columnU.S.-Israel Relations

What does ‘pro-Israel’ Democrat mean in 2023?

While progressives flirt with “racist state” smears, Biden blackmails Netanyahu with talk of ending the alliance. Both show the impending crack-up of the bipartisan consensus.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaking at a “Save Our Democracy” rally on the anniversary of the insurrection at the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2022. Credit: Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaking at a “Save Our Democracy” rally on the anniversary of the insurrection at the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2022. Credit: Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the end, only nine House Democrats voted against a resolution refuting the smear that Israel “is a racist or apartheid state.” Still, the decision of all but the bitterest opponents of the Jewish state to swallow hard and vote for a measure that targeted one of their leaders shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that things are well between Israel and the Democrats. To the contrary, the discussion about whether Israel is “racist” speaks volumes about the delicate balancing act that Democrats are attempting to pull off as they navigate towards the 2024 elections.

Their problem is that while their activist base and many of the talking heads and pundits who have sway over their party are increasingly hostile to Israel, they know that most Americans, including the independent voters they need to hold onto the White House next year, support the Jewish state. And while they didn’t dare vote against the GOP resolution, their willingness to brand the majority of Israeli voters as racists, if not the concept of having one Jewish state on the planet, makes it clear that in a contest for the soul of the party, it’s the intersectional progressives who, despise the Zionist cause, are winning.

The Jayapal sideshow

The resolution, which passed by an overwhelming 412-9 vote on the eve of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress, stated an obvious truth, but it also infuriated Democrats, who felt they were being put in an impossible situation. The reason the anodyne statement was put forward by the body’s Republican majority was to highlight and embarrass the chairman of the House Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who just days earlier had called Israel a “racist state” at the left-wing Netroots Conference.

While Jayapal is closely aligned with the hardcore leftists of the House “Squad,” she is not someone who can be represented as a backbench outlier. As the leader of the 103-member group that comprises approximately half of all House Democrats, Jayapal is a key Capitol Hill player. So when faced with furious denunciations even by moderate Democrats for her attack on the Jewish state, she issued a clarification in which she said that she didn’t believe that “the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” but insisted that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is.

That clarification, cheered by J Street, expressed support for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But she then disingenuously claimed that the obstacle to that was Israel, despite the fact that offers of such a deal have been repeatedly rejected by the Palestinians. Even that walk back of her attack on Israel’s existence was undermined by her subsequent endorsement of a column defending her by anti-Zionist New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, which rationalized her stand. According to Goldberg, Jayapal’s “gaffe” was nothing more than a case of telling the truth about a state that is led by racists who specialize in oppressing the poor Palestinians. As for the Palestinians, they have no agency. Indeed, in the narrative promoted by Jayapal and her intersectional allies, their only purpose appears to be to highlight the wickedness of Jews who, unlike Goldberg, think their people deserve to have a state in their ancient homeland where they have a right to live and defend themselves.

When House Republicans decided that it was smart politics to try to make a meal of Jayapal’s decision to say the quiet part of the left-wing critique of Israel out loud, the Democratic caucus had no choice but to go along with them. Though many of them, including Jayapal, made it clear they did so reluctantly, they voted for the resolution that also promised that “the United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel.”

If that was the sole source of controversy concerning the alliance this week, the pro-Israel community would have good reason not only to celebrate an easy victory but consider the vote an indication of just how isolated the anti-Israel wing of the Democrats turned out to be. In fact, Jayapal’s talk of a “racist state” was a sideshow—and an insignificant one at that—when compared to the Biden administration’s demonstration of how it defines the term “pro-Israel.”

Herzog’s reception

On the surface, Herzog’s visit demonstrated that the concept of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus was very much alive, despite the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem.

The warm reception for Herzog and the numerous standing ovations he received from Republicans and Democrats had to discourage anti-Israel activists. And by highlighting the threat from Iran, condemning Palestinian support for terrorism and the inhumanity of Hamas, the need to expand the Abraham Accords and correctly characterizing anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism, Herzog used the stage he was offered to make points on which there is a broad consensus in Israel.

The Israeli president also tried to strike a delicate balance between his obligation to stand aloof from his country’s politics while still signaling to his own political camp on the left, which he hopes to once again lead sometime in the future after he leaves the presidency, that he opposes the Netanyahu government’s push for judicial reform. While expressing confidence in the strength and resilience of Israeli democracy, he said: that “Israel’s democracy has always been based on free and fair elections, on honoring the people’s choice”—a reference to the right of Netanyahu’s democratically elected coalition to legislate and govern. But he also threw a bouquet to its opponents by referencing “a strong and independent judiciary” and “protesters taking to the streets all across the country to emphatically raise their voices and fervently demonstrate their point of view.”

Yet the purpose of the protests and the notion that Israel must remain essentially a juristocracy where unelected left-wing judges who select their successors can decide all policy questions on an arbitrary basis of “reasonableness” rather than on the basis of law, seeks to override elections and honoring the people’s choice. The president’s drawing of moral equivalence between a Knesset majority and those blocking highways because they lost an election tilts the argument in favor of the latter. That makes Herzog’s even-handed stance far less admirable than it seems.

That’s a problem for Netanyahu but not the American pro-Israel community’s concern. The problematic nature of the Herzog display was the way Biden used it to advocate for a relationship with the Jewish state that regards any deviation from U.S. directives on both security and strictly domestic Israeli issues like judicial reform as a dealbreaker for the alliance.

Biden’s ominous warning

That was illustrated not only by the fuss made over Herzog while still denying Israel’s actual head of government—Netanyahu—the courtesy of an invitation to Washington. It was compounded by Biden’s decision to invite New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to the White House to deliver a blunt message to the prime minister.

Like Friedman, Biden has never conceded that his advice to Israel about its security dilemmas over the last several decades has consistently proven mistaken and led to much suffering. But that hasn’t stopped Biden from continuing to pretend that the “land for peace” formula and talk of a two-state solution that the Palestinians don’t want is still the only path for Israel to take.

He doesn’t want Netanyahu replaced as prime minister because he believes in a moribund peace process or in a Palestinian desire for peace. Nor does he think that, as a general rule, courts should have untrammeled power over the legislative and executive branches of government in democracies. On the contrary, he and his Democratic Party long to curb the power of the U.S. Supreme Court, though it has far less sway over policy than its Israeli counterpart and seeks only to uphold the Constitution rather than to dominate the other branches. The Democrats employ every opportunity to go around it, as well as to smear its conservative majority and thereby undermine its independence.

Biden recognizes that the only path to a weaker Israeli government that won’t obstruct a new and even more dangerous Iran nuclear deal means backing the Israeli protests against Netanyahu, regardless of how hypocritical that stance might be.

Equally insincere was his warning that Netanyahu should not try to pass legislation without a “broad consensus.” That’s rich coming from a man who served in an Obama administration that changed America’s health-care system on the basis of a razor-thin congressional majority while polls showed the voters opposed it. Not to mention the fact that he was a zealous advocate for the most important U.S. foreign-policy pact of the last 30 years—Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear deal—that was shoved down the American people’s throats even though majorities in both Houses of Congress and public opinion were against it.

Still, he used the interview with Friedman to warn Netanyahu to back down on judicial reform, saying it was the protesters—those men and women who are employing thuggish tactics to shut down the country, tank its economy and even harm its security—that embody “Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.”

Friedman might not be wrong when he characterized Biden as the man who might be “the last pro-Israel Democratic president.” The vote for the resolution chiding Jayapal notwithstanding, the divide in the party on Israel is largely generational as well as ideological.

But by implicitly conditioning administration support for Israel on whether or not the Netanyahu government succeeds in reforming the judiciary—which will, the gaslighting and lies of its opponents aside, make Israel more democratic rather than less so—this “last pro-Israel Democratic president” is setting the stage for a crack-up of the alliance between the two countries.

In labeling Israeli judicial reform in this manner, Biden was setting up a future debate in which pro-democracy legislation and differences over the peace process will be used as a pretext for downgrading a relationship that—the bromides thrown at Herzog notwithstanding—he no longer values.

Recent events may have seemed like a victory for the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus. But if one reads between the lines, they are actually an indication that it is being rendered obsolete by a Democratic Party split between radicals who think Israel is a “racist state” and moderates who believe that the ties between the two countries may be severed if the Jewish state’s conservative, nationalist and religious majority is allowed to govern when they win elections. Both seem ready to label a majority of Israelis and their elected leaders as racists and authoritarians. That’s a formula for a situation in which genuinely pro-Israel Democrats will become a minority within their party, and supporters of the Jewish state will—whether they like it or not—be forced to rely on Republican support.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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