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OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

The Democratic Party: Not yet a lost cause for Israel

But warning signs require that Jerusalem pay close attention.

Republican and Democratic Party logos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Republican and Democratic Party logos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Jerusalem on August 7 with an AIPAC-sponsored Democratic delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives. It was led by the most senior Democrat in the House, Hakeem Jeffries—an African-American Baptist and a steady friend of Israel from New York’s 8th District—alongside Steny Hoyer of Maryland’s 5th, a former House Majority leader who for decades has been one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress.

In his conversation with the delegation, the prime minister chose to concentrate not on internal affairs or foreign policy but on technological innovation, with an emphasis on Artificial Intelligence, as the basis for future cooperation with the United States—perhaps as an indirect hint that Israel continues to look to America and no one else (certainly not China) for strategic support.

As for Jeffries, he made it clear during the visit that he rejected any notion of curtailing or conditioning military aid to Israel, and reasserted the abiding American commitment to Israel’s security—for which radical elements in the United States roundly denounced him and the delegation. At the same time, he also expressed—as did other friendly visitors in recent weeks—the hope and expectation that the judicial reform measures in Israel will be carried forward with broad political support.

Despite the criticism hurled at the delegation by progressives and pro-Palestinian elements from within the Democratic Party, it is safe to say that voting patterns in Congress in the last few months prove that the bipartisan support base is solid. The influence of the radical anti-Israel group known as “The Squad,” led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) from New York’s 14th District, rarely extends—when it comes to a vote—beyond a tenth or even 5% of Democrats in the House. Despite all that has happened since the change of government in Israel, this has been amply demonstrated in several recent test cases.

House Resolution 311

Backed by 22 representatives on both sides of the aisle, Rep. Ann Louise Wagner (R-Miss.)—a former diplomat and a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—presented a draft resolution (symbolic rather than operative) congratulating Israel on its 75th Independence Day, and expressing support for the Abraham Accords and its contribution to peace, stability and economic growth.

Unlike previous resolutions put forward every five years, the proposed resolution did not include, this time, a reference to the principle of a two-state solution. The Democrats did suggest it in the draft, but the Republicans objected, and it was dropped. Still, on April 26 a great majority of Democrats voted in favor: it passed 401-19, indicating the depth of support in the ranks. A similar text was put forward in the Senate by Robert Menendez (a Democrat from New Jersey and another steady friend of Israel).

Notably, the number of representatives voting “nay” rose somewhat compared with the vote in September 2021 on the supplemental allocation for Iran Dome interceptors. At the time, this indicative vote was 420-9. To some extent, this change can be attributed to the sensitivity expressed by Jewish American left-wing groups over the omission of the two-state solution.

Concurrent Resolution 57

Even more significant as a test of strength between the anti-Israel group and the traditional base of support among Democrats was the vote in July in response to a statement by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington’s 7th District (Seattle) and a prominent leader in the party’s progressive wing, who in a pro-Palestinian forum spoke of Israel as a “racist state.”

Alarmed, the Republicans put forward a concurrent resolution—a bi-cameral instrument used mainly to express value judgments, not to legislate—which rejected this statement and reaffirmed appreciation for Israel as a democracy. Jayapal herself recanted and even voted in favor of the resolution, which passed 412-9. The list of those who voted against it—AOC; Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), an advocate of the unadulterated Palestinian position; Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.); Summer Lee (D-Pa.); Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.); Cori Bush (D-Miss.); Andre Carson (D-Ind.); Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.); and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)— practically defines the anti-Israel hard core within the Progressive Caucus, which is much larger (103 representatives).

According to AOC, AIPAC (which until now avoided directly challenging this group) is gearing up to beat Bowman in the Democratic primaries in his district. That could become a test of wills, bearing in mind the largely successful results of the AIPAC-backed Political Action Committee in the 2022 congressional elections.

Implications for Israeli policy

All this makes it even more important for Israel to preserve the bipartisan support base in Congress and among the American public. Despite Republican efforts to “own” Israel as a partisan cause, most Democrats remain supportive—a position vital to Israel’s military and diplomatic national security needs. That is of particular value at a time when American politics is subject to deep polarization and dramatic shifts of power.

As the prime minister’s attention to the Jeffries mission exemplifies, this requires constant dialogue with the Democratic leadership in both houses (and a willingness to listen to some friendly advice). Relations with the major American Jewish organizations’ leadership, whose membership is primarily Democratic, are also valuable for sustaining this commitment.

That, in turn, implies the avoidance of exacerbated tensions with American Jewry—most of whom belong to the non-Orthodox denominations—over issues of religion and state.

The internal rift in Israel also tends to be reflected in the political arena in America and among the Jewish communities there. Bridging the internal disagreements in Israel would make it easier for Democrats, and for the Jews as such, to reaffirm their traditional commitment.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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