Pelosi, Hoyer quit leadership: Will bipartisan support for Israel change? - analysis

Dr. Guy Ziv: “Mainstream Democratic politicians remain pro-Israel and the Democratic Party is still, by and large, a pro-Israel party.”

 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leaves her office to announce her decision about her future at the US Capitol in Washington, US, November 17, 2022. (photo credit: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leaves her office to announce her decision about her future at the US Capitol in Washington, US, November 17, 2022.
(photo credit: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters)

WASHINGTON - US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and outgoing majority leader Steny Hoyer announced last week that they will step down from their leadership positions, following the midterm elections in which Democrats lost the majority in the House.

Pelosi has served in Congress for 35 years, including 20 years in leadership positions. Hoyer has served in Congress for 41 years and has been in leadership positions for three decades. Over the years, the two have developed close relationships with many Israeli leaders and toured the country dozens of times. Hoyer was particularly vocal against UN Security Council resolution 2334 against Israel in the final days of the Obama administration. He also supported the US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and criticized the 2015 deal with Iran, stating, “this agreement is not one which I would have negotiated, nor one I think should have been agreed to.

With the two Democratic leaders stepping down, members of the pro-Israel community in Washington are wondering who their successors will be, and how it will affect the bipartisan support for the country on Capitol Hill, as the left flank of the Party has become notably critical of Israel in recent years.

“There is no question that Pelosi and Hoyer have been consistently staunch supporters of Israel, so their retirement from their posts means Israel is losing two big, powerful allies in the House leadership,” said Dr. Guy Ziv, an associate professor in America University’s School of International Service, where he teaches courses on US-Israel relations. “That said, I do not expect to see a dramatic shift overnight in Democrats’ support for Israel,” said Ziv.

“There is a growing number of young, progressive Democrats who tend to be more critical of Israel, but they are neither united on Israel-related matters – for example, Ritchie Torres is a young progressive who is strongly pro-Israel – nor particularly influential on foreign affairs and national security issues,” Ziv continued. “Mainstream Democratic politicians remain pro-Israel and the Democratic Party is still, by and large, a pro-Israel party.”

“Mainstream Democratic politicians remain pro-Israel and the Democratic Party is still, by and large, a pro-Israel party.”

Dr. Guy Ziv
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer attends House Democrats news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington (credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer attends House Democrats news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington (credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)

“I do expect to see shifts in the party’s attitudes toward Israel in the years ahead, as the younger generation of Democrats, who are more sympathetic to the Palestinians than they are to Israel, makes further inroads in Congress, and as a more conservative Israeli government pursues ever-more hardline policies toward Palestinians,” Ziv added.

Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings Institute, said that the changing of the guards in the Democratic party in and of itself does not transform the party’s stance on Israel, “but there’s no question that the younger generation of Democrats tend have a far more critical view of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians than the older one.”

“The real question might be not when representatives with strong views one way or another take control, but when people who are on the fence on the issue find political advantage in a more balanced approach,” Sachs said. “In the past, those who were neutral preferred to toe the pro-Israel line; that may be changing.”

The most telling sings are probably not from the left flank of the party but from its hawkish side, he noted. “For example, Senator Bob Menendez’s comments in recent months and years on extremism in Israel and on the use of force in Gaza, were a sign of where things are headed.”

"Supporters of Israel are breathing a sigh of relief"

Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former White House aide. “Supporters of Israel are breathing a sigh of relief over this particular changing of the guard within the Democratic Party, but are rightly concerned that future changings of the guard may not be as comforting,” he said. “Long-term, there are some worrisome trends within the Democratic Party regarding support for Israel and it’s not clear where things will stand 10 or 20 years from now.”

David Makovsky, Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations, noted that the issue of polarization in the US transcends the Israel issue. “In the past, people from the other party were considered misguided and now they are sadly viewed as dangerous,” he said.

Bipartisanship has been a crucial pillar of the US-Israel relationship for so many decades, said Makovsky. “Perhaps apart from the existence of the IDF itself, there has not been a greater contribution to Israel’s national security,” he said. “It has endured a deepening of the bilateral security relationship no matter which party is in power. No doubt Israelis can be fatalists and trends away from bipartisanship will become a self—fulfilling prophecy over time. Or alternatively, Israelis can come to an ‘Un-Israeli’ conclusion: basis of close ties is not just about the commonality of interests.”

Common interests are important as it could bind governments but common values is what is more enduring as it binds societies in both countries, he said. “The genius of Israel for decades is understanding you need both:  shared interests and shared values. Instead of being fatalistic, it would be wonderful if the new government in Israel accentuated policies that reflected the very shared western  values between the two counties that binds the US-Israel relationship and enabled it to flourish for so long,” said Makovsky. “Israeli actions will be key in helping shape the trajectory in either direction. If Israel remains fatalistic, it should not be surprised by the result.”

Dan Arbell, a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Israeli Studies at American University, and a 25 year veteran of the Israeli Foreign Service, said that “Pelosi and Hoyer are not the last pro-Israel leaders but israeli policy as well as trends inside the Dem Party will likely further deepen the divide between israel, the party and its supporters.”

Scott Lasensky, a visiting professor of Israel and Jewish studies at UMD and a former State Dept official on Israel, said that “individual leaders and their worldviews and styles matter, no doubt, but bipartisan support for Israel in Congress is deeply tied to broad public support, which remains strong.”

“It also hinges on the directions of the two parties on foreign policy, and it’s here, where divergences are growing, that will be most consequential for Israel over time,” said Lasensky.

He said that on core questions of Israelis security, which is also one of the few areas of consensus in the Jewish community, bipartisan support appears deeply rooted. “Just look at the outsized majorities on defense assistance votes,” said Lasensky. “But on value-driven questions—take the fight a few years ago about Israel deporting African asylum seekers, the Democratic leadership in Congress — backed by some segments of the Jewish community — did not hesitate to express public disagreement with Israel, while virtually all Republican leaders remained silent.”

“That’s a pattern that is likely to reappear,” he estimated.