Five Things to Know This Week: Is the Ilhan Omar Issue Over Yet?

By | Mar 12, 2019

1. Is the Ilhan Omar issue over yet?

Democrats may wish this story fades away, and pro-Israel advocates are probably hoping that the last moment could be magically erased, but the Ilhan Omar story is here to stay. At least for a while.

There are simply too many actors who want to keep the controversy alive, and it starts from the top. President Trump’s display of outrage (or faux outrage) at the “disgraceful” vote in Congress to condemn anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry set the tone for a Republican onslaught. Turning anti-Semitism into a political football (or “weaponizing” it, as some have claimed) may cause members of the Jewish community to feel queasy, but it makes political sense. Trump had his fair share of accusations claiming he was hospitable to anti-Semitic views. Spanning from his comments to Jewish donors early on in the campaign (“Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken”) to his association with Steve Bannon, who made Breitbart into a home for alt-right voices, through the Hillary Clinton-Star of David-piles of money tweet, and to Charlottesville (“good people on both sides”). Now, Trump believes he has identified a soft spot on the Democratic side, a way to not only deflect criticism aimed at him for lacking sensitivity to Jewish concerns, but also an opening to attack Democrats on exactly the same point. And as long as it pays off politically, there’s at least one side who will make sure the Omar story stays alive.

But not only Republicans. As Ron Kampeas pointed out, Omar is “feeling emboldened,” and progressives in the Democratic Party believe they are having their moment, so there’s no chance they’d want to let dispute die down.

Back in January, BuzzFeed ran a story titled: “Israel will be the great foreign policy debate of the Democratic Party.” This prophecy (or curse, if you ask pro-Israel activists) is coming true, faster than expected. Except it’s not necessarily a foreign policy debate. The Omar case put relations with Israel on the front burner for Democrats, as a prime domestic issue.

2. Who can fix this mess?

It would make sense for someone to step in now and try to resolve this mess, to try and set reasonable boundaries for the debate over Israel while reassuring progressives that they are welcome to the discussion, criticism and all.

But who could that be?

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu? The leader of the Jewish state and a veteran political leader with close ties to American politicians could be the ideal person to step in. But that’s not going to happen. Netanyahu, especially with less than a month to go before elections, won’t say anything that could be seen as disputing Trump or the Republicans (and he’d likely not say that even without elections around the corner). Not to mention the fact that the Democrats aren’t likely to want his voice added to the discussion and progressives will have nothing to do with him.

What about Jewish communal organizations? It would sound like a perfect fit. There’s nothing most communal organizations want more than maintaining a civil consensus within American public discourse. One in which anti-Semitism is universally unacceptable, but a variety of diverse opinions is welcome. But the major organizations have made themselves irrelevant with their refusal to step into partisan debates. This saved them from being tagged as one-sided and losing support from the other side, but has also shut them out to a great extent from political discussions.

What about AIPAC? The lobby could play a mediating role, and in fact, has already indicated it would like to. Just take a look at the video AIPAC put out in advance of its annual conference later this month. “Progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Together we form the fabric of our movement,” AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr says in the clip, which makes the point of stressing how progressives, Hispanics and African Americans are welcome. But AIPAC, by definition, can only do so much in reaching out to the left margins of the political system. Its pledge to bipartisanship and its need to continuously build bridges with an Israeli government drifting steadily to the right make this mission impossible.

So here’s a thought: How about AIPAC and J Street join forces on this one? Both have an interest in returning the debate to an acceptable framework. AIPAC cannot withstand forever attacks from the left on its legitimacy, and J Street doesn’t want to lose progressives who will feel they cannot find their place in the broader pro-Israel tent. So why not coordinate using each group’s respected strengths to convince progressive, centrist Democrats and Trumpist Republicans that it is time for a ceasefire?

3. Did the pro-BDS wing benefit from recent events?

Probably not. Sure, Omar’s comments have directed national attention to their side of the debate, but it’s not necessarily the kind of attention that is beneficial for these groups. If anything will ever come out of the Omar controversy, it will be a new consensus in which BDS is likely left outside. And with one of the only two supporters of BDS in the House now too toxic for the party’s establishment, the issue is unlikely to gain any traction.

4. Upcoming legislative moves will test Democrats

Speaking of BDS, there’s still a legislative effort hanging out there and waiting for action in the House. The bill supporting state-level anti-BDS legislation passed the Senate way before Omar made her comments, with about half the Dems voting against. Are there many Democrats who will be willing to take on the issue now in the House? There’s likely nothing for the Dems to gain from advancing the legislation and debating it. It’s a lose-lose situation in which supporting anti-BDS laws would further infuriate the progressive wing, and opposing them would provide Republican critics with even more ammunition.

5. Bibi’s trouble with liberal Jews gets deeper

Netanyahu’s effort to promote the election of racist Kahana-supporters to the Knesset brought together an unusual coalition of American Jewish organizations speaking out against the move. Beyond the usual suspects from the liberal side, even AIPAC and AJC took a stand against the move.

This last week added a few more issues to the list of grievances American liberal Jews hold against Bibi. First came the violent attack on women wishing to pray at the Western Wall, an attack that likely reminded many in the U.S. how Netanyahu’s backtracked on a deal to build an egalitarian prayer area. Then came his comment that Israel is the homeland “only of the Jewish people” that also rubbed liberal Jewish Americans the wrong way.

But it’s unlikely that these feelings of disagreement, or even anger, will make a dent in Bibi’s policy. At the end of the day, it’s a cold political calculation: American Jews don’t vote in Israel and their dissenting views don’t really register with Israeli voters. Right wingers, on the other hand, vote by the millions. And for them, Netanyahu’s comments and actions, are just right.

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