Five Things to Know This Week: Can Bernie Sanders show Ilhan Omar the right way to criticize Israel?
1. Ilhan Omar watch: Where’s Bernie?
House Democrats are spending more and more time trying to understand, educate and counter their colleague Ilhan Omar. What started off as an unfortunate Twitter quip has ballooned into a major issue for Dems. This week brought some Jewish Democratic heavyweights into the ring, taking their turn at trying to discipline Omar, or at least using the effort to make clear she does not speak for the party.
A compelling exchange between Omar and veteran Democrat Nita Lowey serves as a good illustration of the generational, and ideological rift separating old guard pro-Israel Democrats from younger members of the progressive wing. There is, as of now, no real dialogue taking place. Angry Democrats seem to have exhausted attempts to drive home their message that criticism of Israel is fine, but it’s not okay to stray into questions of dual loyalty, or of Jewish money controlling support for Israel. Calls from pro-Israel Democratic stalwarts such as Eliot Engel or Ted Deutch urging Omar to retract and apologize, have done little to make a change. Nor did Rep. Jerry Nadler’s appeal to Democratic leadership to “say something and do something.” It is therefore doubtful that a leadership-sponsored resolution scheduled for a vote on Wednesday will help bridge the gap that is now dividing the party.
Perhaps there’s a reason these efforts have so far fallen flat. They’ve all come from members that are strongly on the pro-Israel side. In other words, it’s hard to sound credible about how everyone has the right to criticize Israel, when it comes from politicians who have chosen not to be critical. Lowey, Engel and Deutch clearly believe that it is perfectly legitimate to voice opposition to Israeli policies, but they’ve been very careful in practicing this right.
Which begs the question—where’s Bernie? Bernie Sanders has been the strongest and clearest voice on the progressive side of the Democratic Party on issues relating to Israel. He has launched attacks on the Netanyahu government for its conduct during the Gaza military campaign and has repeatedly criticized Israel’s human rights record. These are positions that go way beyond the mainstream Democratic consensus of speaking out against the Netanyahu government only when it comes to settlement expansion or on issues relating to racism or religious pluralism in Israel. Sanders has been doing it for years. He’s ruffled every possible feather in the centrist pro-Israel camp and among Israeli officials. And yet, Bernie’s criticism, harsh as it may be, has always avoided resonance with any hateful tropes. Sanders has proven that it can be done, and if Democrats really want to engage honestly with Ilhan Omar, they might want to look to the Vermont senator and presidential candidate for advice. He may be the only one who can convey their message to the congresswoman from Minnesota.
2. On Rep. Jordan and whataboutism
And if anyone needed a reminder that unfortunate tweets can come from either side of the political map, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan from Ohio saw a need to tweet this about Democrat Jerry Nadler, who is Jewish: “Nadler feeling the heat big time. Jumps to Tom $teyer’s conclusion—impeaching our President—before first document request.” That dollar sign in the tweet, well, that’s wrong. And it echoes exactly the same hateful anti-Semitic canards as did Omar’s “Benjamins” comment, that Jews somehow control money and are driven by it.
So is it worse, or better, or just the same as Omar’s comments? That really doesn’t matter. Any attempt to try and grade anti-Semitism is bound to fail. It’s wrong when Democrats use it; It’s just as wrong when Republicans do.
3. Should American Jews care about Bibi’s legal troubles?
Thursday’s announcement by Israel’s Attorney General of his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust has sent the Israeli political system into a tizzy. That’s only reasonable. After all, it’s not everyday that a sitting prime minister is indicted (or about to be). With less than five weeks remaining until the elections, the decision, according to polls, seems to have tipped the scale against Netanyahu, now putting him just slightly under the number of seats he will need in order to form the next coalition. But should American Jews care about all this?
Here are some reasons: How many younger Americans even remember an Israel without Netanyahu? The Likud leader has been in power for 10 years and served as prime minister for three years in a previous term during the late 1990s. For American Jews, Netanyahu has become synonymous with Israel—for better or worse. Some admire his tough stance on security, his support for a vision of “greater Israel” which includes the West Bank, or his perfect English and well-fitted suits that made Americans feel like he’s, well, one of their own. Others have seen Netanyahu as the face of everything they dislike in Israel: His jingoistic rhetoric, the successful positioning of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians as intractable and therefore irrelevant, and his disregard of key issues impacting life of Jewish Americans. And then there are those who will never forgive Netanyahu for his alliance with Donald Trump, whether out of political expedience or stemming from shared values.
But either way, few have imagined an Israel after Bibi.
True, there’s still a long way to go. A final decision on the indicting is months away and before that happens Netanyahu might very well pull off another election win. But chances are that if he does, indeed, face charges, this will be a short-lived victory and within a year or so Netanyahu will be replaced by a new prime minister, either from the right or from the center.
This may coincide with the 2020 election season in America and the rise of Democratic progressives willing to challenge Israel. It may require new thinking on how the Jewish community views Israel and its leadership. Now would be a good time to prepare and get acquainted with other players in the field.
4. Some homework on Israeli politics
So, here’s how to catch up on what could be Israel’s political face after Netanyahu:
Read up about Gideon Saar or Israel Katz, two of the leading contenders in the Likud to replace Netanyahu if and when he steps down. Spoiler: They’re no doves.
Learn more about Israel’s right-wing party that could be the next kingmaker—Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party. Try to figure out what the Blue and White party is all about—it is the newly formed centrist bloc that is now the biggest threat to Netanyahu’s power. It’s made up of former generals who are centrist at best, but lean more toward the hawkish side, yet somehow this party is the best hope the Israeli peace camp has had for years.
And look at the demise of Israel’s Labor party—how could it be that the political faction that is most closely aligned with the views of most American Jews is going down the drain?
5. U.S. Jewish community will be the backdrop for Bibi’s final election pitch
Two weeks before the elections, Netanyahu will arrive in Washington for AIPAC’s annual policy conference and for what is bound to be a warm meeting with President Trump. The reaction among pro-Israel American Jews to his visit will play a role in determining Israel’s election outcome. The crowds cheering for Bibi at AIPAC will show up in Likud’s campaign ads the next day, with a clear message—Netanyahu is a leader who enjoys the support of American Jewry. That in itself doesn’t move votes in Israel, but as part of the broader Likud narrative of Netanyahu as a world leader in a class by himself, the optics of a supportive American Jewish community can play a helpful role.