(February 18, 2022 / JNS) It was, to all appearances, a great day for the U.S.-Israel alliance. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a delegation of House Democrats on a visit to the Jewish state, where she sounded all the right notes. The most powerful woman in America knew exactly what her hosts—and many of her party’s Jewish donors—wanted to hear, and she laid it on thick. It was also in sharp contrast to the latest broadside about Israel from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the ringleader of the congressional “Squad,” who claimed that Israel is putting Palestinian children in cages on the West Bank, as well as asserting that supporters of the Palestinians are being censored and ignored by the media.
AOC gets more publicity than most rock stars, but political experts are always telling us that the press pays way too much attention to what she and her other radical “Squad” members say, especially when it comes to Israel. They argue that it is Pelosi and the other old-guard veterans of the Democratic Party who really matter, and that they are a better indicator of the enduring strength of the bipartisan pro-Israel coalition that still exists in American politics.
As much as it would be nice to believe that this is true, it isn’t. At the moment, the 81-year-old Pelosi and the other octogenarian members of the House Democratic leadership, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (82), Majority Whip James Clyburn (81) as well as slightly more youthful Democrats like President Joe Biden (79) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (71), are the ones with their fingers on the levers of power. But not only are those elderly Democrats routinely bullied by their supposedly powerless younger left-wing colleagues who hate Israel, some of what the veterans who espouse pro-Israel positions say and do with regard to the Jewish state is largely meaningless.
Pelosi’s trip to Israel is a classic example of something that we’re supposed to believe is of great significance but is actually of little or no value to the alliance.
Once in the Jewish state, Pelosi began with the usual pieties about the “bipartisan commitment to an unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States built on mutual security, our economic interests, and our common values and commitment to democracy.” After that, the savvy congressional powerbroker made sure to comment on the most important security challenge facing Israel, in addition to the one that is causing the most friction between the two nations.
“We are together in the fight against terrorism posed by Iran, both in the region and also its nuclear development. The nuclear threat by Iran is a global one. It is a threat to the world. Israel’s proximity to Iran is a concern to all of us and a responsibility for all of us,” she said.
These expressions of support were ecstatically welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli leaders who were happy to have photo ops with the House speaker.
That’s in line with Bennett’s strategy of trying to publicly downplay any differences with the Biden administration in order to influence them to halt the Democrats’ drive for another round of appeasement of Iran. It was a good idea in theory, though in practice it’s proved a disaster since Biden and his foreign-policy team have ignored Israel’s concerns about their willingness to reinstate the dangerously weak nuclear deal concluded with Iran by former President Barack Obama in 2015. And without Israel sounding the alarm about an impending catastrophe, it’s harder for pro-Israel politicians to do so without sounding more Catholic than the pope.
While it makes sense not to alienate powerful American politicians and even to cheer when they make anodyne statements about the U.S.-Israel relationship, Pelosi’s mention of Iran gives the lie to her assurances about Congress having the Jewish state’s back.
Pelosi is a supporter of funding Israeli defense, and that’s no small thing. However, her comments on Iran and supporting Israeli security don’t stand up to scrutiny. So long as congressional Democrats remain committed to supporting reinstating Obama’s pact—though the current negotiations in Vienna will likely ensure that it’s even weaker—guaranteeing that Iran will get a weapon with Western approval in only a few years, her rhetoric must be seen as not only unhelpful. It’s actually part of an administration effort to pressure Israel not to attack Iran’s nuclear program on its own.
Still, even those pro-Israel Democrats who understand how dangerous their party’s policy on Iran is—and there are still plenty of them—see her and the other geriatric cases leading it in Congress as a necessary bulwark against the growing influence of AOC and the hard-left.
AOC’s canard about Israelis putting Palestinian kids in cages was denounced by many leading Jewish groups, yet Speaker Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership, which has seized upon anything wacky said by extreme right-wing Republicans to censure or ban them from serving on House committees, were silent about it. Her absurd claims about those who are opposed to Israel being censored was actually a defense of those like academic Marc Lamont Hill, who publicly call for the eradication of the Jewish state. But Pelosi remains willing to tolerate AOC and other “Squad” members like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), despite their support of the anti-Semitic BDS movement. That’s because she’s shown at times that she’s genuinely afraid of them and for good reason: They have the support of the party’s activist base.
More than that, the flattery of AOC by some in the party and media establishment, like Politico founder John Harris, who recently wrote a column touting her as a future leader of the party, as well as the fawning treatment that “The Squad” gets on the late-night comedy shows, makes it clear that the actuarial tables are pro-Israel Democrats’ biggest problem. Simply put, the youth of the party is with AOC. Though she’s not as fanatically anti-Israel as some on the far-left would like—she was recently heckled in Austin while promoting her “Green New Deal” plan and speaking in support of a liberal Democrat who wasn’t willing to formally back Israel’s destruction—the ability of the intersectional left to throw its weight around isn’t a secret.
That accounts for the recent decision of another “Squad” member—Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) to announce that he now opposes the Abraham Accords, which brought normalization between Israel and some Arab and Muslim nations. Bowman had risked the ire of the far-left by visiting Israel on a J Street trip, but he’s been backing away ever since from his attempt at bridging the gap between liberal Zionism and BDS. Bowman’s stand, which essentially argues that peace is bad for the Palestinians, is proving again that the line separating lukewarm friends of Israel and open enemies is thinner than many Democrats are willing to admit.
Yet at the heart of the Democrats’ problem is something even more dangerous than the generation gap between young leftists and the elderly establishment. The leadership’s failure to openly oppose critical race theory and intersectionality, which brand Israel and the Jews as possessors of “white privilege” to be scorned, cannot be ignored. That ensures that whoever succeeds Biden, Pelosi and Schumer as the guard changes in the next few years will be either supportive of these toxic myths that give a permission slip to anti-Semitism or too cowed by their supporters to speak up against it.
Seen in that light, the critique of the press that holds that we are paying too much attention to marginal backbench House members while not fully appreciating the importance of what the leadership is doing has it backwards. We’re not over-covering AOC and “The Squad.” What we’re doing is not focusing enough on the threat they pose to take over one of America’s two major parties. And when they do, even the theoretical hope for reviving a bipartisan consensus on Israel will go out the window.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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