strong relationships with Jewish leaders in the district, and that recent events have increased the calls from supporters for him to run for the House seat, instead of the Senate.

AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann told JI, that “there will be a time for political action, but right now our priority is building and sustaining congressional support for Israel’s fight to permanently dismantle Hamas, which perpetrated this barbaric, terrorist attack on the Jewish state.” DMFI did not respond to a request for comment.

More broadly, Bell said constituents and supporters have been encouraging him to run for the House seat for some time, since even before he entered the Senate race.

Bell, who traveled to Israel in 2017 with the American Israel Education Foundation, a nonprofit linked to AIPAC, said he’d seen firsthand the importance of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Bush voted against supplemental Iron Dome funding in 2021, after the last war between Israel and Hamas.

He explained that while visiting a kibbutz, residents informed them that they had just seconds to head to bomb shelters when alarms sounded in the kibbutz. Forty-five minutes after the group left, sirens went off in the kibbutz, although all of the incoming rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome. If not for a scheduling conflict, the group might still have been in the kibbutz when the attack happened, he said.

“It’s one of those things that you have to be there to fully understand what our Jewish brothers and sisters and our Israeli brothers and sisters have to deal with,” he said.

Bell emphasized the need to keep the possibility of a two-state solution alive. But he said he did not know what the path to a peaceful settlement would look like at this stage.

“Israel has to be able to have basic security, it has to be able to defend its borders. Terrorist organizations — we cannot tolerate those, and Israel has a right to defend themselves,” Bell explained. “Sometimes the narrative is as if Israel completely controls whether there’s going to be peace or not. And Israel did not attack Hamas. Hamas attacked Israel and attacked innocent people and kidnapped folks, and reportings of rapes.”

Bell said he supports continued military aid to Israel and opposed conditioning such aid, noting that Israel “cannot just sit back and allow someone to attack it and hope that rockets don’t get through.”

On his trip to Israel, Bell said he was struck by the security situation on the ground, noting that the group’s guides had told them it would be unsafe for them to visit Bethlehem.

“One thing that I know is that if the terrorists, Hamas and these organizations laid down their arms, there will be peace in the region. But as we know, if Israel was to lay down their arms, they would be destroyed,” he said. “And going back to 1947, the United Nations negotiating the [partition plan] — Israel accepted it and the Arab nations did not.”

Bush, for her part, took to X on Sunday to accuse Israel of an “ethnic cleansing campaign” in Gaza, claiming that “millions of people in Gaza with nowhere to go [are] being slaughtered” and again calling for the end of U.S. support to Israel.

Bell called the surge of antisemitism that has occurred in the United States and worldwide since the Hamas conflict “disturbing” and “troubling.”

“I think we’re better than that,” he said. “Obviously we have our challenges as a country, we have our history as a country. But I want to believe that we are trending in the direction of tolerance and recognizing that our superpower has always been our diversity… We have to continue to counteract this disinformation… [and] continue to support folks who are going to make the right decisions and be on the right side of history.”

Looking at the looming threat in the Middle East, Bell said that the U.S. needs to “do everything that we can” to ensure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon. He said that U.S. lawmakers should present a unified front behind the president’s efforts to “as much as possible handle and manage these situations diplomatically, so that we can avoid larger conflicts.”

“But I think we all know the stakes, I think we all realize the gravity of what’s going on,” he continued.

In areas well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bell emphasized repeatedly during his press conference and to JI that the district needs “steady and effective leadership” that has not been seen from Bush. 

He criticized her for voting against the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the bill to raise the debt limit — accusing her of joining Republicans in trying to use that issue to “get other things that are on their agendas… that don’t represent the values of a majority of Americans.”

He also lamented her support for defunding the police, a movement he said had given Republicans ammunition against Democrats and contributed to Democrats losing the House in the 2022 midterms. He highlighted his own history of working with local law enforcement as a prosecutor.

Bush faced a primary from state Sen. Steven Roberts in 2022, but Roberts lost by around 40 percentage points. His candidacy was weighed down by multiple accusations of sexual assault, and Roberts’ own record included a series of votes against pro-Israel bills, which he disavowed on the campaign trail.

Missouri State Sen. Brian Williams was floated at Monday’s press conference as another potential primary challenger to Bush. Williams issued a strong statement in support of Israel and condemning Hamas following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

“Hamas terrorists have slaughtered hundreds of innocent women, children and Israeli civilians. This is not about resistance to occupation. This is about fear and hatred being made manifest in violence,” Williams said. “I stand with Israel. Missouri stands with Israel. America stands with Israel. Our nation must do what we can to help the Israeli people defend themselves against terrorism and protect innocent families from violence.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.