FRESH AIR

Bipartisan support for Israel clear winner in 2020 US election 

Nov 13, 2020 | Ahron Shapiro

Credit: massmatt/Flickr
Credit: massmatt/Flickr

With the last of mail-in votes being counted and winners determined in all but 15 House and two 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 reelected.”

Meanwhile, in the same article, Joel Rubin, Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress and former director of Jewish outreach for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 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 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 Israel in Congress. Most, though not all, of the politicians identified with Democratic left either believe in making US support of 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 November 3, an article in the left-wing commentary website 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 lost 12 outright, and are on track to lose two more once mail-in ballot counting is completed. Meanwhile, the progressive-backed candidate in the one race which remains too close to call (CA-25) opposes placing conditions on US support for Israel. In other words, it was almost a complete washout for the progressives.

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 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 Democrat moderates.  Their biggest victory saw Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), a progressive who believes in 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.

Other progressive critics of Israel set to enter congress for the first time are Cori Bush (MO-1), a supporter of the BDS and Marie Newman (IL-3), who did support BDS until recently reversing that stance.

On the other hand, two other progressive winners – Ritchie Torres (NY-15) and Mondaire Jones (NY-17) – distanced themselves from criticism of Israel during their campaigns.

In any event, these modest gains by the progressive faction 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 an overall assembly with 435 voting members.

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