Eliot Engel: Israel lost a key ally on Capitol Hill - analysis

Engel's absence in Washington will be missed by Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with US Reps. Ed Royce (left) and Eliot Engel. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with US Reps. Ed Royce (left) and Eliot Engel.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
With the apparent defeat of New York Congressman Eliot Engel in a Democratic primary election on Tuesday, Israel has suffered what can be called another Eric Cantor moment.
Remember Eric Cantor? He was the powerful Republican House majority leader, one of the highest-ranking Jewish politicians in US history and a staunch and stalwart supporter and defender of Israel, who was astonishingly defeated in his own Virginia primary race in 2014.
The Los Angeles Times called Cantor’s defeat to Dave Brat – who himself has since been turned out of office – “one of the greatest political upsets of modern times.”
The apparent defeat of Engel, also a Jewish congressman who rose high in the ranks of his party over a 31-year congressional career, culminating now in his serving as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was nowhere near the surprise of Cantor’s.
Though the race has yet to be officially declared, because tens of thousands of absentee ballots still need to be counted, Jamaal Bowman – Engel’s opponent from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – holds a 25%, or 12,000-vote, lead over Engel. It seems insurmountable, and Bowman, an African-American former middle-school principal, has already declared victory.
And what makes this an Eric Cantor moment? Because Israel – in an instant – is losing one of its strongest and most consistent supporters, someone who even bucked his own party’s position and voted against Barack Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Engel’s absence in Washington will be missed by Jerusalem.
Yet despite the tendency in Israel to think that much revolves around us, Engel did not lose his seat because of his support for Israel. With the US reeling from COVID-19 and seething with tension over race, Israel was not a major issue in the campaign.
Rather, like Cantor, Engel lost because he became ensconced in Washington and detached from the district he was sent to represent: the Bronx and Westchester county. His campaign took a massive hit earlier this month when he was overheard on a hot mic at a press conference dealing with police brutality where he was asking to speak, telling the MC: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Though Israel was not a major issue in the campaign, the two candidates were far apart on the issue. Bowman, endorsed by progressives such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – all very highly critical of Israel – drew a comparison during the campaign, according to an article in Slate, “between police oppression of Black Americans and Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.”
And earlier in the campaign he said in a magazine interview that the US “should seriously consider placing conditions on the billions of dollars of military aid our government provides [Israel] in order to make sure that the rights and dignity of both the Israeli and Palestinian people are respected.”
After being called out about his positions on Israel in a letter in the Riverdale Press by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a constituent of Engel’s district, Bowman responded with a letter of his own, saying that he believes “firmly in the right of Israelis to live in safety and peace, free from the fear of violence and terrorism from Hamas and other extremists.”
He also wrote: “I can connect to what it feels like for Palestinians to feel the presence of the military in their daily lives in the West Bank. I can also understand the crushing poverty and deprivation in the Gaza Strip. I believe Palestinians have the same rights to freedom and dignity as my Jewish brothers and sisters. I will fight for their liberation, just as hard as I will for yours.”
And even though those who carefully watch the American political scene to detect shifts in support for Israel may take solace in the fact that Engel did not get defeated because of his stance on Israel, that he was defeated by someone whose positions on Israel reflect those of the Sanders-Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party may have a creeping impact on support for Israel in Washington.
And that reflects a larger trend taking place across America: Changes afoot there are not about Israel, but they certainly may impact it. Engel did not lose because of his support for Israel, but now that he has lost, Israel will feel it.