Home inFocus The Issues Issue (Winter 2020) The Democrat Party’s Third Rail: Israel

The Democrat Party’s Third Rail: Israel

Lauri B. Regan Winter 2020
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel hold a joint press availability in the Oval Office, July 6, 2010. (Photo: White House / Pete Souza)

In 2020, the electorate will likely have two very different candidates from which to choose. In particular, due to the dramatic pull of far-left elements in the Democrat Party, Democrats of both the extreme and moderate varieties are presenting starkly different views than Republicans of America’s relationship with Israel. American Jews, who for decades have felt at home in the Democrat Party, are now facing a predicament as Democrats become more comfortable taking anti-Israel positions and making statements previously unheard.

When President Barack Obama entered office in 2009, he made it clear that the new sheriff in town would insert daylight between the United States and Israel. He distanced us from our most strategically important ally in the region and realigned diplomatic relationships while removing the pax-Americana that had maintained relative stability for decades. What followed was eight years of watching the US-Israel relationship deteriorate while Democrats moved away from solidly supporting Israel. This was on full display at the Democrats’ 2012 national convention. Television viewers nationwide heard loud booing when leadership reinserted language in the party platform pertaining to G-d and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was an omen.

Fast forward to the Trump administration’s most recent pro-Israel announcement. In November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed decades of flawed policy and announced that Israel’s settlements – the ones that Obama spent eight years condemning and falsely claiming to be the main obstacle to peace in the region – were not illegal under international law. Republicans cheered, viewing this as an important reversal of United Nations Resolution 2334. That resolution, which stated that Israeli settlements were a “flagrant violation” of international law, was adopted on a 14-0 vote of the Security Council. Marking a new low for US-Israel relations, the United States abstained instead of vetoing the anti-Israel resolution. It was viewed as Obama’s final diplomatic spurning of Israel.

In 2008, Obama had received 78 percent of the Jewish vote, consistent with Diaspora Jews’ voting patterns. By 2011 however, after several troublesome policy statements by the administration, Democratic National Committee chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), worryied about the Jewish vote in key swing states, beseeched Jews – not Obama – to not make Israel a partisan issue.

The Split Emerges

Various polls indicated that Republicans and Democrats were sharply divided on issues pertaining to Israel and the region. For instance, a 2012 Pew poll revealed that Republicans were far more supportive of using military force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons than Democrats. Sixty-two percent of Republicans agreed that the United States should support an Israeli attack to stop Iran’s nuclear program, while only one-third of Democrats agreed.

Gallup conducted a 2012 poll that revealed a clear “Israel Gap” between the parties with Republican support for Israel 25 points higher than Democrats. In response, the Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement suggesting “[t]his unmistakable trend should be a wake-up call to Jewish Democratic leaders and those who care about Israel, indicating that significant efforts should be made to rebuild strong support for Israel in the Democratic Party.” Democrats have failed to heed that advice.

The Candidates Speak

Over the past three years, Democrats have criticized President Donald Trump every time he’s announced a pro-Israel policy, including moving the American embassy to Jerusalem (supported by 79 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats), recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, defunding UNWRA and the Palestinian Authority, and withdrawing from the chronically anti-Israel UNESCO and UNHRC.  One would think Democrats would at some point end their partisan pronouncements of “inflamed tensions” in the Middle East, statements designed to undermine Trump’s pro-Israel foreign policy.

Alas, in response to Pompeo’s settlement announcement, congressional Democrats and left-wing Jews once again criticized the administration. In fact, 107 Congressional Democrats, including many Jewish members, sent a letter to Pompeo demanding he reverse the decision. That followed a June Democrat resolution against Israeli annexation of any part of the West Bank. 

In addition to the usual suspects who condemned Pompeo’s announcement, including J Street and the Jewish Democratic Council of America (that recently released an ad preposterously claiming that Trump is the “biggest threat to the security of American Jews”), Democrat presidential candidates lambasted the decision. Former Vice President Joe Biden called it “an obstacle to peace” while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) claimed that Trump was “pandering to his extremist base.” This “extremist Republican base” used to be caricatured as anti-Semitic, white supremacists; apparently it has morphed into pro-Israel advocates.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), another Democratic presidential primary candidate, claimed the new US position makes peace more difficult to achieve. She called it “another blatantly ideological attempt by the Trump administration to distract from its failures in the region” (on which she did not elaborate). Another Democratic presidential hopeful, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigeig, opined it was “a step backward in our efforts to achieve a two-state solution” and “harm[s] our national interests” without explaining how. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), another Democratic presidential primary candidate, also jumped on the Trump is “playing politics” bandwagon.

In order to further stymie the president’s pro-Israel measures, the House of Representatives subsequently passed House Resolution 326, co-sponsored by 200 Democrats, calling for a two-state solution and the reinstatement of Palestinian aid. It was led by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), who stated, “We cannot let partisan political concerns — either at home or abroad — distract us from keeping the dream of a just peace alive. Congress must speak out to make clear to the world that the United States stands behind its longstanding foreign policy principles.”

Lowenthal did not elaborate on what “a just peace” means or how the resolution keeps the moribund “peace process” alive. Nor did he elaborate as to which US “longstanding foreign policy principles” he was referring, given that foreign policy decisions are in the purview of the executive and change with the Oval Office occupant. Nevertheless, Democrats have doubled down on limiting Israel’s autonomy in the region while Republicans continue to work for her survival.

Arguably, it is the Republicans who are standing behind this “longstanding foreign policy principle” which dates to the Nixon administration. In a recent interview, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger shared that President Nixon recognized the importance of Israel winning the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with the United States sending all necessary military assistance. Since then US presidents have ensured that Israel receives appropriate levels of military aid to safeguard its qualitative military edge over its hostile neighbors. While Obama signed a Memorandum of Understanding that maintains a high level of military aid to Israel over a 10-year period, the MOU sets a cap on what Washington provides and requires congressional approval annually.

Threatening Israel

Progressive Democrats in the House unsuccessfully attempted to amend H.R.326 to condition military aid to Israel. That’s consistent with recent statements by the Democratic presidential candidates who failed to appear at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) policy conference, yet took the stage at J Street’s recent convention to announce their plans either to cut military aid to Israel or use it to influence Israeli policy. (AIPAC is the large pro-Israel lobby; J Street—which calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace”—was founded in 2007 to counter AIPAC’s congressional influence.)

The most egregious threat came from Sanders, who has surrounded himself with anti-Israel advisors and anti-Semitic surrogates such as Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American co-leader of the Women’s March movement, who has said “nothing is creepier than Zionism” and implied feminist Zionists embodied “white privilege.” After accusing Israel of violating human rights and being an authoritarian, racist government, he stated, “I would use the leverage; $3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government….if you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza.” He added that some of Israel’s aid “should go right now to humanitarian aid in Gaza.”

Sen. Warren, who has become increasingly critical of Israel, called for Israel to exercise “restraint” due to her concern over Gaza Strip Arabs’ rights to “peacefully protest.” And while she claims to oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, she also opposes legislative action to codify that position. With respect to military aid, Warren promised that “everything is on the table” in order to compel Israel to abide by US policy in the region.

Buttigieg also views military aid as a bargaining chip in order to manipulate Israeli policy: “I think that the aid is leverage to guide Israel in the right direction… If, for example, there is follow-through on these threats of annexation, I’m committed to ensuring that the US is not footing the bill for that.”

And Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio and Obama administration secretary of housing and urban development, said that he was “glad to see in this Democratic Party that the voices of folks who are concerned about the rights of Palestinians has emerged recently stronger.”

Attacking Israel’s Security Edge

Sanders and Warren joined 32 Democrat senators in condemning Trump’s decision to cut aid to UNWRA and the PA, ignoring both organizations’ records of intransigence, violence, and delegitimization of the Jewish state.  More importantly, all of these candidates’ statements reflect an ignorance of the relationship between the United States and Israel and the benefits to US national security of a strong Israeli military. They ignore that Israel provides America with vital military technology and intelligence gathering. They’re seemingly unaware that 80 percent of Israeli aid is required to be reinvested in the US defense industry and that such aid also advances American interests by helping maintain peace and security in the region. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system is a perfect example of a collaborative effort that has saved lives and prevented war.

Due to the past decade’s policy of minimizing America’s physical presence in the Middle East, ensuring that our allies are sufficiently and defensively armed is of paramount concern.

The Democrats’ “moderate” candidate with the most foreign policy experience also views military aid as a means of controlling Israeli policy. Biden, who spent eight years as Obama’s number two in the “daylight between the United States and Israel” experiment, joining his mistaken belief that settlements are an impediment to peace, told J Street in 2016, “We have an overwhelming obligation — notwithstanding our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government… to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only solution: a two-state solution.”

BDS and Anti-Semitism

Recent legislative measures follow a pattern of a lack of bipartisan support for Israel. Recently we’ve seen contentious deliberations on anti-BDS legislation that many Democrats voted against and a resolution condemning anti-Semitism—introduced after Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) anti-Jewish, anti-Israel outbursts, that Democrats refused to support unless it was diluted by expanding it to cover every type of hatred. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by 19 Democrats, intended to curb American financing of Israel’s alleged violations of the rights of Palestinian minors.

And of course, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was implemented after Senate Democrats filibustered measures taken by Republican senators to bring the deal to a full vote. Democratic members of Congress protested when Trump in 2018 withdrew from the deal that Israelis so rightly feared. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation to address Congress on the topic, 56 Democrats boycotted his remarks.

Congressional Democrats also feel comfortable making anti-Semitic remarks. Freshman representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) were not the first to accuse Jews of only caring about “the Benjamins, baby.” In 2011, Democrat Congressman Henry Waxman, opined, “There are Jews who are trending toward the Republican Party…some of it, quite frankly, for economic reasons. They feel they want to protect their wealth…”

The problem with Democrats and anti-Semitism is not just fringe elements but the manner in which mainstream Democrats, including those in leadership positions, either gloss over or completely ignore these elements. The Rev. Al Sharpton—influential in the party despite his record of helping incite the 1991 Crown Heights riots and the 1995 Freddy’s Fashion Mart massacre, both in New York City–and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan—who has boasted of “unmasking the Satanic Jews“ and smeared them with leading the slave trade—have been embraced by many Democrats. Contrast the way in which Democrats ignore anti-Semitic statements from party members, even elevating former Farrakhan spokesman and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) to vice chair of the DNC, with the way Republican ostracized Rep. Stephen King (R-IA) and removed him from all committee assignments. Omar and Tlaib enjoy fame, magazine covers with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, and influence.

Politicians who wish to do Israel harm while holding positions of power are dangerous. Recent Democrats’ attempts to terminate training programs between US and Israeli police are ideologically motivated and morally repugnant. While Black Lives Matter blames the 2014 racial upheaval in Ferguson, MO on American police learning “the same brutal tactics that the Israelis use on the Palestinians,” Democrats who wish to end this program once again fail to understand its vital benefits – first response and counterterrorism training. It is the decades of collaboration between US and Israeli police forces, military units, and intelligence services that have strengthened our national security, helped to prevent untold numbers of terror attacks, and enabled a quick and efficient response to violence and disaster here at home.

In response to Democrats’ recent statements, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the progressive Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, observed:   

The Democratic Party is increasingly tolerant of voices that are opposed to Israel’s existence. To allow this process to go unchecked will cause irreparable harm to the bilateral US-Israel relationship and to the Democrat Party itself.”

Democrats have a problem with anti-Semites and anti-Zionists but frighteningly, do not appear to have any interest in fixing it. Perhaps they don’t recognize that Israel is their new third rail, electrified by leftist haters who dominate the narrative and party ideology. What American Jews do in November will say a lot about their priorities on Israel – the world’s only Jewish state.

Lauri B. Regan is the New York chapter president and board member of the Endowment for Middle East Truth and treasurer and board member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.