Bipartisan support for Israel a winner
Nov 30, 2020 | Ahron Shapiro
With the last of US mail-in votes in the process of being counted at press time and – despite unprecedented counting delays spanning weeks in some districts – results determined in all but a handful of US House of Representatives and two US Senate races, a clear winner has already emerged in this month’s US election: bipartisan support for Israel.
Halie Soifer, Executive Director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told the Jewish-angled US political news website Jewish Insider that, even with some setbacks, Israel was in a strong position in the Democratic caucus. “There’s overwhelming support of Israel,” she said, “starting with our leadership on down, including many freshman members who were just re-elected.”
Meanwhile, in the same article, Joel Rubin, Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress and former director of Jewish outreach for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said bipartisanship – implicitly including support for Israel – resonated in districts where moderate Democrats held on. “Clearly it worked for a number of them and they actually did well in the numbers,” he said.
In the days before the election, when most polls indicated that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would beat Republican incumbent Donald Trump by a wide margin, members of the far-left or progressive faction of the Democratic Party had high hopes of expanding their influence significantly by beating Republicans. In the end, despite Biden’s win, the Democrats lost seats overall in the House, with far-left “progressives” faring particularly poorly.
This faction, spearheaded by Sanders and a group of four core congresswomen known as the “Squad” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – are broadly the most vocal critics of the Jewish state in Congress (though Pressley is something of an exception on Israel). Most, though not all, politicians identified with the Democratic left either believe in making US support for Israel conditional on concessions to the Palestinians or oppose US support of Israel outright. A few even support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
On Nov. 3, an article in the left-wing commentary and news website The Intercept identified 13 different races where progressive Democrats hoped to unseat Republicans in California, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia. The article also discussed two congressional gains in New York from the 2018 midterms they had hoped to keep. In these 15 races, the Democrats have definitely lost 13, and look very likely to lose another, NY-22 – the Democrat candidate was behind by 6,823 votes as of Nov. 17. Meanwhile, in the final race, CA-25 – where the Republican is currently leading by just 422 votes with thousands left to tally as counting continues at a snail’s pace – the progressive-backed Democrat candidate opposes placing conditions on US support for Israel.
Democratic centrists, including Virginian lawmaker Abigail Spanberger, blamed the progressive faction for the party’s disappointing results in races for the House of Representatives in a conference call following the election. This followed an incident earlier in the year, when Spanberger and a number of Democratic lawmakers from her conservative-leaning state criticised Sanders for urging Democrats to boycott the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America’s largest pro-Israel lobby group. At that time, the Virginia Democrats warned party leaders that any erosion of the Democratic support for Israel would lead to a loss of support for the party in centrist districts across America. They can now make a good case that they were right.
‘The Squad’ grows slightly
Not all of the election news for progressives was bad. At least five progressive candidates achieved success in primaries to secure spots in safe Democratic seats, some at the expense of moderate Democrats. Their biggest victory saw Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), who endorses placing conditions on US support for Israel, beat Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and one of the Democratic Party’s strongest supporters of Israel.
However, as far as continued overall Congressional support for the Jewish state is concerned, the impact of Engel’s departure will probably be minimal. Committee chairs are traditionally chosen based on seniority, which would make Engel’s fellow pro-Israel Democratic stalwart Brad Sherman (CA-30) his probable replacement, though the decision will ultimately be made by the House Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee, controlled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Other progressive critics of Israel set to enter Congress for the first time are Cori Bush (MO-1), a veteran activist for Black Lives Matter and supporter of BDS (although she quietly removed any reference to this from her campaign website) and Marie Newman (IL-3), who used to support BDS, but later softened that position to merely supporting the right of others to boycott Israel.
Like members of the Squad elected before them, Bowman, Bush and Newman’s campaigns were supported by the progressive PAC (Political Action Committee) Justice Democrats, which pushes anti-Israel positions.
On the other hand, two other progressive winners – Ritchie Torres (NY-15) and Mondaire Jones (NY-17), were at pains to distance themselves from criticism of Israel during their campaigns.
“I am from the Bronx, I’m Afro-Latino, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a millennial – but I’m also pro-Israel,” Torres told Jewish Insider in a December 2019 interview. “The notion that you cannot be both progressive and pro-Israel is a vicious lie, because I am the embodiment of a pro-Israel progressive.”
“One thing I want Jewish people to know is that I will be a friend to Israel,” Jones told the JTA in July. “We know that progressives disagree on any number of issues… there’s great diversity within the progressive movement and the topic of Israel tends to be something that divides progressives… it does disappoint me when I see some people suggest without evidence that somehow I’m going to be non-friendly to Israel. It’s just not true.”
Notably, neither Torres’ nor Jones’ campaigns sought backing from the Justice Democrats, and it’s just as well, given the bitter experience of San Diego progressive candidate Georgette Gómez (CA-53), who saw the PAC pull its funding from her campaign after she published an op-ed and interview condemning BDS and expressing her desire to visit Israel, according to Jewish Insider. She ended up losing in the general election to a better-funded Democrat.
In any event, the modest gains by anti-Israel progressives in this election cycle must be seen in the context of a Democratic party that elected 235 members to the last Congress, and will seat up to ten fewer in the new one, in a chamber with 435 voting members.
A bipartisan pledge from the White House
Israel’s bedrock of bipartisan support in the House and Senate stands to further benefit from the election of Joe Biden as president – a Democratic centrist who distinguished himself as one of the Senate’s greatest champions of pro-Israel bipartisanship over the course of his 47-year career.
“We can’t let Israel become another issue that divides Republicans and Democrats in the major parties,” Biden implored AIPAC in a taped message from the campaign trail played at its annual conference in March 2020. “We can’t let anything undermine the partnership that has grown and flourished from the moment of Israel’s founding.”
According to the Biden’s campaign website, among his campaign promises are to “ensure that support for the US-Israel alliance remains bipartisan,” while also to “reject the BDS movement – which singles out Israel and too often veers into anti-Semitism – and fight other efforts to delegitimise Israel on the global stage” and support implementation of the Taylor Force Act, which conditions US aid for the Palestinian Authority on its ending its practice of rewarding terrorists or their families.
In other words, Biden committed to do his part to protect bipartisan support for Israel by standing up to the far-left elements within his own party who would jettison the US-Israel alliance.
Former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, who served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, wrote in the Washington Post on Nov. 12 that Biden’s record shows he is likely to plot a course for US policy with Israel that will aim for support from both sides of the aisle.
“The strength of the US-Israel alliance depends on a political consensus, between America’s two main parties, that the broadest conception of the American national interest means robust support for Israel,” Miller wrote.
“[Biden’s] penchant for bipartisanship, in general, will likely return the US-Israel relationship to the normal balance that has characterised it for decades.”