(May 28, 2020 / JNS) Ten years ago, it came in with a bang, but this spring, it disbanded without even a whimper.
The Emergency Committee for Israel came into existence in 2010 in response to President Barack Obama’s increasingly aggressive criticism of Israel and his attempt to pressure it to make concessions to the Palestinians. In the following years, as Obama’s push for appeasement of Iran culminated in a disastrously weak nuclear deal, the ECI depicted the administration’s policies as not just wrongheaded or counterproductive, but an “emergency” that decent Americans should mobilize to oppose.
Democrats blasted the group for what they claimed was an attempt to turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue. Yet by helping to frame the debate about Obama’s push for more “daylight” between the United States and Israel, and a rapprochement with Iran, the ECI played a not insignificant role in generating dissent about such dangerous folly and electing members of the House and Senate who disagreed with the administration.
Once Obama got his way on the Iran nuclear deal, the ECI went silent. Earlier this spring, it formally disbanded. But it’s prime mover, former Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol has moved on to a different cause, albeit one that puzzles many of those who agreed with him about Obama’s attitude towards Israel.
After leading the effort to brand Obama a threat to Israel’s existence, Kristol has, along with some other celebrity pundits like The Atlantic’s David Frum and The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, who were cheerleaders for the ECI, become the voice of the #NeverTrump movement. He leads a new organization whose purpose is to convince Republicans to support presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. But unlike the ECI, which was often torched by the mainstream media, his new effort is gaining the same kind of sympathetic coverage in The New York Times that the left wing lobby J Street—ECI’s principal antagonist during its most active period—usually receives.
Everybody has a right to change their minds, and Trump’s often-vile public discourse has made him too heavy a lift for many. That’s especially true for those who were once in the center ring of the political circus and now find themselves on the outs.
Though liberal outlets like the Times are pumping as much life into the Never Trump idea as they can, it’s primarily a media story rather than a mass movement. The country may be badly split about Trump. But among Republicans, he has the highest favorability ratings of any modern GOP president, even in the midst of a pandemic, with Gallup showing him with a staggering 92 percent approval rating among Republicans.
It’s likely that this also holds true for the minority of Jews who have backed the GOP. The explanation for this is simple. Trump has delivered on policy on Israel and issues that conservatives care about across the board.
But the point to ask about the journey from the Emergency Committee for Israel to “Republican Voters Against Trump” is not how many people are coming along with Kristol. Rather, it’s what are we to think about the fact that some of the same people who were claiming that Obama was a threat to Israel now wish to replace Trump—who, his faults notwithstanding, is easily the pro-Israel president in U.S. history—with a leading member of the same Obama administration in Biden.
In recent weeks, Biden has said that he won’t move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. But he’s also made it clear that he intends to revive the same failed policies of pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians and will adamantly oppose the stands of the government of Israel.
Biden has a long history of seeking to dictate to Israel and thinking he knows better than the Jewish state’s elected leaders when it comes to its security. That stretches from confrontations with Menachem Begin to those with current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, it was during a Biden visit to Jerusalem in 2010 that the Obama administration ginned up a dispute with Israel over the right of Jews to build in their ancient capital that helped motivate Kristol and his friends to found the ECI.
Just as important, Biden has pledged to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal that he loyally supported during a debate when the ECI was correctly denouncing it as an act of appeasement of a genocidal Islamist regime.
It’s hard to fathom how people who were telling us that stopping the same policies that Biden will revive were a matter of life and death are now shrugging their shoulders about them. Indeed, at a conference earlier this year, many of the same people who embraced the ECI were rationalizing voting for Bernie Sanders if he won the Democratic nomination, even though he is even more hostile to Israel and every principle these former conservatives once held sacred.
Some claim that the association with Trump will damage Israel and put forward claims that the president is undermining bipartisan support for the Jewish state, even though the same arguments were used against ECI’s efforts to oppose Obama.
Kristol didn’t respond to my request for comment, but one member of the ECI board did speak to me. Gary Bauer, a conservative Christian who is chairman of American Values Action said he regarded the mission of the Emergency Committee as an important one, and is surprised that some of those associated with the group have now taken the position that standing with Israel is no longer a priority.
“It will be especially damaging to Israel to go back to dealing with an administration that is soft on Iran,” said Bauer. “I don’t see how that comes out in a way that adds to the security of Israel.” Referring to Biden’s embrace of J Street, Bauer said that “If J Street supports you, you ain’t pro-Israel.”
While acknowledging the criticisms of Trump, Bauer said he is “flabbergasted” that people who once stood with him in opposition to Obama’s policies are now seeking to bring them back. Citing all the issues on which Trump has governed as a conservative, as well as his historic stand on Israel, “if somebody would throw that overboard because they don’t like the president’s tweets, I have a hard time seeing that as a rational way to look at the choices in American politics.”
It’s understandable that the overwhelming majority of Jews who are politically liberal and believed in Obama’s policies would wish to oust Trump and replace him with Biden. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to treat as credible those who previously assured us that the Obama policies that Biden loyally supported were a threat to Israel’s existence, but now say they don’t matter. If Obama’s policies were an “emergency” in 2015, what do you call the prospect of their revival in 2020?
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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