When leaders of Tammany Hall—the legendary Democratic machine that ran New York City for more than a century—would be confronted with an occasional electoral setback, their usual response was to deride it by claiming that if their handpicked candidates didn’t win, then “it ain’t democratic.”
That’s pretty much the reaction of much of the Democratic Party to the results of Israel’s election. Prominent Democrats have greeted the victory of the man who was the bitter foe of President Barack Obama and, just as bad, the close friend and ally of President Donald Trump with a mixture of dismay and horror.
More to the point, they view the judgment of Israel’s voters—the majority of whom voted for either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party or other slates that were pledged to support his bid to lead the next government—as not merely wrong, but contrary to what is good for their country.
We’re all entitled to our opinions about the outcomes of elections. But this revulsion on the part of Democrats for the democratically expressed will of the Israeli people is likely to widen the divisions in their party about attitudes regarding the Jewish state. Even more troubling is that it increases the likelihood that support for Israel will be an issue in the 2020 presidential election. That will accelerate the crackup of what is already a rapidly eroding bipartisan coalition in favor of Israel.
The key talking point for pro-Israel Democrats for the last 25 years has been the claim that Republicans are undermining the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus by seeking to portray themselves as better friends to the Jewish state than their opponents. This is a somewhat dubious argument because the main purpose of such claims was to distract voters from the fact that the left wing of the Democratic Party was drifting towards being either highly critical or downright hostile to Israel.
But with Netanyahu being re-elected for a fourth consecutive term, more and more Democrats are dropping the pretense that we all still agree about Israel, and instead are adopting stances that condemn the prime minister as someone who is unworthy of support, or even more, assert that they know better about what is good for Israel than the Israelis.
There isn’t anything new about this since it was, in essence, the way the Obama administration regarded Israel throughout its eight years in office. Obama believed not only that more “daylight” between the two allies was better for Israel than steadfast support, but also that the Jewish state needed to be “saved from itself” with respect to the conflict with the Palestinians. He was just as indifferent to Israel’s credible fears about efforts to appease Iran via a one-sided nuclear deal.
Yet when faced with Obama’s changes of U.S. foreign policy that were clearly aimed at undermining the alliance with Israel, most Democrats chose not to protest.
The arguments about what it means to be pro-Israel have only grown more divisive since Trump took office. Acknowledging the truth that Trump is the most pro-Israel president to date is a difficult pill for Democrats, who despise the president, to swallow. So rather than concentrate their fire on other issues, many simply argue that supporting Israel and respecting the will of its voters represent betrayals of the alliance. This takes the form of bogus claims that Netanyahu’s election is a sign of a decline of Israeli democracy, rather than an expression of it.
That this is absurd and illogical doesn’t deter them. Some of their points are also deeply hypocritical. Suffice it to say that no matter what you think of Netanyahu’s electoral maneuver that enabled supporters of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane to join another electoral list (though in the end, those Kahanists were not elected to the Knesset), Democrats who don’t mind rationalizing the behavior or benefiting from the votes of anti-Semitic, BDS-supporting colleagues like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) have no standing to criticize him on this issue.
More importantly, their position is rooted in the even more outrageous notion that Democrats understand the conflict with the Palestinians better than the Israeli people.
It’s important to remind those who make this argument that the Israeli political parties that clung to the illusion that Obama was right about the Palestinians and the two-state solution—namely, Labor and Meretz—got approximately 8.25 percent of the vote on April 9. They have been discredited by the reality of Palestinian intransigence that has somehow evaded the notion of Israel’s Democratic critics.
In 2020, the odds are that whoever it is the Democrats nominate will be someone inclined to bash Netanyahu and to treat the judgment of Israel’s voters about their security with disdain. This means that Israel will become a campaign issue for Trump, who will highlight his support for the Jewish nation, a position that is still backed by a clear majority of Americans.
Once this issue becomes fodder for campaign rhetoric from both sides, it will be a mortal blow to the pro-Israel consensus. And if the Democrats win, it will mean U.S.-Israel relations in the years that follow will make the spats between Obama and Netanyahu look like a picnic.
Democrats will try to blame this on Trump, but as with Obama’s stance on the Palestinians and Iran, such arguments will be utterly disingenuous. If Democrats want to preserve the pro-Israel consensus, then they need to be supportive of Israel, understanding of its exterior and interior security dilemmas, and respectful of the democratically expressed will of its people. More to the point, they cannot make common cause with those who seek—as some on the left wing of the Democrats do—to delegitimize or oppose the existence of Israel.
If Democrats can’t manage to respect Israel’s voters or refrain from seeking to override their judgment, they shouldn’t complain about the demise of a consensus that they themselves have chosen to abandon.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.