Leading Jewish Democrat: Biden’s embrace of Israel sent clear message to party

“The argument that Republicans want to make is that the Democrats are not supportive of Israel, is ridiculous," Ron Klein.

 US President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid (not seen) at Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel July 14, 2022 (photo credit: ATEF SAFADI/POOL VIA REUTERS)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid (not seen) at Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel July 14, 2022

With election fatigue seeping into Israel as it faces its fifth election in less than four years, it is understandable why many Israelis are not paying much attention to the primaries currently taking place in the US to pick the Democratic and Republican parties’ candidates for the November midterm election.

Paying attention to US party primaries before a midterm is getting deep into the American political weeds. Nevertheless, these primaries will have a significant impact on Israel in that they will determine whether that wing of the progressive flank of the Democratic party that is highly critical of Israel – a wing that includes members such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib – increases or decreases in power in the next Congress.

Such a primary was held on Tuesday in Maryland’s fourth congressional district, a middle-class neighborhood that encompasses the suburbs of Washington and whose population, according to the last census, was 51% black, 25% white, and 17% Hispanic. It is obviously not a district where the intricacies of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian issues were foremost in the minds of the voters.

Yet there was The New York Times calling the race there nothing less than a “proxy fight over Israel.”

Why? Because the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s newly established super PAC, the United Democracy Project (UDP), was supporting one candidate – Glenn Ivey, the eventual victor – and J Street was supporting his rival, former congresswoman Donna Edwards. The UDP spent $5.9 million on Ivey’s campaign, and J Street spent $720,000 on Edward’s.

 US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog at his residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN) US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog at his residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)

This is one of several races where AIPAC and J Street have gone head to head supporting opposing primary candidates, with J Street in general supporting the progressive candidates backed by figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and AIPAC supporting the more moderate, mainstream Democratic candidates.

In most of those races, the AIPAC candidate has come out on top. This matters, because in most of those races, whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to win the election, since the overwhelming majority of Congressional districts are non-competitive. What that means is that the district’s lines have been drawn in such a way that by looking at the demographics of the district, it is possible to predict the outcome of the general election.

Like in Maryland’s fourth district, for instance, where there hasn’t been a Republican representative since 1987, and where there have only been two Republican congressmen in the last century. That means whoever wins the Democratic primary is pretty certain to become that district’s next representative.

Ron Klein, former Democratic congressman from Florida who is head of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, an organization that describes itself as the “voice of Jewish Democrats and socially progressive, pro-Israel values,” said that pro-Israel supporters can “absolutely” bask in Ivey’s victory.

“On balance, Ivey made a better case, not just on Israel, but on a bunch of other things,” he said.

And therein, Klein said, is the difference between his organization and both AIPAC and J Street. His organization looks at Israel and that “ bunch of other things” when evaluating candidates, while AIPAC and J Street evaluate and support candidates from their vastly different perspectives of what is best for the Israel-US relationship.

Poll after poll has shown for years that when American Jews go into the voting booth – and the vast majority of American Jews continue to vote Democratic – their top priority is not Israel.

This, said Klein – currently in Israel holding meetings with government officials whom he did not want to identify – is not necessarily bad, because if Israel was the top priority, that would mean that Israel was under threat since when Israel is under threat, it does become a top priority item for many Jewish voters.

What are US Jews doing?

AMERICAN JEWS, he said, “are voting on a lot of other things besides Israel. Israel is an important issue, and for some could be a threshold issue. But most Democratic and Republican candidates support Israel, so then for these voters it comes down to the second level: where do the candidates come down on issues like the Supreme Court, road building, education, voting rights issues. That is how most American Jews vote.”

And on those issues, Klein said, most American Jews find that the Democratic party is closely aligned to their values.

Klein dismissed the notion that the Ilhans and Tlaibs will chase Jewish voters away from the party because of their stridently anti-Israel positions.

“The argument that Republicans want to make is that the Democrats are not supportive of Israel,” he said. “That is ridiculous. There are some people [like that], but they are a small number. They are loud, and they are getting voices, but President Biden, head of our government and head of the Democratic party, went to Israel and made a very clear statement about the party’s principles on support for the state of Israel. So to the extent that someone is concerned about Israel, and that is a key issue for them, they know that Democrats like Joe Biden support it.”

Klein said that Tlaib and Omar no more reflect the Democratic party than Marjorie Taylor Greene – the congresswoman from Georgia who once blamed California wildfires on space lasers owned by Jews – represents the Republicans.

Asked if he is not concerned by the so-called “Squad” and its anti-Israel positions, Klein said, “It’s not that it doesn’t concern me, I just think we have to do a better job so the public understands that it is just four to six people making a lot of noise and that we disagree with them, and will make sure that other people coming into Congress – that’s our job – understand what the right positions are on Israel.”

Klein praised the current Israeli government, and especially President Isaac Herzog, for making a “concerted effort at the government level to go back and make connections with politicians on the Democratic side.”

When Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, much of the criticism among Democrats such as Sanders was directed at Netanyahu, leaving some to believe that when Netanyahu was no longer leading the country, support for Israel would rise in the polls among Democrats.

That has not, however, transpired, with Klein saying it was unrealistic to believe that it would.

“Netanyahu was the face of Israel,” he said. “When you are in power for more than 10 years, that’s a lifetime for a lot of people. There are a lot of young people in the US who have never experienced Israel, don’t know much about it, and the only thing they know about Israel – and they are in their 20s – is Netanyahu and his close relations with [former president Donald] Trump and the settlements. That is what they know.

“The fact that Netanyahu is out of power doesn’t mean that you just turn the switch and everything is different because you have a different government. That is not realistic. It will take time.”

Klein said that the Biden visit was important in signaling to the American people “that the relationship between Israel and the United States is a very high priority, and that we share strategic interests and values.”

Asked whether he thought that the very public bear hug Biden gave Israel could hurt him inside the party, Klein replied that the president came at this visit “from a very personal level.”

Biden’s embrace of Israel, he said, “is consistent with where Democrats have been forever on Israel. Are there people who have a different view of the Palestinian issue? Yes there are. Is it a significant number? No it is not. Biden did what Biden does: he wore his heart on his sleeve, and I don’t think people can question his sincerity.”

If Biden decides to run for re-election in 2024, Klein said, “I don’t think the [bear hug] will be an issue. Maybe it will be for a handful of people. People might have other concerns about him running for office again, but I don’t think this issue is going to make or break it.”