Republicans did their best last week to highlight the presence of a pair of anti-Israel figures at the Democratic National Convention. But in a stroke of irony, this week the Democrats are, among other things, complaining about the way the Republicans are trying to highlight their pro-Israel credentials.
There’s no real symmetry between the dustups over the Democrats’ flip-flops over their relations with radical BDS activist and prominent anti-Semite Linda Sarsour, and the GOP’s decision to have U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speak to his party’s convention in an address taped in Jerusalem. Nor should either be compared with the fact that, to their credit, the Republicans bounced a scheduled speaker from their program who had been found to have tweeted out anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The contrast between these kerfuffles is interesting because it raises the question of whether and how concerns about Israel and anti-Semitism should impact the decisions of voters.
Sarsour’s presence, as well as that of an Islamist imam, at a DNC daytime forum was outrageous. The real problem, however, was that Joe Biden’s campaign tried to have it both ways—first condemning and disassociating the candidate from her and then apologizing to her supporters for being “insensitive” to their feelings.
Nevertheless, Pompeo’s speech raises legitimate questions about a sitting cabinet member engaging in political activity and doing so while using an allied country as a backdrop.
The Hatch Act broadly prohibits government employees from playing politics while on duty. That law has often been observed in the breach by previous administrations with, for example, members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet appearing at the 2012 Democratic Convention.
The New York Times claimed that it had been at least 75 years since a secretary of state spoke at a national party convention, but since I haven’t found any record of Cordell Hull—President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of state appearing at either the 1940 or 1944 Democratic conventions—Pompeo’s speech might be a first.
Democrats are arguing that posts like secretary of state ought to be above politics, and to some extent, that’s true. It’s equally true that these posts are usually filled by politicians who often use their exalted platform for purposes that advance their political interests, such as the way Hillary Clinton helped the Clinton Family Foundation, a billion-dollar slush fund masquerading as a charity that existed mainly to promote her interests and future presidential candidacy while doing little in the way of philanthropy.
Still, talk of Clinton or Obama is “whataboutism,” and their playing fast and loose with established norms doesn’t excuse Pompeo. That’s very much to the point when you consider that the secretary signed off on a memo issued by his department earlier this year warning diplomats that “Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event.”
So even if the Hatch Act is a law that being reinterpreted by each president and rarely enforced, Pompeo does stand convicted of hypocrisy. His claim that he will be appearing in a “private capacity” with no State Department funds or personnel being used for the event doesn’t withstand scrutiny. No matter what he does, while in public, a secretary of state is always the secretary of state, not a private citizen.
Yet outrage about such issues concerning technicalities is always a function of partisanship, not principle. A more important point is whether any administration should be using Israel as a prop in this manner.
This goes straight to the complaints we’ve been hearing from Democrats for nearly 20 years about the GOP exploiting Israel as a “wedge” issue and for politicizing what should, at least in theory, be a matter of bipartisan consensus.
Seen from this perspective, the problem with Pompeo’s speech is not so much whether a sitting secretary of state should speak at a convention, but whether it’s proper for his party to highlight its stands on Israel in this manner.
Having Pompeo speak to Americans from the rooftop of the King David Hotel makes even many pro-Israel Jews uncomfortable because it directly involves the Jewish state in the election. At a time when Americans are more bitterly divided than ever into two warring tribes, the Republican embrace of the Jewish state puts those who love Israel, though not Trump, in a difficult position.
But as has been the case since this debate began when Republicans were touting President George W. Bush’s Middle East policies, the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves.
Pro-Israel Democrats congratulated themselves on the party nominating a ticket that was composed of two figures in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris who were not opponents of the Jewish state. They also cheered the fact that their platform did not contain language that unfairly criticized Israel.
As the Sarsour fiasco illustrated, Democrats remain deeply divided on the issue. Polls have indicated for the last three decades that although the vast majority of Americans and an overwhelming majority of Republicans back the Jewish state, Democrats are split on the issue. In fact, many say they sympathize with the Palestinians as much as they do with Israel. In particular, support for Israel among self-identified “liberal Democrats” hovers in the single digits.
While most Democratic officeholders remain in the pro-Israel category, they also generally take positions most Israelis deplore, such as their support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and opposition to President Donald Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Trump’s ability to tout himself as the most pro-Israel president ever was enabled by Obama’s largely antagonistic relationship with Israel’s government and to view it as his duty to “save Israel from itself.” It’s also a function of the decision of most Democrats to treat Trump’s pro-Israel policies with the same disdain they reserve for everything else he does.
So while Pompeo is crossing a line in terms of political propriety, this is also an issue on which Democrats have largely abandoned the field to the GOP.
Moreover, the arguments about it being wrong for Republicans to use their pro-Israel policies to persuade the public to vote for them are illogical and undemocratic. The whole point of public debates is to hold politicians accountable for what they do. Silence on Israel enables its critics, not its supporters.
Many Trump voters, including tens of millions of evangelical Christians, cheer his stands on Jerusalem. But it’s likely that the majority of Jewish voters don’t think his decisions on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, accountability for Palestinian terrorism and being tough on Iran outweigh his personal faults or their objections to his conservative positions on other issues.
Even so, it’s hardly out of bounds for Republicans, who have become a lockstep pro-Israel party to campaign on these points. That’s especially true when, despite their talk of a bipartisan consensus, even pro-Israel Democrats like Biden hold positions on the peace process with the Palestinians that are opposed by most Israeli voters. Much of the Democratic Party’s activist base thinks his opposition to BDS is wrong. The apology to Sarsour by Tony Blinken, Biden’s top foreign-policy adviser, showed that the Democratic campaign is more afraid of the intersectional left than their Jewish supporters.
So while a raised eyebrow about Pompeo weighing on the election from Jerusalem is in order, the demand for silence about the two parties’ relative levels of support for Israel is neither legitimate nor a strategy for bolstering the alliance between the two nations.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.