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1. How Republicans speak in one voice to Jewish supporters (and why Democrats don’t)
There’s an easy—yet inaccurate—way to describe the current relationship between the two political parties and their Jewish voters: Democrats win Jewish votes on all issues relating to domestic affairs, including antisemitism, and they lose Jewish votes when it comes to their policy toward Israel. On the flip side, Republicans win over Jewish voters thanks to their stance on Israel, but they have a blind spot for antisemitism that works against them.
Though simplistic—and, as mentioned, inaccurate—this approach is helpful in examining both parties’ approach to courting the Jewish community.
Take this past weekend’s Republican Jewish Coalition leadership summit. This is an annual gathering (when COVID allows, that is) bringing together top Jewish Republican donors and leading GOP politicians to Las Vegas for a weekend at the Venetian Hotel. An impressive roster of Republican leaders showed up this year, including former Vice President Mike Pence, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel and potential 2024 presidential candidates Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo and Ron DeSantis.
Some praised former President Donald Trump (including Trump himself, who made a brief video appearance), while others limited the scope of their praise to Trump’s actions regarding Israel. All painted the Democrats as the party of Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—progressive members known for their harsh criticism of Israel. There was no self-flagellation over how white supremacists and neo-Nazis crept into the pro-Trump camp, nor was there any acknowledgement of the GOP’s own critic of Israel—Senator Rand Paul. The strategy was clear: highlighting strengths (Jerusalem, Iran, the Golan Heights and Pompeo sipping wine made in a West Bank settlement), while playing up the rival’s vulnerabilities (Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez).
The Democrats, according to this pattern, should have done the same: Stress Joe Biden’s strong stance on antisemitism (which Vice President Kamala Harris actually did in her Sunday night speech at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual meeting), and ignore the split between centrists and progressives in the party when it comes to Israel.
The Democrats are having a hard time brushing off the claim of being weak on Israel, though it shouldn’t be that difficult. Just look at the final House vote on providing extra funding for Israel’s Iron Dome systems: 210 Democrats voted in favor; only eight were opposed, and two voted “present.” This should have ended the debate over “who owns the party” when it comes to Israel policy. Instead, Democrats engaged in a very public debate, which ended with Ocasio-Cortez crying on the House floor, Tlaib accusing Israel of apartheid and war crimes and Ted Deutch taking the podium to accuse Tlaib of antisemitism.
In a democracy, there’s nothing better than an open, public debate about policy, even when it becomes emotional. But in politics, this openness comes with a price tag.
2. Haley’s comment
Nikki Haley may run for president in 2024. But if the former governor and U.S. ambassador to the UN has plans of throwing her hat in the ring, her latest remarks indicate that she has no intention of playing it safe.
In her speech at the RJC meeting, Haley chose to take issue with AIPAC, the powerful centrist pro-Israel lobby. “There’s one thing I don’t get about AIPAC,” Haley said. “Why do they invite politicians to their conference who strongly support the Iran nuclear deal? Stop rewarding bad behavior. It only gets you more bad behavior.”
According to reporters on the ground in Vegas, the audience applauded Haley’s jab at AIPAC, but the question remains: Why pick this fight?
First, as Haley and Jewish Republicans know very well, AIPAC prides itself on maintaining a big bipartisan tent. Exclusions are few and limited to those clearly outside the pro-Israel camp or vocal AIPAC critics, such as Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum or Rand Paul (none of whom would attend even if invited). Does Haley expect AIPAC to add to this list Biden, Harris, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the majority of Democratic lawmakers? And what about Israelis who supported the deal? Will they be disinvited?
So why make this call?
It could be a policy issue. Haley understands that bipartisanship on Israel is long dead and not about to be revived. And since there is no need to worry about that anymore, why not try and sway the pro-Israel lobby even more to her side of the debate?
But it could also relate to politics. The RJC summit was hosted by Miriam Adelson, who now runs the huge Republican funding source set up by her late husband, Sheldon Adelson. Important background: Adelson split with AIPAC and has since sought out ways to challenge its prominent role in pro-Israel lobbying. Haley could be signaling to Miriam Adelson, potentially the single biggest donor in the next election, that she’s on her side on this issue.
3. How Virginia fits in
Much has been said and written about the Democrats’ stinging defeat in the Virginia gubernatorial race last week. But what’s the Jewish angle?
The American Jewish Congress conducted an exit poll among Jewish voters in Virginia. (To be clear, reaching out to 400 self-identified Jewish voters in Virginia by text message isn’t the best way of getting accurate data, but polling Jews is a tremendously difficult task as it is, so let’s assume the data is generally reliable.)
The final outcome isn’t surprising: According to this poll, Republican Glenn Youngkin received 37 percent of Jewish votes (slightly higher than Trump in 2020), and Democrat Terry McAuliffe won 63 percent of Jewish voters in the state (which is worse than Biden did in the presidential election). It makes sense: Trump, a turnoff for many Jewish voters, was not on the ballot, making it easier for Jewish Republicans to vote Youngkin.
The interesting part of the poll has to do with Jewish voters’ priorities. For Republicans, Israel comes in a strong third, after education and the economy. For Jewish Democrats, according to the poll, Israel came in last on the list of eight possible priorities.
Which goes back to the schematic portrayal of the two parties’ differences in approach to Jewish voters: Dems may be able to neglect the Israel issue a bit, since their voters don’t see it as a top priority. But it’s a difficult balancing act. Allow the debate on Israel to boil over, and it will begin to become a problem even for voters who don’t see it as a top priority.
4. Fighting for Lipstadt
Democrats have their own battle to wage now, and it has to do with an unlikely place to find a political divide: the confirmation of the State Department’s next special envoy on monitoring and combating antisemitism.
It’s unlikely because Biden’s candidate, historian Deborah Lipstadt, is one of the world’s leading scholars on antisemitism. After all, how many history professors can point to a Hollywood movie based on their legal battle against a Holocaust denier?
But Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have been stalling on Lipstadt’ confirmation hearing. The reason: past tweets of hers that were unkind to Republicans, including one attacking Senator Ron Johnson, who is a member of the committee, over the role of white supremacists in the January 6 Capitol insurrection.
Democrats have been ramping up pressure to get Lipstadt confirmed and now have the backing of a diverse array of Jewish organizations, including the ADL, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Orthodox Union, who joined forces in a letter urging senators to advance her confirmation.
5. And now, to the next Jerusalem crisis
Just as Biden celebrated the passage of his infrastructure bill, the Israeli government, led by Naftali Bennett, was marveling at a similar success: the passage of a national budget, for the first time in three years.
This means not only that Israel will finally have a financial blueprint to lead its government’s operations, but also that Bennett’s coalition has survived its biggest challenge so far. It also means that the stage is now set for the next flareup with the Biden administration—this time about the reopening of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that deals with Palestinian affairs.
The consulate was closed when Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and wiped out the separate section addressing Palestinian issues. Now Biden wants the consulate back, but he faces opposition from the Israeli government.
Bennett and his foreign minister Yair Lapid had been asking their American counterparts to hold off on the decision until after a budget was approved. A U.S. move to reopen the consulate, they argued, would irritate the right-wing partners in the coalition and would make it impossible to get all the votes needed to pass the budget.
So, what happens now that the budget hurdle is in the rearview mirror?
Bennett and Lapid made clear this week that they oppose Biden’s intention to reopen the diplomatic mission. The U.S. administration, at least formally, still stands behind its intention to do just that. Which means that now is the time to test how willing, and how creative, both sides can be in resolving this impasse. In other words, if the Trump-Netanyahu era was all about bold moves and ignoring nuances, this is where Biden and Bennett need to prove that diplomacy, close ties and a mutual sense of understanding can be just as effective.