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Analysis

‘Squad’ intercepted Iron Dome with perfectly timed strike on US-Israel ties

The Democratic Party mainstream remains staunchly pro-Israel, but progressives use partisan gridlock to make the Jewish state a wedge issue

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15: (Left to right) US Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Democrat-Massachusetts), Ilhan Omar (Democrat-Minnesota) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat-New York) listen as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Democrat-Michigan) pauses while speaking at a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. on July 15, 2019. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images/AFP)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15: (Left to right) US Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Democrat-Massachusetts), Ilhan Omar (Democrat-Minnesota) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat-New York) listen as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Democrat-Michigan) pauses while speaking at a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. on July 15, 2019. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images/AFP)

It came as no surprise when senior Democrats and Israeli officials tried their best to downplay the fact that the so-called Squad of progressive legislators forced Iron Dome funding to be pulled from a bill to keep the United States government funded on Tuesday.

“It is my intention to bring to this floor a suspension bill before the end of this week that will fund fully Iron Dome. I was for that. I’m still for it, we ought to do it,” said US House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in the aftermath. “I talked to the [Israeli] foreign minister, Mr. [Yair] Lapid, just two hours ago and assured him that bill was going to pass this House.”

After that conversation, Lapid also sought to project a sense of business as usual, saying in a statement that Hoyer had reassured him that the issue was a mere “technical delay.”

Indeed, the surprise development is a product of the state of domestic US politics and of the Democratic party, not a premeditated act against Israel by the party leadership or rank-and-file.

“It’s largely a result of the struggle within the Democratic Party over the budget in general,” said Nadav Tamir, board member at the Mitvim regional policy think tank, and J Street Israel executive director. “The progressives want a more ambitious budget in terms of social justice, while the leadership wants to pass a bill that’s more focused on infrastructure that can gather the support of some Republicans. ”

“The Squad is not the future of the Democratic Party. It is a small minority within the Democratic Party. But it is a measure of the polarization within the Congress today that they could use their marginal position to derail this element of the continuing resolution,” added Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to pass a bill by September 30 to keep the government funded through the start of December. She needed all hands on deck to pass the budgetary bill, and could not afford to lose progressive votes because no Republican was willing to support it.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 30, 2021 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Pelosi may have originally calculated that adding the Iron Dome funding would be a way to entice Republicans, but this did not bring any onboard. In the end, the House passed the Democratic bill without Iron Dome funding on Tuesday, with all Democrats – including progressives – supporting it and all Republicans opposing.

Now the focus moves to the Senate, where Democrats fear they’ll be blamed for a government shutdown next week if they don’t compromise with Republicans.

Choosing their battles

The stark partisan split gave the outspoken group of progressive House representatives known as the Squad — which includes Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of NY, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Cori Bush of Missouri — influence far beyond their numbers warrant.

And they knew how to use that leverage.

“They’re carefully choosing their battles,” an analyst with years of experience studying US progressive politics told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity. “They know exactly what they’re doing. They have it mapped out, they have it planned out.”

The Squad chose not to put up a major fight over the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform on Israel, which did not mention the Israeli “occupation” or condition aid to Israel on the cancellation of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

They knew that their wing of the party was too small to dictate language on Israel, and that the platform wasn’t a significant driver of policy in any event.

But they are well aware that they hold plenty of power when it comes to passing massive budgets on party-line votes.

“It was perfect timing to turn Israel into a wedge issue,” said the analyst.

Rockets from Gaza, on right, are seen in the night sky fired toward Israel from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on May 14, 2021, while Iron Dome interceptor missiles, on left, rise to meet them. (Anas Baba/AFP)

Given the partisan nature of US politics today, Israel cannot afford to be seen as a wedge issue.

The progressives’ move was “a shot across the bow, and a very well-aimed one,” Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US during the Barack Obama administration, told The Times of Israel.

“During the Obama period, progressives were much smaller, and less powerful, and also they were afraid to take on Obama,” Oren said. “Progressives are much more powerful, and they’re not afraid to take on [Joe] Biden.”

Vulnerable president

The Iron Dome issue couldn’t come at a worse time for the US president. With COVID cases and deaths rising in the US, and administration officials continuing to make politically damaging statements about immigration at the southern border, Biden’s approval ratings began to take on water earlier this summer. His ratings began to truly sink after the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, falling below 50%, where they have remained.

Former MK and Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren. (Times of Israel)

Biden’s attempts to show strength and competence in the wake of the Taliban takeover took another hit when the final US drone strike in its 20-year Afghanistan campaign killed 10 civilians — including seven children —  instead of Islamic State fighters.

Last Friday, America’s oldest ally, France, recalled its ambassador in an unprecedented show of anger over a scrapped submarine deal that dwarfed decades of previous rifts. The move represented  a shocking turnaround for France under the centrist Emmanuel Macron, who — after an increasingly bitter relationship with former President Donald Trump — warmly clasped hands with Biden at a G-7 summit in June and confirmed that “America is back.”

If Biden loses control of the House or Senate — both held by Democrats by the thinnest of margins — he will become a lame-duck president only two years into his term. Incumbent parties generally do poorly in midterms, and Republicans have already been lambasting Biden over inflation and immigration.

A new line of attack has emerged — the claim that Biden shuns allies while aiding America’s foes, like Iran and the Taliban.

Taliban soldiers walk towards Afghans shouting slogans, during an anti-Pakistan demonstration, near the Pakistan embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon)

Headlines about Democrats delaying funding for a purely defensive, life-saving technology like Iron Dome will only give the GOP more ammunition, thanks to the Squad.

Emboldened Squad

The progressive lawmakers showed they weren’t afraid of Pelosi either. In 2019, Ocasio-Cortez intimated that Pelosi singled out women of color, leaving Trump to defend the embattled speaker.

Here, too, the Squad forced Pelosi’s hand, embarrassing her and other Democrat House leaders.

They also weren’t concerned about going after the Obama legacy. US funding for the Iron Dome was Exhibit A in Obama supporters’ case that he was deeply supportive of Israel, despite disagreements over Iran’s nuclear program and settlements.

It is a clear sign that the progressive wing doesn’t take marching orders from the septuagenarians and octogenarians at the head of the party’s traditional pro-Israel mainstream.

Then-US president Barack Obama, right, Then-IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, left, then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery, March 20, 2013. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Ari Cicurel, senior policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, saw an opportunity for Israel to cement its relationship with pro-Israel Democrats, a tack Lapid seemed to be taking with Hoyer.

“Certainly the Democratic leadership remains pro-Israel,” he said. “There is some engagement that could be done with progressives who may not see everything our way, but certainly dialogue is important.”

“And at some level,” Cicurel added, “it’s really incumbent on moderate Democrats to shape their party and to make sure it remains pro-Israel.”

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