November 22, 2019

The Truth About Israel and the Democrats

U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) react as they discuss travel restrictions to Palestine and Israel during a news conference at the Minnesota State Capitol Building in St Paul, Minnesota, August 19, 2019. REUTERS/Caroline Yang

In the past week, I found myself in a minority. Well, I can’t be certain that this was really a minority, because that depends on the question of a minority among whom — Israelis? Columnists? Experts? No matter, for a few days, it surely felt like a minority. News organizations, including the Journal, published articles denouncing Israel for not letting two U.S. congresswomen enter the country. And I thought: Way to go, Israel. 

Of course, being on the receiving end of denunciation is never pleasant. And yet, Israel made the right, if belated, choice. It should have said at the outset that Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) are not welcome. It should have presented at the outset the Democratic Party with a dilemma: Do you support Omar and Tlaib — or Israel? 

To me, this seems like an easy one, but in today’s world, and today’s America, maybe it’s not. Israel has a problem with the Democratic Party. This is not a new problem. Party voters are moving left. The move to the left is manifested in many ways, including less support for Israel. Obviously, an incident like the one with Omar and Tlaib will make it easier for the party’s left-wing to hammer Israel a little more, putting its centrist wing in a defensive position. Obviously, the incident will further erode Israel’s ability to communicate with voters, and perhaps with some elected officials, in the Democratic Party. 

On the other hand, there should be no illusion: Had the visit taken place, it would not necessarily improve Israel’s situation. Omar and Tlaib are a cunning duo, and their visit’s aim was to further erode support for Israel. It’s not inconceivable to imagine scenarios that would make the visit even more harmful than the ban.

“Democratic Party leaders can’t argue that Israel alone is responsible for souring the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Why is the Democratic Party upset with Israel? It is customary to blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for recent erosion in the party’s stance. And indeed, he bears some of the blame. But the attempts to claim that he is the sole culprit are ridiculous. When Ehud Olmert was Israel’s prime minister — the Olmert of concessions and peace negotiations — the Democrats also weren’t always happy. You know why? Because of his close relationship with a Republican president. Here is an April 2007 quote from veteran reporter Nathan Gutman: “Democrats are still angry about what they see as Olmert’s desperate attempts to align himself with President [George W.] Bush even if it means wading into American political controversies.” Sound familiar? It is familiar. Democratic leaders are never happy when an Israeli prime minister befriends a Republican president. 

One of Netanyahu’s problems is the optics of what he does. For eight years, he had adversarial relations with a Democratic president. So Democratic voters must think: Gee, this guy only gets along with Republicans. But the truth is much more boring. Netanyahu had little choice but to oppose President Barack Obama. He opposed him for the same reason former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, not quite a Netanyahu ally, called Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, “messianic and obsessive.” He opposed him for the same reason Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, not a great Netanyahu supporter, worried that “in the past, the United States has seen Israel as a strategic asset in the Middle East beyond moral commitment. It is currently unclear what the White House’s position is.” 

Enter Trump. A president who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. Obviously, there is a considerable gap between Israel’s cool attitude toward Obama and the warm and sympathetic attitude toward Trump. This is not because one is a Republican and one is a Democrat, but because Israel prefers sympathetic presidents.

The ban on Omar and Tlaib does not have to damage Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party. In fact, what happens next is for Democratic leaders to decide. They can choose to understand that Israel made a reasonable choice. They can choose to disagree with Israel and move on. They also can choose to further damage the relationship. What they can’t do is argue that Israel alone is responsible for souring the relationship.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.