US Rep. Eliot Engel has a simple creed: There is absolutely no contradiction – none whatsoever – in being a strong and proud Democrat and a strong and proud supporter of Israel.
“I believe in social justice, and I’m a strong Zionist who believes in a strong US-Israel relationship.
And they are all compatible to me,” the 14-term US Democratic congressman from New York, representing a district that includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, told The Jerusalem Post
in an interview this week.
A generation ago, when the Democratic Party was seen as the pro-Israel party in the US, those words would have sounded banal, eliciting a shrug of the shoulders and a reflexive “of course.”
But today, after eight years of a fraught, rocky relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama, after the bruising fight over the Iran deal (which Engel opposed), and after poll after poll showing significantly greater support for Israel among Republicans than among Democrats, those words can no longer be taken for granted.
Engel, in the country this week chairing a delegation of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians, which operates under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, warned against one party billing itself as the pro-Israel party, saying that runs contrary to Israel’s interests. He doesn’t mention the Republicans, but it is clear who he has in mind.
“I don’t want one party to use support of Israel to bolster itself politically,” said Engel, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The relationship between the US and Israel in the future is much too important for Israel to be used as a political pawn. Support for Israel has always been bipartisan; I’m going to keep fighting to keep it bipartisan.”
Although acknowledging that there are some in his party “on the ultra-Left who will never be supporters,” the party is made up of many different constituencies, and the ultra-Left is not the majority of the party and is not reflective of where the party stands on Israel.
While in the party there are critics of the current Israeli government, Engel says that he tells people that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and gets to choose its leaders. The US doesn’t choose the leaders, nor does any other country. We respect a democracy, and that is what a democracy is. There might be some people who would like Israel to tow the mark and do what they think, but the last time I looked, the government of Israel is responsible to Israelis.”
Recalling that historically US Jews have been heavily Democratic, he points out that of the 19 Jews in the House of Representatives, 18 of them are Democrats.
Another nine Jews serve in the Senate, and all of them are Democrats. Only eight of the other 27 Jews in Congress joined Engel in bucking the president and coming out against the Iran deal.
“A lot of people belong to the Democratic Party, as I do, because I believe strongly in social justice, and I believe the Democratic Party best personifies that.
“I don’t agree with everything from a foreign affairs point of view that comes out of the Democratic Party. I voted against the Iran deal. I think there is still a large body of support among the elected officials of the party, and I think that is important.
And we don’t want one party to be pro-Israel; we want both parties to be pro-Israel.”
Rather than saying one party is better for Israel than the other, Engel said that what is needed is “to take all the pro-Israel members of Congress, who are the overwhelming majority, and get all of them to work together – including the leadership – to make sure that Israel has its very legitimate security needs taken care of, protected and aided by the US.”
Asked if he felt Netanyahu is responsible for turning Israel into a “political pawn,” Engel answered in the negative.
“I think that what always happens with issues with Israel is that there are all kinds of conspiracy theories, and people are always trying to get into people’s heads and look at their motives. I don’t do that,” he said.
“I think the prime minister – and I have talked about it with him many times – honestly and sincerely believes that the Iran deal is a very bad deal, certainly for Israel, and in general a bad deal. And I think he had the right to convey his feeling to the American elected officials, and then the decision is made by the American elected officials.”
Engel refrained, when looking back on the brouhaha caused by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March, from terming the decision to address Congress over Obama’s strong objections a mistake.
“In retrospect I don’t think the speech made a difference one way or another in terms of the ultimate vote,” he said. “I think it was a tempest in a teapot, and that a lot more of it was made than should have been.”
The congressman said that he did not feel any significant blowback against him in the party for his decision not to back the Iranian deal, although “I know that [Minority House Leader] Nancy Pelosi wished I had voted the other way. She was strongly campaigning in our caucus and other meetings to vote for the deal.”
But, Engel continued, “we are there to vote as we think, what we think is right.”
It wasn’t only Pelosi, but also Obama, who tried to convince him, inviting him to the Oval Office during the summer for a 45-minute chat.
Engel said the president tried to convince him to support the deal, but that he responded that he probably would not, and then laid out the reasons why: foremost his concern that an Iran awash with billions of dollars in lifted sanctions funds would give it an even greater ability than it has now to destabilize the region and sponsor terrorism.
Asked if that conversation was difficult, Engel responded, “I’m a big boy. I thought the president was appropriate. He made his case. He didn’t do it in a threatening way. He didn’t to inappropriately. I just disagreed.”
As to whether he thought Obama could be called a pro-Israel president, Engel said Obama is “pro-Israel from the point of view that he understands how important it is for the US to help Israel, and he understand that Israel’s values are the US’s values.
“I know there are a lot of people who criticize him for a number of things,” he said. “To be fair, I haven’t always agreed with everything he has done with Israel. But if you are criticizing him or anyone for what you don’t like, you have to praise what you do like. The Iron Dome [missile defense system] was a very important thing that saved Israeli lives, and President Obama was in the forefront for providing money and a big supporter of Iron Dome.”
Likewise, Engel said, Obama backed Israel on numerous occasions in the UN, both voting against and even vetoing problematic resolutions when necessary, as well as working behind the scenes many times to twist arms and ensure that certain resolutions didn’t even get the requisite support to bring to a vote.
As to how he feels Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton would be for Israel if elected, Engel opined that she “understands the importance of a strong Israel. She understands what Israel means in terms of being our best friend in the Middle East, and – I’d even argue – in the world.
“I also think she understands that the American Jewish community is very strong and committed to Israel,” he added. “That doesn’t mean everyone always agrees with everybody every time on every issue, but strengthening Israel and the US-Israel alliance is a priority for the vast majority of Jewish Americans.”
Engel also said that as a former senator from New York, Clinton “interacted very well” with the Jewish community.
“I’ve had discussions with her about Israel. I believe her policies will be very similar to her husband’s policies, and I regarded Bill Clinton as a pro-Israel president, someone who understood the issues and understood why it was important to have a strong Israel. I think she’ll be just fine.
“Will I agree with every move she makes? The only person I agree with 100 percent of the time is myself, but I think she will be a pro-Israel president.”