US and Israel face a new future in Washington

New members of Congress will take office at an unprecedented moment in the Mideast.

People hold U.S. and Israel flags as they chant during a Pro-Israel rally outside the Israeli consulate in New York November 19, 2012. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
People hold U.S. and Israel flags as they chant during a Pro-Israel rally outside the Israeli consulate in New York November 19, 2012.
Brace yourselves. Politics in the US is entering a new stage: the congressional midterm election campaign. Between now and November, the pundits, prognosticators and predictors will inundate us with analyses of whether the Democrats will regain the majority in the House and Senate. And with all due respect, some of my friends in Israel will do the same, having never been closer to a US congressional campaign than watching House of Cards on Netflix. (Personally, I prefer Fauda.)
Followers of US-Israeli relations in both countries are already speculating on the impact of a Democratic congressional majority on that relationship. In an ordinary political environment, the answer would be “no impact.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like his predecessors, has stated correctly that Israel’s greatest strategic ally is bipartisan support in Congress. The last time Democrats controlled the House (from 2009 to 2013) the relationship was fundamentally strong and Israel had key allies leading important committees and subcommittees.
But this isn’t a normal political environment. American politics are more volatile and unpredictable than ever. The politics – even more than the substance – of the Iran deal linger with discomfort. Many of those stalwart pro-Israel congressional Democratic leaders (Howard Berman, Henry Waxman, Gary Ackerman, etc.) have left Capitol Hill.
From 2010 to 2014, I chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and sat among the House Democratic leadership. My job – in addition to serving my New York constituents – was to elect congressional Democrats. That meant recruiting candidates, raising money to support their campaigns, picking races in which to engage or disengage, mobilizing field staff, setting the strategic battlefield, minimizing losses and maximizing gains.
BASED ON that experience, here’s what to look for in the months ahead:
* The Democrats have an advantage in wresting control of the House from Republicans. They need 24 seats to take the majority. Right now there are between 40 and 50 seats that are truly competitive. Hillary Clinton defeated President Trump in 23 of those districts.
* The first midterm election after a president is elected or reelected is historically brutal for any president’s political party. Democrats lost their majority in the 2010 midterm under president Obama; Republicans lost their majority in 2006 under president Bush.
* The new, non-biblical exodus is the number of members of Congress departing for the Promised Land, which these days is anywhere but Capitol Hill. As of this writing, 27 Republicans and 10 Democrats have announced retirements or have resigned, including important supporters of US security assistance for Israel: Rodney Frelinghuysen (New Jersey), who chaired the House Appropriations Committee; Ed Royce (California), who chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida), who energized Republican support for Israel.
* Democrats will have a much harder time winning the Senate, where despite the retirement announcements of Republican Sens. Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and Orrin Hatch, and no Democratic retirements, Republicans have a much more favorable map.
No matter what happens in the midterm elections, only a few things are certain: a large number of new members of Congress and the loss of some old friends on both sides of the aisle – plus, a reshuffling of key congressional committees that decide US funding of ballistic missile defense, funding for the Palestinian Authority, sanctions on Iran and more.
As a supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, I’m always impressed by AIPAC’s extraordinary efforts to develop and sustain relationships with members of Congress. But Israel’s business and government leaders also have an interest in more fully understanding shifting dynamics in the US. Likewise, new members of Congress will take office at an unprecedented moment in the Mideast that involves: a multilateral shift from old antagonisms to new alliances; a shared concern with Iran and its proxies spreading across the region; new cooperation on counterterrorism; and intelligence technologies.
Shortly after I was first elected to Congress in 2001, Israel’s ambassador to the US visited my Capitol Hill office. “Ambassador,” I said, “I’m honored by your visit, but it’s a waste of your time. I’m 100% supportive of Israel. My name is Israel. I’ll never back down. Why spend time with me?”
He smiled and said, “The most we can get out of any president is eight years. With a member of Congress, we can get as many as 30.”
In my case, it was 16 years. But the point is critical. Democrats and Republicans will have something in common in November: A new generation of them arriving in Washington. Better to be ahead of the curve than to try catching up.
Steve Israel served in the US House of Representatives from 2001 to 2017 and was a member of the House Democratic leadership. He currently serves as chairman of the Global Institute at Long Island University. His novel Big Guns will be released in April.