New congressional democrats take on Israel and Netanyahu

Netanyahu will once again have to consider the stance of the Democrats, who won the majority in the House, but he can expect bipartisan support on Iran.

Ilhan Omar (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ilhan Omar
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE US midterm election results are not good news for Israel’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But they do not portend big troubles for Netanyahu either.
The Republicans have increased their majority in the US Senate but lost their majority in the House of Representatives. Thus, two years after winning the lottery, with the Donald Trump ticket as president, and a solid Republican majority in the House, Netanyahu is now back to square one. Netanyahu, once again, will have to take into consideration the policies, agendas and interests of the Democrats whom he and the Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, have neglected.
But this time they will have to work harder.
The new Democratic congressmen and congresswomen are younger, more radical, and represent more minorities: Afro-Americans, Latinos, Asians Native Americans and LGBT.
They are the “Young Turks” of the Democratic Party. They want to see a change and don’t hesitate to stand up to authority – the old guard of leadership of their own party.
Some of the newly elected are certainly anti-Israel. Towering above all are Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. They are the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
Tlaib, who is from Detroit, Michigan, has also made history as the first Palestinian- American woman elected to be a member of the US Congress. She supports cutting military aid to Israel and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Omar has spoken about the “apartheid Israeli regime” that “has hypnotized the world.”
There are two other congresswomen who are noteworthy. Ayanna Pressley from Boston is the first Afro-American woman to represent Massachusetts in the House. The other is Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez from Queens, New York, who at the age 29, is the youngest ever member of Congress.
During the May 2018 protest at the Gaza border in which 60 Palestinians were killed, both expressed what are considered to be progressive ideas. Ocasio-Cortez harshly criticized the IDF for using lethal weapons in one of her tweets. “This is a massacre.
I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can't be silent about this anymore,” she wrote. Later, she said that she supports a two-state solution.
There are many more who define themselves as liberals. They are not necessarily Israel-bashers. But they have less interest and understanding of foreign policy, in general, and the Middle East, in particular. They certainly lack any emotional attachment to Israel, unlike the older generations of elected officials, and are less vulnerable to group or individual pressures from AIPAC, the pro-Israeli lobby, J-Street or megadonors such as Sheldon Adelson or Haim Saban.
They don’t hide the fact that they identify more with the weak and underdog Palestinians, whom they see as suffering, rather than the strong and occupying forces of Israel.
The Democratic faction in the House is surely expected to raise hell for Trump’s presidency. Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to continue as Speaker of the House, made it clear that the Democrats would not succumb to Trump's bullying tweets and would challenge his divisive and inciting attitudes. Most of the Democratic anger, if not rage, will be directed against Trump’s domestic policies: immigration, gun control, Medicare and his efforts to stop the Mueller investigation.
But some of the anti-Trump wave may well be leveled at his foreign policy, including his one-sided moves in favor of Israel and against the Palestinians: cutting funds to UNRWA and hospitals in East Jerusalem, the relocation of the US Embassy to West Jerusalem and his, so far, empty promise to ignite Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to achieve “the deal of the century.”
In other words, borrowing from an old saying, “If America sneezes, Israel may catch cold.” Although Trump has shown no signs of softening his bellicose language, he may reach the conclusion that he has no choice but to work together with a hostile Congress, to make compromises, and here and there to throw some crumbs to his opponents, including a small Israeli bone.
If he does so and it is a big “if,” the ramifications for the Israeli government would be minor. Most Israel watchers and experts, including the pro-Israel lobbies of AIPAC and J-Street, point out that the anti-Israel (or, at least, not pro-Israel) elements in the Democratic Party are still a tiny minority.
They pose no real challenge to the old guard and establishment, which is still very supportive of Israel, even if they occasionally criticize some of the policies of the Netanyahu government.
Also newcomers, such as Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens, two young women from Michigan, declare themselves to be “pro-Israel.”
Slotkin, a Jew who unseated the Republican incumbent Mike Bishop, is a former Pentagon and CIA analyst and served in Iraq, where she met her husband, a colonel in the US Army. She knows the Middle East well and has visited Israel several times.
On her website, she proudly writes that she helped facilitate the deal to sell F-35 fighter jets to Israel, worked on US-Israel missile defense programs, including the Iron Dome, supports a two-state solution, and that she “worked as a grant writer for Isha L’Isha Haifa feminist center, a grassroots feminist organization in Israel.
Stevens said during her campaign, “I believe in a strong US-Israel relationship. The United States and Israel maintain a special allied relationship, bound by our shared commitment to common values. This is a relationship that must continue to thrive and go unquestioned – and most importantly cannot become a partisan issue. I am undoubtedly a staunch supporter of Israel and am eager for the opportunity to experience the country firsthand.”
But even if some minor cracks appear in the Democratic Party’s attitude toward Israel, Netanyahu can be assured that the foreign policy issue he treasures most – Iran – will enjoy bipartisan support.
THERE ARE very few senators and representatives of the Democratic Party who advocate going back to square one with Iran. A day before the midterm elections, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran.
They cover “energy, banking, shipping, and shipbuilding industries.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that if the US determines that any company is subverting the sanctions on Iran, “the United States will levy severe swift penalties on it, including potential sanctions.”
The sanctions are aimed at further curbing Iran’s nuclear program, halting its continued long-range missile development and tests, and forcing Tehran to think twice about its hegemonic efforts to control the region by interfering in civil wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
These aims are exactly what Netanyahu advocated before and after President Barack Obama, in July 2015, rushed to sign the nuclear deal between Iran and the six major powers, a deal known as the JCPOA.
Netanyahu gambled against the deal. He didn’t hesitate to go behind Obama’s back to Congress, making a direct plea not to confirm the deal. He lost then, but didn’t give up and struck it lucky when Trump entered the White House and eventually pulled the US from the JCPOA and now reimposed and expanded the sanctions.
True, eight states – India, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Greece – which heavily relied on oil imports from Iran – are exempted. But their waiver is temporary, only for six months. Most of them, except India and China, had begun to reduce their dependence on Iranian oil even before the sanctions were declared.
The new wave of sanctions almost completely reverses the policies of the Obama presidency. US National Security Adviser John Bolton promised that more sanctions are on the way that would include disconnecting Iran from SWIFT, the international banking clearance system.
Iran is under tremendous economic pressure from abroad and political pressure from within. Its economy is in a skydive.
It is plagued by strikes and demonstrations.
Its oil production, which is its main revenue source, has dropped by nearly one-third.
More and more firms around the world, even from the other five major powers – Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany – which adheres to the JCPOA – are reluctant to do business with Iran, let alone invest there.
Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani and the influential commander of the Quds Force, Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani, said that Iran isn’t scared and will not bend to US pressure. But their rhetoric is aimed more at boosting the morale of their own people rather than providing a real and final answer.
For the time being, Iran is not showing signs that it intends to reverse its defiance.
But sooner or later, it will have to think again about its course of action.
Yossi Melman blogs at and tweets at Yossi_Melman