WASHINGTON — For the last several decades, one of the easiest positions to take on Capitol Hill was to unequivocally support Israel. The reasons for this were manifold: from the power and efficacy of the pro-Israel lobby to the simple reality that most Americans have historically believed in the legitimacy of the Israeli cause.
In today’s Washington, however, things may no longer be so clear cut.
The views of congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — who each support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel — are far from mainstream. They are only two out of 235 Democratic lawmakers.
But Jerusalem’s decision to bar the two of them from entering the country last week has brought to the forefront a new reality: Israel has become increasingly more difficult for Democrats to defend.
“I think we’re going to have to work harder to make the case,” Democratic Congressman Brad Schneider, a staunch pro-Israel supporter, told The Times of Israel on Friday. “I don’t think it’s harder to make the case. The facts are still the same. Israel is still our most valuable ally in the region. But we will have to work harder.”
That’s not because Democrats have become suddenly hostile to the notion of a Jewish state. It’s because the leader of the Jewish state has aligned his country with an American president who has made it his mission to turn Israel into a partisan cause.
“This was obviously an attempt to hurt Israel,” said California Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat. “Maybe not intentionally, but he’s taking a country with essentially one friend in the world and is trying to turn it into a country with half a friend in the world.”
Sherman, who is one of the strongest Israel supporters in the House, pinned the blame for the incident almost exclusively on US President Donald Trump, who he called a “pseudo-Zionist” who “uses Israel to benefit his own interests.”
In July, Israel announced it would allow Omar and Tlaib to visit, despite a 2017 Israeli law that bars any foreigner who knowingly promotes Israel boycotts. But last week, the Netanyahu government reversed course after Trump warned that it would “show great weakness” for Israel to allow them in.
“This was not an Israeli action,” Sherman told The Times of Israel. “Israel has taken action under intense coercion of the president of the United States. When the president tells them to do it, they have to do it. God knows what Trump would have done if they didn’t.”
Since then, Trump has tweeted multiple times that the two freshmen congresswomen “hate Israel” and are “the face of the Democratic Party.” In other words, he’s been using the incident to boost his standing among pro-Israel constituencies — most notably, with evangelical Christians.
Yet this is just the latest episode involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past year that has made his government unpalatable to American liberals. In February, he struck a deal to allow an anti-Arab racist party into the governing coalition, a move that US commentators equated with nominating someone from the Ku Klux Klan to a cabinet post. In March, he vowed to annex West Bank settlements.
Some liberal activists see the the US and Israel as facing a similar challenge: that of combating the rise of an autocratic, populist leader who energizes and enables his nation’s darkest forces.
“For people who are upset by what’s happening here and there — this is a political fight,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads the progressive Zionist group J Street. “There is a right and wrong, and if you believe in certain democratic principles, you have to fight against those who don’t.”
What about the next wave of freshmen Democrats?
Schneider is known by some in Washington as an AIPAC Democrat. He’s closely aligned with the powerful pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, he wrote and introduced a House resolution passed earlier this summer that condemned the BDS movement. As such, he often meets with freshmen members of Congress to discuss the importance of the US-Israel alliance.
But since the Omar and Tlaib ban, he envisions those conversations will require a much harder sell.
“When I sit down with new members of Congress, as I’ve done in the past, there may be some initial reluctance and resistance,” he said. “But I think we’ll still have the facts on our side to make the case, which is why it would have made sense to let Omar and Tlaib go to Israel, because now Israel looks like it has something to hide.”
Schneider said that Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer called him shortly before the decision was announced last week. While Schneider says he believes that on Israel, Omar and Tlaib are “not just wrong, they’re dead wrong,” he noted that he had “an extended conversation” with Dermer in which he warned him about the possible ramifications.
Schneider said he’d told Dermer that “keeping them from visiting the country would not just amplify their messages but give them a soundstage to broadcast them.”
He added wistfully, “And that’s exactly what we’ve seen happen. They’ve gotten a lot of air time since the decision was made.”