(June 17, 2019 / JNS) Someday, and that day may not be all that far off in the future, Israel will have a different prime minister, as well as a different ambassador to Washington. Yet despite the claims of some liberals, the problems that the Jewish state has experienced in terms of maintaining bipartisan support for its cause will not diminish much when that happens.
Some on the left like to blame the gap in support for Israel between Republicans and Democrats on the duo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer. They also deprecate the willingness of the GOP to trumpet the contrast between the two parties’ stands, claiming that unfairly politicizes an issue that should be bipartisan. But the dilemmas Israel faces have little to do with the policies of the current government in Jerusalem or the conduct of its ambassador. The issue is the embrace of identity politics and intersectional ideology that has left pro-Israel Democrats fighting—and not always successfully—for the soul of their party. It is to that issue that those who care about Israel should be focused.
The latest controversy involving Dermer concerned a speech he gave to the Republican Jewish Coalition last week in Washington. Paraphrases of points he made about the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats in the address were tweeted out by the RJC account. Some liberal and pro-Democrat groups reacted by denouncing him for politicizing support for Israel and giving the impression that only Republicans backed the Jewish state. It’s not clear that the since-deleted RJC tweets actually backed up that interpretation, but it still served as fodder for the Jewish Democratic Council and the Israel Policy Forum to denounce him.
It’s an unfair rap. Animus towards Dermer is a function of the fact that, unlike some of his predecessors, he does not try to come across as a nonpartisan representative of his country. Instead, he faithfully and effectively represents his government and his prime minister.
More to the point, by all accounts, Dermer appears to have given the same speech to the RJC that he gave only a few days earlier to the American Jewish Committee’s policy conference. A video excerpt from the AJC speech tweeted by the Israeli embassy appears to back up those who say that Dermer had nothing for which he should apologize. In both speeches, he pointed out that there was still considerable support for Israel among Democrats. He also noted that the prevailing narrative about Israel and the Democrats is that the partisan gap is due to resentment of Netanyahu and his skirmishes with former President Barack Obama, in addition to “blowback” from those who dislike U.S. President Donald Trump and have come to associate him with the pro-Israel camp.
But as Dermer and others have long pointed out, the gap between Republicans and Democrats didn’t first appear in 2017 after Trump was inaugurated or even during the previous eight years as the Obama-Netanyahu feud grew increasingly bitter. It goes back to the late 1980s, when Gallup first began polling the issue. Since then, support for Israel has remained fairly steady among Democrats with a clear plurality of Democrats backing Israel. But if the fissure has widened, it is due to the fact that during this time, support among Republicans has increased from a bare majority to the current stratospheric levels of support—with a high of 87 percent registering as pro-Israel in 2018, as opposed to 43 percent of Democrats.
More to the point, Dermer affirmed that “strong bipartisan support is a strategic interest for Israel.”
He’s right about that, but many Democrats still don’t trust him. They view him as someone who helped fuel the discord between the Obama administration and Israel, and view his more friendly relationship with the Trump administration with equal distrust.
As with Democrat complaints about Republicans pointing out the differences in the two parties’ levels of support for Israel, there’s a good deal of victim-blaming involved here.
The Democratic Party remains divided about Israel, while the Republicans have become a lockstep pro-Israel party. Anti-Israel opinion is not so much the product of Netanyahu’s specific policies on the peace process as they are a result of increased support for anti-Zionist ideology, rooted in intersectionalism that falsely claims that the Palestinian war on Israel be linked to the struggle for civil rights in the United States and all other fights against discrimination.
Netanyahu’s realistic approach to Palestinian rejectionism represents a consensus of Israeli opinion. Supporters of the BDS movement and its champions, like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), see no difference between Netanyahu and his chief rivals, such as the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz, because anyone who might actually defeat the prime minister is likely to share his basic approach to the Palestinians. Liberal Democrats who complain about Netanyahu would applaud his political demise, but their criticisms of him will soon apply to any plausible successor. The same applies to the growing dissent against Israel among left-wing Jews, who see any Jewish state as incompatible with their universalistic values.
If centrist Democrats seem incapable of mustering strong opposition to Omar and Tlaib that would correctly brand them as anti-Semitic extremists—as they failed to do in a congressional vote on anti-Semitism and by allowing Omar to remain on the House Foreign Affairs Committee—then it’s not Netanyahu’s fault. It’s because they fear that their party base, which has tilted farther to the left as the anti-Trump “resistance” gains strength, will not permit them to do so.
While some pro-Israel Democrats have begun to address the serious problem within their party, their knee-jerk response to Dermer shows that even they are still the prisoners of their partisan instincts. It’s time for Americans to stop blaming Israel, the Republicans or Trump for the growth of left-wing anti-Zionism, and to denounce those elements of the Democrats who have embraced hatred of Israel and the Jews.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.