September 18, 2019

Netanyahu: Call off the Congress play

Liberal Democrats are the soft underbelly of American support for Israel, and John Boehner and Benjamin Netanyahu just gave them a swift kick.

When the Republican speaker of the house went around President Barack Obama to issue an invitation to the prime minister of Israel to address Congress, which Netanyahu accepted, you could practically hear the chorus of WTFs from the silent majority of the American-Jewish community.

Despite explanations to the contrary, this is not about the Iranian nuclear program or sanctions. We all want the former to fail and the latter to succeed; that’s a given.  

But when in our madness we are reckless in our means, that slow sucking sound you hear is bipartisan American support for Israel going down the drain. If Netanyahu thinks American support for Israel can survive solely on Evangelicals’ votes and Sheldon Adelson’s wallet, he’s been away too long from Cambridge.

I spoke with AIPAC supporters from both sides of the aisle this week, and while they disagreed on the severity of Bibi’s move, they agreed that bipartisan support is the bedrock of the American-Israeli alliance.

“It’s not helpful for a foreign leader to come right before election,” Larry Hochberg, a longtime pro-Israel activist who leans Republican, told me by phone. “We still love this country. We belong here. Americans don’t like any affront to our leader. I don’t think it’s a diplomatic coup for Israel; I really don’t.”

Hochberg was quick to give the benefit of the doubt to Bibi. Perhaps his message is so important, Hochberg said, he just had to take it directly to Congress, and U.S.-Israel relations have survived worse crises. But, still, the “how” is of concern.

“It falls a little down party lines,” Hochberg said. “Those in the middle don’t like to see their president embarrassed, and the president has a right to conduct foreign policy.”

Bipartisan support, including “those in the middle,” bloomed in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, but it has long been wilting. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey taken during the last war with Hamas found that “the share of Republicans who sympathize more with Israel has risen from 68 percent to 73 percent; 44 percent of Democrats express more sympathy for Israel than [for] the Palestinians, which is largely unchanged from April (46 percent).”

But the gaps widened when pollsters plugged in political preferences. Among Republicans, 77 percent of conservative Republicans favor Israel. Among Democrats, only 39 percent of liberal Democrats do.

As I’ve written before, among the next generations, the ones that didn’t experience the Six-Day War, the Holocaust, Osirak and Entebbe — these gaps are even wider. A generation of American college students is being subjected to the one-two punch of a cynical, well-funded Arab propaganda campaign against Israel, coupled with Bibi’s disdain of the president they helped elect.

There are no polls out yet on Americans’ opinion of Bibi’s plans for a March 3 speech to Congress. But you know it’s playing badly among Israel’s shakier supporters here when even the country’s stalwart fans are upset.

 “If you talk to AIPAC, they will tell you they were not consulted and not involved,” Greg Rosenbaum told me. “They were blindsided as much as anybody else was.”

Rosenbaum is an uber-successful investor (and former CEO of Empire Kosher) who chairs the National Jewish Democratic Council. So you can write him off as a Boehner-hater, or pine for the old days when the pro-Israel tent gathered him and his Republican counterparts together.

“AIPAC is firmly committed to the proposition that support for U.S.-Israel relations must be bi-partisan,” Rosenbaum told me. “This would be considered an affront. It is perceived as a way to get at Obama.”

The irony here is that AIPAC is widely being blamed for dissing Democrats when, in reality, according to Rosenbaum and Hochberg, AIPAC was out of this decision loop.

Some reports have placed blame on American-born Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who is generally perceived as leaning Republican. Several people have told me they saw him at the White House Chanukah party last December, waiting in line with every Joe Rabbi and Jane Fundraiser — civilians! — to get in. Perhaps he engineered this diplomatic reach around as a way of cutting the line.

Or maybe it was just a bad call — like, say, a pass in the last few seconds of a Super Bowl game when you’re less than 1 yard from the goal. It seemed like a good idea beforehand. But almost immediately, you realize what a terrible mistake you’ve made.

Let’s assume that’s the case. (The alternative is too awful to ponder — that Republicans have some scheme to “win” on Israel, and thus capture pro-Israel dollars at the expense of broader American support.)

“Even smart people and smart politicians occasionally make miscalculations,” Rosenbaum told me. “The best figure out how to get away from them as soon as the negative impact is seen.”

Calling back this play will be hard now that partisan forces have lined up on both sides to defend and attack it. But that ugly thrum of partisanship, which will only grow louder as March 3 approaches, is exactly why Bibi, Boehner and Dermer need to figure out a way to keep most Americans on Israel’s side — in this conflict and the next.

Read David Suissa's counter-point here:
Why Bibi should give his speech


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.