US and Israel relations beyond partisanship

As someone who cares more about Israel’s security interests than political interests, I’ve grown concerned about the growing debate over which American political party is more supportive of Israel.

American and Israeli flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For 15 years, I served as a member of the United States Congress, representing Long Island in New York. Few issues were as important to me as the strength and security of Israel.
I was among the first members of Congress to visit Israel during Operation Protective Edge. I authored the resolution reaffirming Israel’s right to defend itself, along with Republican Rep. Tom Cole (the resolution was known as “Israel-Cole,” but some liked to call it “Kol-Yisrael”). I helped lead the successful efforts to secure funding for Israel’s missile defense systems including Iron Dome, and for tunnel detection. I voted against the Iran nuclear deal even while serving in the leadership of House Democrats.
As someone who cares more about Israel’s security interests than political interests, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the growing debate over which American political party is more supportive of Israel. It’s a dangerous calculation, and counterproductive to the long-term strategic interests of both nations. Trying to highlight political differences on Israel only plays into the hands of Israel’s critics and enemies.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is correct when he says that bipartisan cooperation in Washington is a vital strategic asset to Israel. In fact, when you really examine the important legislation in the House of Representatives that affects the security of the State of Israel, bipartisan accord is quite strong.
The resolution I introduced with Rep.
Cole was passed under an expedited consideration without any opposition.
And the most important bills appropriating military assistance to Israel receive wide and deep support from the majority in both parties.
For example, in August 2014, when Israel critically needed emergency funds for Iron Dome, the House of Representatives swiftly approved $225 million with overwhelming bipartisan support. Only eight of my colleagues opposed the measure: four were Democrats, four were Republican.
Some would argue that House Democrats’ votes on the Iran deal and another bill opposing America’s ill-advised abstention on a UN resolution criticizing Israeli settlements show a deeper divide.
Twenty-five out of 188 House Democrats opposed the Iran agreement; fewer than half opposed a resolution disapproving the UN measure.
I’m concerned with these votes. But on the Iran deal, my colleagues were exposed to arguments on both sides of the issue from within Israel. Israeli generals, politicians and analysts stated support for the agreement; many opposed it. In many congressional districts, there was a robust discussion of these issues at town hall meetings and constituent events with Americans who strongly support Israel but also favored the deal. In my own congressional district in New York, a majority of constituents who expressed a position actually supported the deal. My vote disappointed them.
The fact is that the argument of a diminution of Democratic support is wrong and only served a partisan agenda. For me personally, I want an American political party that is strong on Israel, but also on women’s rights, investments in education, protection of the environment and access to healthcare. I also want both political parties to show no daylight on the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
Finally, I want Israel’s friends in both political parties to focus on the core substantive issues that unite us, not the occasional issue that divides us.
There is one area that has been overlooked in the debate. I believe that Israeli leaders themselves – MKs, ministry officials, mayors, business executives – should have a deeper understanding of the inner workings of Congress: the committee and seniority system, the emerging generation of new House leaders, the role of Congress versus the White House in allocating funds to Israel’s security, and more. Some have an ironclad grip on how Congress operates and who gets things done. Others deserve a better sense. And, I’m certain, many of my congressional colleagues need a stronger understanding of Israel’s political dynamics and the fundamental geostrategic challenges it faces.
Our countries both face many challenges ahead. Those challenges will require two things: less talk about partisan divisions on Israel, and more dialogue between Israeli and American officials to better understand one another.
Steve Israel served for 16 years in Congress from New York and was a congressional Democratic leader. He chairs the Global Institute at Long Island University and recently participated in the 2017 Herzliya Conference at IDC.