Dateline Washington: Has Israel lost the Democrats?

Netanyahu’s reelection won’t endear the already prickly presidential candidates to the Jewish state.

DEMOCRATS ARE taking control the US House of Representatives (photo credit: REUTERS)
DEMOCRATS ARE taking control the US House of Representatives
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The elections were in many aspects a personal referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu’s work as a prime minister under three possible indictments, a referendum that ended with a decisive victory in his favor. Similarly, the previous elections, in 2015, offered the same personal division, when both the Likud and Zionist Union used the same slogan: “It’s him or us” and “It’s them or us.”
But unlike the elections in 2015, this year’s were different because this time, the referendum seeped into the polarized reality of American politics, when each side embraced or rejected Netanyahu’s leadership bluntly.
Democratic Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren fired the opening salvo on March 1, with a series of tweets aimed directly at Netanyahu. After Netanyahu encouraged the Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit parties to form a technical bloc, and following Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement of his intention to indict the prime minister on corruption charges (pending a hearing), Warren tweeted: “First embracing right-wing extremism. Now manipulating a free press, accepting bribes, and trading government favors. The allegations against Prime Minister Netanyahu are serious and cut to the heart of a functioning democracy.”
This week, a couple of days before Israelis went to the polls to cast their ballots, another Democratic hopeful, Beto O’Rourke, slammed Netanyahu, called him “racist,” and told reporters in Iowa that he does not believe that the prime minister represents the “true will of the Israeli people” or any path to peace.
“The US-Israel relationship is one of the most important relationships that we have on the planet, and that relationship, if it is to be successful, must transcend partisanship in the United States, and it must be able to transcend a prime minister who is racist as he warns about Arabs coming to the polls, who wants to defy any prospect for peace as he threatens to annex the West Bank, and who has sided with a far-right racist party in order to maintain his hold on power,” he said.
And he wasn’t the last Democratic hopeful to share this sentiment. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, tweeted last Saturday: “Supporting Israel does not have to mean agreeing with Netanyahu’s politics. I don’t.” Following the prime minister’s interview on Channel 12, in which he pledged to annex parts of the West Bank if reelected, Buttigieg added: “This provocation is harmful to Israeli, Palestinian and American interests.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a longtime critic of Netanyahu, was even more definitive and didn’t hide his will to see the prime minister go home.
“When election time comes in Israel, he always tries going even further to the right by appealing to racism within Israel. I think it’s unfortunate,” Sanders told NBC, after a town hall in Malcom, Iowa. “I’m not a great fan of his, and, frankly, I hope he loses his election.”
The question is whether it’s a policy discussion, in which each side has its agenda, a debate in favor of or against Netanyahu’s policies, or a fault line when it comes to each party’s perception of Israel. Like any other issue, in the hyper-partisan reality of Washington, it depends whether you ask a Republican or a Democrat.
HALIE SOIFER, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told The Jerusalem Post that the latest remarks by the four candidates do not reflect the party’s position on Israel.
“This is a very crowded Democratic primary, she said. We currently have 18 candidates. That number would likely increase to 20. What we’re seeing now are candidates trying to distinguish themselves with different statements, at a very early stage of this campaign.”
Soifer added that she’s certain that the party will elect a pro-Israeli nominee. “I believe that our organization will do everything we can to ensure that the nominee and the party platform – and we’re confident that this will be the case – will reflect long-standing support for Israel that has been and must remain bipartisan.”
She told the Post that if someone is trying to make Israel a partisan issue, it’s not the Democrats but President Donald Trump. “We’re deeply concerned about what we see as President Trump’s efforts to politicize and personalize this relationship. He is clearly trying to use Israel as a political wedge issue. We reject that. He personalized it in the instance of framing it as a relationship that is about him and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And while we totally respect the outcome of this election, we don’t think this relationship should be about any two parties or any two leaders. For over 70 years, leaders come and go, and the relationship must remain bipartisan.”
When asked if she’s speaking about Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, she said: “I am speaking about the decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights when nobody was questioning Israeli control over the Golan. I am speaking about the literal and figurative embrace of Netanyahu in the week leading up to the elections. There is a danger in politicizing and personalizing these relations.”
MATTHEW BROOKS, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told the Post that he rejects the argument that the Golan proclamation was supposed to help Netanyahu in the elections, and noted that the majority of Israelis support the move.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “that a number of leading Democrats are putting their own partisan biases ahead of the US-Israel relationship and potentially, should they become president, having to work with a world leader whom they have condemned and advocated their electoral defeat. I think it’s wrong, I think it’s offensive to the people of Israel and the democratic process in which Bibi was elected, and I think it shows incredibly poor judgment.”
He added that he thinks it is imperative to maintain a strong bipartisan alliance. “The trouble is that because of the progressive left-wing pressures in the Democratic Party now pulling the party away from its historical attachment to Israel, that’s getting more and more difficult. And I certainly hope that the pendulum would swing back, and we can end this before it fractures any further.”
“Although there’s a massive fund-raising industry built on pretending otherwise, Israel policy has long been one of the most partisan issues in Washington,” Jeff Ballabon, a former Trump campaign adviser, who recently launched a nonpartisan campaign against antisemitism, told the Post. “What’s changed now is that all the energy for Democrats is in the progressive wing, and progressivism inherently sees Israel as a form of criminal colonial oppression. So the new crop of Democrats are virtue signaling their progressive credibility by snubbing not only Bibi but lowest-common-denominator, consensus-driven, feel-good AIPAC.”
When asked if he believes that Netanyahu bears any responsibility for the current tension with Democrats, Ballabon responded: “Not the slightest, although that’s the Left’s excuse.”
Whether it’s because of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that pulls candidates to criticize Netanyahu, or whether it’s the alliance between the prime minister and the American president that makes Democrats feel alienated, the reality is that Israel is on a sure path to becoming a partisan issue. The question is – ahead of the 2020 election, which will sharpen the divisiveness between the parties – what can be done, if anything at all, to bridge the gap?