WASHINGTON — It has become an unmistakable pattern throughout the country: In the first election cycle since Democratic President Barack Obama forged the Iran nuclear deal, Democratic members of Congress who have historically supported the Jewish state, but who backed the landmark pact, are being attacked as anti-Israel.
Some of these targets have long been reliably in Israel’s corner on Capitol Hill, like Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen. All of them supported the president’s signature diplomatic initiative — which was bitterly opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a large chunk of the pro-Israel community. And all have been castigated throughout their 2016 campaigns as untrustworthy when it comes to safeguarding Israel from existential threats.
Both Wasserman Schultz and Nadler are among the most prominent Jewish members of the Democratic caucus. They have reputations for being emphatically supportive of Israel and of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Van Hollen, who was first elected to Congress in 2002, has likewise been consistently supportive of Israel; he has co-sponsored a series of resolutions affirming the US commitment to Israel’s security and was an early proponent of sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program.
Some critics questioned a letter he sent to then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice during the 2006 Lebanon War, in which he expressed concern about Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah and the mounting civilian death toll. In that correspondence, though, Van Hollen explicitly stated that Israel was justified in launching the offensive and blamed the Bush administration for failing to mediate a ceasefire at the outset of the conflict.
Despite their overwhelmingly positive attitudes toward Israel, however, all three have seen attempts by their opponents — in both primary and general election contests — to use their support for the Iran deal against them.
Wasserman Schultz’s Democratic opponent, Tim Canova, distributed campaign literature that was critical of the agreement and the former Democratic National Committee chair’s support of it.
“In challenging times Israel needs true friends in Congress. When called upon to protect Israel, some legislators step up,” the pamphlet said above Democrats who opposed the agreement, while “others don’t” above a picture of Wasserman Schultz.
Canova was subsequently criticized for vacillating on his own stance regarding the accord, as he also claimed in interviews that he wasn’t sure how he would have voted if he were in Congress at the time.
Furthermore, two of the Democrats he cited in his anti-Iran deal flyer, Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutsch, endorsed Wasserman Schultz, who went on to win her re-election bid last week.
Nadler’s and Van Hollen’s challengers, meanwhile, have been undeviating in their opposition to the deal, and each has used similar language to discredit their adversaries’ pro-Israel bona fides.
“We can no longer count on Jerry Nadler to be a strong pro-Israel voice,” Nadler’s Democratic opponent Oliver Rosenberg, a 30-year-old gay graduate of Yeshiva University, told JTA in June. “Iran is killing gay people. We just looked the other way when we handed $150 billion for them to continue despicable acts.”
Nadler, a 12-term incumbent who is also Jewish, went on to defeat Rosenberg for his House seat in New York’s 10th Congressional district, which comprises parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn and is the most heavily Jewish in the country.
In Maryland, Van Hollen has been similarly attacked in a general election campaign for an open Senate seat. State Delegate Kathy Szeliga, the Republican candidate, has said her opponent “cannot be counted on to stand with Israel” because of his vote in favor of the accord.
She told a local newspaper, Baltimore Jewish Life, in June that the Democratic leader would “stand with his party every time,” regardless of whether it may adversely effect Israel.
Van Hollen, like Wasserman Schultz and Nadler, has argued that the Iran deal prevents Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for the next 15 years and thus makes Israel safer. He has also called for strengthening America’s security commitment to the Jewish state in the wake of the agreement’s implementation.
“We must continue to work with our friends and allies to constantly contain and confront Iranian aggression in the region,” he said in a statement announcing his support for the deal.
“The fact remains that Iranian support for their terrorist proxy Hezbollah continues to destabilize Lebanon and poses a direct threat to Israel, as does its support for Hamas. We must do all we can to ensure that our ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region, including providing increased funding for Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic missile and Iron Dome anti-rocket systems.”
Critics have accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of greatly boosting the partisan divide over the Iran deal with his frequent public spats with Obama, and his controversial 2015 speech before Congress in which he urged that the deal be blocked. The address, orchestrated by Israel’s ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, was made at the behest of GOP House leaders without consulting the White House.
Yet since the deal made it through Congressional review in September 2015 — clearing the way for its enactment — Netanyahu has made several overtures to demonstrate his commitment to maintaining Israel as an issue of bipartisan consensus, including visiting Obama in Washington last November and speaking at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based in the nation’s capital.
While Republicans and Democrats in Jewish-heavy districts continue to treat the Iran deal as fodder for attacking incumbent candidates’ support for Israel, some leaders in the American Jewish community see that as ultimately inimical to Israel’s well-being.
“I don’t think it is in the long-term interest of the Jewish community or the safety and security of Israel, or the interest of the US-Israel alliance, for the Iran deal to be continually used as a litmus test for whether a representative is supportive enough of Israel,” said the Jewish Community Relations Council’s executive director Ron Halber in a phone interview with The Times of Israel.
“The reason why pro-Israel advocacy has been so successful in America is, number one, it’s in the United States’ national interest to be supportive as a fellow democracy and a nation that shares our values,” he added. “And number two, because domestically Israel is perceived as a bipartisan cause. Anything that rips at the fabric of that bipartisanship is counterproductive.”
Halber, whose nonprofit has worked closely with Van Hollen, sees Szeliga’s attacks as over the top, and encourages other Israel advocates to eschew such sweeping denunciations of pro-Iran deal Democrats.
“I understand the heated emotions that were around the Iran deal, including in my own organization, which took a position of reluctant opposition to the deal, but even after taking that formal position … If someone was for the Iran deal, but they support increased military aid to Israel, they support increased economic cooperation in all spheres, they are sympathetic to Israel’s strategic situation, if they are pro-Israel on a number of levels, and you are just going to write them off, what kind of strategic positioning is that?”
While Wasserman Schultz and Nadler have already won their respective primary campaigns, Van Hollen will face off in his general election contest against Szeliga on November 8.
But in a state that is heavily Democratic — and during a presidential election cycle that naturally sees higher voter turnout — Van Hollen is already the heavy favorite to win in November and replace outgoing Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving female senator in American history, who is stepping down after nearly three decades in that chamber.