The Republican Jewish Coalition held its annual Leadership Summit at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas this past weekend with more than 700 attendees. It was one of the organization’s largest-ever gatherings and the first in two years since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The unapologetically pro-Israel atmosphere at the Republican confab raises renewed questions about the bipartisan nature of support for Israel in American politics—and, as a consequence, which organizations are the most influential in garnering political support for the Jewish state.
According to Matt Brooks, director of the RJC, “there is a clear difference between where the Democrats are today and where the Republicans are today. Every single leading Republican participating in this conference today is quite frankly [pro-Israel]. Any Republican can go to a Republican gathering and can say, ‘I stand with Israel,’ and it’s an automatic applause line. And I think it’s sad that Democrats can’t do that. If they stood up at a democratic group and said, ‘I stand with Israel,’ more likely than not they would be booed.”
Several key policy differences now exist between the two parties on issues that affect the security and stability of the State of Israel. The first is Iran. Democrats roundly support America’s participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 under the Obama administration. Israel has always opposed the deal, and favored strict sanctions aimed at crippling the regime and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—moves supported by Republicans.
Democrats are now pushing to reopen the U.S. Consulate for Palestinians in downtown Jerusalem that was shuttered by the Trump administration and want Israel to restart the defunct Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel has no faith in the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, as a possible peace partner, due to continued incitement to violence, terror financing, and the promotion of international anti-Israel delegitimization and boycott movements. Republicans favor isolating the P.A. diplomatically, as well as cutting off funding, as long as payments to terrorists and their families continue.
Yet in an ironic form of abuse that adds insult to injury, as Democrats drop the long-held banner of Israel support, Republicans and even Israel’s government are now roundly accused of turning support for the Jewish state into a wedge issue.
“Democrats continue to talk about the strong bipartisan support for Israel in Congress. It’s a Kabuki dance,” Brooks told JNS.
“Everybody is painting this picture that everything’s great, there are no problems, and both parties are strong friends,” explained Brooks. “But the reality is that there is a real problem metastasizing within the Democratic Party as it relates to Israel. You have Democratic members standing in the hall of the United States Congress calling Israel an apartheid state and accusing them of ethnic cleansing and genocide.”
According to Brooks, Democratic support for Israel is not likely to return to the levels of the past and certainly not to the levels present within the Republican Party. The only way that full-fledged support for Israel would return is “if the rise of the progressive left within the Democratic Party comes to an end. Unfortunately, I think the trend is the exact opposite. I think the progressive wing is going to get more influence, more power and an even greater hold over the Democratic Party.”
With once bipartisan support shifting squarely to the side of the Republicans, American Jewish organizations, which have attempted to maintain bipartisan support for Israel, find themselves in a difficult bind. Key organizations are now forced to decide between the Brooks’ termed “kabuki dance” of outright support for pro-Israel policies and risking the further alienation of Democratic members of Congress.
Mainstream, nonpartisan organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which for decades has sought to ensure that pro-Israel candidates get elected to the House and Senate, has often found itself in the difficult position of choosing whether to support policies Jerusalem wants to see advanced and not angering Democrats who don’t want Israel to have any sway over American foreign policy.
Recent examples include AIPAC’s refusal to outright oppose the Iran nuclear deal and lukewarm support for the Taylor Force Act, which reduced funding to the P.A. over its direct financial support for terrorists and families of those killed in the act of pre-meditated murder of Jews—an appalling pension scheme termed by opponents as “pay for slay.”
Longtime financial supporters of key Jewish organizations have grown increasingly frustrated with many longtime pro-Israel organizations, accusing them of lessening their support in the hopes of maintaining their political influence, status and access. As a result, many AIPAC supporters have reduced their financial contributions.
It is an issue that for the first time came to the plenary of the RJC during a keynote address by a non-Jewish leader. Former Ambassador to the United Nations (and a possible future presidential hopeful) Nikki Haley openly called out AIPAC.
“There’s one thing I don’t get about AIPAC … Why do they invite politicians to their conference who strongly support the Iran nuclear deal?” she said. “Bipartisanship is important, but if you make bipartisanship your whole reason for existence, then you lose sight of the policies you’re fighting for in the first place.
Haley added that “if a politician supports the disastrous Iran deal, opposes moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and is embraced by anti-Semites who support the BDS movement, then a pro-Israel group should have absolutely nothing to do with him or her.”
Explaining her remarks, Haley told JNS, “I love AIPAC, and AIPAC has always been incredibly supportive of everything that I’ve done, but I care about the future of AIPAC. I’ve said this to their leadership for a long time.”
She added that she wants support for Israel “to always be bipartisan.”
“I want as many Democrats to support Israel as Republicans,” she said. “So if there’s someone that does support the things that will keep Israel strong, have them on the stage, but you’ve got to stop having these bad actors on the stage because all you’re doing is rewarding them for bad behavior. And I hope AIPAC sees that. Because if all you are doing is trying to do is to appease other people, you lose sight of actually accomplishing the goal.”
Yet the current polarized political climate in America—in which there are very few, if any, bipartisan issues anymore—leaves nonpartisan organizations out in the cold for both parties. It also raises the influence of organizations like the Republican Jewish Coalition.
RJC is guiding Jewish donors to place sizable donations behind the campaigns of Republican candidates that it can be 100 percent certain will support Israel and pro-Israel policies, and fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel boycotts.
“That RJC is being dubbed affectionately by some, as the kosher cattle call, indicates how important the RJC is in terms of its role within the Republican Party and the impact that we have,” said Brooks. “But there’s another issue: how strong the Republican Party is in terms of standing with the Jewish community and combating anti-Semitism, and standing with Israel and making sure that our most important ally in the region has the support that it needs to defend itself.”
Meanwhile, the mood at the conference was upbeat despite a Biden-Harris White House that is methodically attempting to roll back the decidedly pro-Israel policies of the Trump administration, and a Democrat-controlled House and Senate that has waffled in its support of the Jewish state.
Optimism reigned over the feeling that Democrats have overplayed their hands with unpopular policies that led to key Republican electoral victories this past week, and the hope that Republicans may make sweeping gains in the House and Senate in 2022.
AIPAC, on the other hand, has already canceled its upcoming 2022 policy conference.
“I am extremely confident,” Brooks said just a week after the 2021 elections and a year before the midterms. “If I were a Democratic political operative, I would be petrified as to what happened last week. I think more telling is the anger and the frustration that the electorate is showing with the current policy.”
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.