WASHINGTON, DC — 1. Until just days ago, Israel was one of the very last bipartisan, relatively consensual issues in America’s bitterly polarized political arena. Divided on most everything, legislators could at least come together, for instance, to approve supplementary funding for the Iron Dome defense system at the time of the 2014 conflict with Hamas, when thousands of rockets were being fired into Israel.
Emblematically, as they made their separate trips to Israel under the aegis of the educational affiliate of the AIPAC lobby earlier this month, newly elected members of Congress from the Republican and Democratic parties celebrated the fact that the last few days of the Democrats’ trip overlapped with the first few days of the Republicans’, enabling them to spend a weekend in Israel on a joint program — a rare, and, the participants themselves stressed, much appreciated, bridge across the partisan divide.
Now, though, Israel is emphatically a wedge issue in American politics, and one that will feature not only in the 2020 presidential campaign (where candidates are already weighing in) but in electoral battles nationwide.
Our small, embattled country is declaredly loathed by the two first Muslim women ever elected to US Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who were prevented by Israel from entering on a planned visit last weekend because of their energetic support of the BDS movement (which ostensibly seeks to pressure Israel to change its policies on the Palestinians, but in fact seeks to weaken Israel’s legitimacy and thus undermine Israel’s very existence). And the Tlaib-Omar assault on Israel, given immense resonance by Israel’s ban, has now in turn been seized upon by US President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday asserted that “any Jewish people who would vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
2. There is a dreadful — for Israel — symbiosis between the Israel-demonizing wing of the Democratic Party and the president. Trump wants “The Squad” — Tlaib, Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley — to be perceived by the US electorate as the emerging face of today’s Democratic Party… and so do they.
The reality is, of course, far more nuanced and complex. Ocasio-Cortez is a resonant, passionately supported and increasingly influential figure, while Tlaib and Omar were, until the past few days, relatively isolated within their party. The more Trump attacks them, however, the more the Democratic mainstream rallies around them.
When Israel gets drawn into that face-off, as it now has been, pro-Israel Democrats — politicians and voters — are caught in the squeeze. When Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen to be acting in the service of their adversary Trump’s partisan political interests, as he is now (by seeming to do Trump’s bidding in banning the duo), Israel’s prime minister also becomes the Democrats’ adversary. And so, potentially, does Israel itself.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s declaration that the “ongoing relationship” between the US and Israel “can withstand Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu” and their “weaknesses” marked a bid to highlight that danger and try to avert it.
3. How marginal were Tlaib and Omar in their antipathy to Israel? So marginal that despite a concerted effort, backed by an array of Jewish groups of varying levels of hostility to Israel, to dissuade their freshmen colleagues from joining the AIPAC-affiliated mission to Israel, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer mustered an unprecedented 41-strong delegation, including legislators who were not certain about where they should stand on Israel but who were nonetheless unpersuaded by the #SkiptheTrip” campaign.
At the same time, and despite their best efforts, Tlaib (who has 750,000 Twitter followers) and Omar (1.5 million) had managed to attract only a single legislator, Stacey Plaskett from the Virgin Islands’s at-large congressional district, to their thwarted alternative “Delegation to Palestine.” Ocasio-Cortez (5 million Twitter followers) didn’t join Hoyer’s group, but neither, with her eyes on bigger goals, did she sign up for the Tlaib-Omar venture.
4. One might be tempted to find a crumb of comfort in the timing of these trips — the mainstream, AIPAC-linked missions predating by a few days the banned Tlaib-Omar visit. For had the crisis played out on the opposite timeline — had Omar and Tlaib been barred before the scheduled Hoyer-led mission, it’s far from certain that those 41 Democrats would have come at all. Hoyer, who had been assured by Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer that his two party colleagues would be allowed to enter, and who feels betrayed by the reversal, might have felt tempted to call off his group’s visit.
Any such comfort may be fleeting, however. The test will come when the next AIPAC-affiliated visit by freshmen Democrats is being planned.
5. Where Omar is less marginal is within the Congressional Black Caucus, which last month castigated Trump for his “why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” tweet against The Squad, which in turn prompted “Send her back” chants aimed at the Somalia-born Omar at a Trump rally. Trump’s “racist and hate filled rhetoric has recklessly increased danger to a sitting member of Congress and mother to three small children,” the caucus said in a statement.
Understandably protective of Omar, a young, slight, black, female ex-refugee, many in the caucus have also neither forgotten nor forgiven Netanyahu for his 2015 speech to Congress, lobbying against the Barack Obama-championed Iran nuclear deal, a speech which they regarded as an assault on the president.
6. Trump’s incendiary assertion that Jews who vote Democrat must be either dumb or disloyal highlights a heartfelt frustration, and in many cases bitterness, in Republican circles about the Jewish vote in America. What more, it is widely asked, does the president, and does the Republican party, have to do on behalf of Israel to shift that 70% or higher American Jewish vote for the Democrats?
Trump’s incendiary assertion that Jews who vote Democrat must be either dumb or disloyal highlights a heartfelt frustration, and in many cases bitterness, in Republican circles about the Jewish vote in America
I’ve been asked this question several times of late, in a variety of formulations, in tones ranging from bafflement to anger. Trump has recognized Jerusalem and the Golan as Israel’s. Republicans on Capitol Hill are solidly in Israel’s corner, which can hardly be said for all Democrats. Evangelical Christians stand with Israel. So why don’t America’s Jews reward Republican candidates?
The puzzlement is understandable. And a familiar response — that Jewish Americans have traditionally felt the echo between Jewish and Democrat “heal the world” values — does not tell the full story. Another part is the ongoing divergence between American Jewry, the Orthodox community excepted, and Israel, as reflected in polling such as that by the American Jewish Committee. The Jewish vote and the Jewish pro-Israel vote are not one and the same.
Many young American Jews in particular are less instinctively invested in Israel’s well-being, many are just less interested, and many are prominently hostile — becoming alienated from an Israel they regard as less pluralistic (given the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on official Judaism in the Jewish state) and less democratic (given Netanyahu’s assaults on media, cops and prosecutors, and the passage of legislation such as the anti-BDS law that was utilized against Tlaib and Omar). In the summation of its 2018 survey, the AJC worried that the entire concept of a global Jewish community is gradually losing its meaning, and warned that, unless that trend was reversed, “the next AJC survey will find even more American and Israeli Jews writing off those in the other country as ‘not part of my family.'”
Thus, presidential and Republican dismay that their pro-Israel bona fides don’t win more Jewish votes misses two points: that plenty of American Jews don’t care that much about Israel, and that Israel is not a straightforward issue for many of those American Jews who do.
7. Omar’s call to deny aid to Israel so long as it bars elected US legislators is not about to become widely endorsed. Democrats’ efforts to punish Israel for the ban and to take steps against US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (for backing the actions of a foreign state in barring his country’s elected lawmakers) are unlikely to be more than symbolic.
The banning business is unlikely to be over
8. But the saga has many more iterations yet to play out. For a start, the banning business is unlikely to be over.
Having excluded Tlaib and Omar, citing their BDS support and its anti-BDS legislation, Israel is unlikely to now suddenly stop invoking that law when other elected critics seek to come calling. To bar two legislators from our most important ally, but allow in similar critics from elsewhere, would open the government to still more criticism and ridicule than its volte face on Tlaib and Omar has already invited.
9. Some of Israel’s most stalwart backers in the Democratic Party — Hoyer, Nita Lowey, Eliot Engel among them — are not as young as they were, and their successors may not be as supportive as they have been. Support for Israel on Capitol Hill remains overwhelming, but it is being challenged, and the departure of key advocates will inevitably hurt.
10. More widely, the Democratic Party is in transition. And that party, sooner or later, will get back into the White House. As one pro-Israel Washington veteran put it dryly to me this week, the model whereby when one party is in power we say “Hurray” and when the other party is in power we say “Oy” is not a good model for Israel.
Israel’s geopolitical reality would be compromised not only by the remote prospect of an overtly hostile US president, but by the election of a US president who merely doesn’t care all that much
Since its first days, leaders of the modern state have recognized the existential imperative to have a great power in Israel’s corner, ready, willing and able to step in and exercise its influence when times are toughest.
Israel’s geopolitical reality would be compromised not only by the remote prospect of an overtly hostile US president, but by the election of a US president who just doesn’t care about Israel all that much, isn’t too excited by it, or doesn’t feel it’s worth going out on a limb for. And no matter how much some unstinting supporters of Trump and Netanyahu refuse to look a little further along the path, that’s a danger that is now accelerating toward us.