We’ve heard a lot of complaints from Democrats about Republicans turning support for Israel into a political football. But if they’re unhappy about it now, then just wait until next year.
Republicans have tried without much success to exploit their pro-Israel records to gain Jewish votes in past elections but those efforts will be nothing compared to what will happen during the 2020 presidential campaign.
Republicans have argued in the past that they are the true pro-Israel party and that Democrats can’t be trusted to safeguard the Jewish state’s security. But their boasts will have more substance to them in 2020.
After President Donald Trump overturned decades of standing U.S. foreign policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and acknowledging Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights as well as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and seeking to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for support of terrorism, the GOP can credibly argue that he is the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House.
Democrats are also more divided than ever on Israel. Two of their freshman rock stars — Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — are not only supporters of the BDS movement, but guilty of making anti-Semitic statements. On top of that, most of the Democrats’ presidential candidates have been highly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister’s friendship with Trump and his willingness to tilt to the right during his successful re-election campaign has emboldened Democrats to treat the verdict of Israeli democracy with hostility.
Trump’s re-election campaign will not merely trumpet his indisputable friendship with Israel but also highlight the Democrats’ division and hostility. That will weaponize the issue for Republicans, but it may also further embolden the Democrats’ left wing to step up their attacks on Israel as a racist ally of their bête noire in the White House. That sets up what could be a perfect storm in which centrist pro-Israel Democrats will find themselves caught in the middle as their party’s base is convinced more than ever that support for the Jewish state is synonymous with Trump.
But this won’t help win Republicans many more Jewish votes. The majority of the Jewish community identifies as liberal and won’t vote for Trump or the GOP no matter what he does for Israel. That’s not just because they hate him but also because, unlike politically conservative and Orthodox Jews, Israel isn’t a litmus test issue for them. In this hyper-partisan era, Trump’s chances of substantially increasing his share of the Jewish vote are virtually nonexistent.
But Jewish Democrats should not regard this with equanimity. If, as they claim, they are just as pro-Israel as the Republicans, as well as being, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claims, a party without a trace of anti-Semitism, they need to act to restrain their increasingly vocal left-wing’s support of intersectional arguments in which Israel is painted as the villain of the Middle East.
Worse than that, by refusing to discipline Omar for her anti-Semitism and then accepting the disingenuous narrative by which she has successfully portrayed herself as a victim of anti-Muslim bias from pro-Israel Republicans and Trump, they have painted themselves into a corner in which the president will be able to accuse them of appeasing and empowering anti-Semites.
Can any of this be averted and can at least a semblance of bipartisanship about Israel be preserved? The answer is yes, but the problem is that it will require Democrats to not only rise above Trump’s taunts but to confront their left-wing critics of Israel.
Democrats are right that you can still be pro-Israel and yet be critical of Netanyahu. But they need to acknowledge what Trump has done for Israel and the truth about Palestinian intransigence that convinced Israeli voters to embrace a right-wing coalition. They need to start listening to Israel’s voters and stop lecturing them.
More than that, it’s time for moderate pro-Israel Democrats to have the Sister Souljah moment with Omar and her supporters that they passed on in recent months.
Democrats don’t have to concede the issue of Israel to Trump. But if their hatred for him and fear of offending minority and left-wing voters is too great to allow them to act, then they won’t be in a position to complain about the collapse of a bipartisan consensus on Israel that they will have already abandoned.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.