Is Israel in trouble with American progressives? - opinion

The squad of Israel haters looked malign in picking an issue that made them look like defenders of Hamas – which some may well be – and terrorists, but they sent a wake-up call to Israel.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett holds a mask during a meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House last month. (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett holds a mask during a meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House last month.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

When US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced by a squad of largely anti-Israel Democrats to remove funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system from a must-pass government funding bill, pro-Israel hand-wringers were sweating overtime. Was this a great defeat for Israel? No, but there were warning shots that cannot be ignored.

The squad’s votes were critical because Republicans were prepared to vote against the entire bill, including Iron Dome, notwithstanding their attempts to exploit the situation by branding all Democrats as hostile to the Jewish state.

Two days later, thanks to quick moves by Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), a standalone bill providing $1 billion for Iron Dome passed 420-9. The only opponents were eight left-wing Democrats and one Republican libertarian. The Senate hasn’t acted yet, but easy passage is expected. 

It was a dumb fight to pick. Iron Dome is a defensive weapon that saved thousands of Jewish and Arab lives in last May’s fighting by intercepting missiles fired indiscriminately at civilian targets by Hamas and Islamic Jihad (more than 20 Palestinians were killed or injured by Hamas missiles that fell inside Gaza). 

 IRON DOME interceptors destroy rockets launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel in the skies over Ashkelon in May. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) IRON DOME interceptors destroy rockets launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel in the skies over Ashkelon in May. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

The squad provided an irresistible opening for Rep. Elise Stefanik to brand them “the Hamas Caucus.”

Conservative columnist Marc Thiessen added, “When you vote to let terrorists kill Jews, that is antisemitism.”

A vote of 420-9 is impressive, especially when it involves giving $1b. worth of missiles to the country with the highest standard of living in its part of the world, one equal to West European countries. The jolt of having to pull the measure initially sent shock waves through Israel and its friends.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, instead of shrugging off the incident as a mere procedural problem, appeared to panic, sending its network to the barricades shrieking that “Extremists in Congress are playing politics with Israeli & Palestinian lives.” It was a sign of fear and weakness. 

AIPAC, despite boasts of large student turnouts for its conventions, remains dominated by older, more conservative and wealthier leaders at a time when American Jewry and the Democratic Party, which most Jews support, are moving Left and away from the Israel of their fathers and grandfathers. 

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was just in the US preaching a return to bipartisanship. The damage done by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not go away when he left office (especially since he keeps stoking the partisan fires), and Bennett will need more than soothing words.

That could be a problem because Bennett himself is a hardliner espousing policies that have divided Israel’s friends, including settlements, occupation and peace with the Palestinians. Bennett, like his predecessor, opposes the two-state solution, which was soundly endorsed by US President Joe Biden in his speech to the UN General Assembly last week and has been a cornerstone of US policy in the region for decades under Democrats and Republicans alike. 

He is scheduled to turn over the premiership in two years to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, whose views are closer to Biden’s. Bennett has a partner in blocking progress – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: the corrupt, sclerotic autocratic who keeps postponing elections and shutting out a new generation of leaders better able to deal with the changing realities of the world around them.

Congressional Democrats have been increasingly critical of Israel, particularly thanks to Netanyahu’s swaggering partisan alignment with the GOP, close embrace of Donald Trump and open antagonism toward US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 

There is a new movement in the House among pro-Israel progressives to revive the moribund peace process. Stepping out front is Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI), the son and nephew of two of the Congress’s most respected and leading liberal supporters of Israel. The second-termer introduced The Two-State Solution Act, a left-wing wish list with no chance of passage but intended to spark debate. Among his sponsors are eight liberal Jewish Democrats – Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, John Yarmouth of Kentucky, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Sara Jacobs of California, Alan Lowenthal of California, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Jackie Speier of California. Americans for Peace Now and J Street have endorsed the measure, which says the status quo is unacceptable, unsustainable and bad for all sides.

It is important to bear in mind that the anti-Israel squad is a minuscule minority of House Democrats, and very different from the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election and pay fealty to a disgraced leader who has legitimized neo-Nazis and white supremacists and has done more to stoke antisemitism than anybody in the past 100 years.

The Right has its own Jewish problem. While the GOP claims to be the party that loves Israel most, that affinity doesn’t seem to extend to Jewish people. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy responded to the Iron Dome episode saying the Democratic party has fallen under the “antisemitic influence of their radical members.” What he can’t explain is if Democrats are under control of the antisemites, why do 70-80% of Jews consistently vote Democratic, and Republicans can’t elect more than two Jews to the House and none to the Senate. Then there’s also the antisemitic tropes employed by himself and too many of his colleagues, from Jewish space lasers to dual-loyalty charges to nativists and “patriotic” insurrectionists displaying swastikas and wearing Auschwitz shirts.

The squad of Israel haters looked malign in picking an issue that made them look like defenders of Hamas – which some may well be – and terrorists, but they sent a wake-up call to Israel and its friends that they are just getting started. The progressives and other friends of Israel who are serious about ending the occupation and helping bring peace have a friend in the White House and need to be more vocal to counter the haters. 

After 10 years of Netanyahu, Israel faces a major challenge if it wants to convince people that when Israel says it wants peace – seriously – that it isn’t blowing smoke from one of the former prime minister’s expensive Cuban cigars.