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1. What the Iron Dome showdown was, and what it wasn’t
It’s been a few days since the House of Representatives voted 420-9 to approve the billion-dollar aid package for replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, and hopefully emotions have cooled down just enough to allow a more sober look at this political kerfuffle.
So here are a few observations that may have gotten lost in the heat of the debate:
Progressives: The Squad and its followers rightly identified an opportunity to make their voice on Israel heard. Faced with a decision by Democratic leadership to add the $1 billion Iron Dome funding to a must-pass continuing resolution, which was supposed to prevent a government shutdown, they decided to seize the moment and flex their muscle.
Now, politicians don’t get to choose their opportunities. Chances like this just present themselves. But for the left wing of the Democratic Party, it turned out to be a double-edged sword. Sure, it played well with the base and showed—for the first time—that progressives can challenge the establishment position on Israel and actually get noticed. But the issue on the table, funding for a purely defensive weapons system which actually saves lives (at least on the Israeli side) turned out to be an awful vehicle for carrying the Squad’s message of dismay over rubber stamping funding for Israel. It made them an easy target, with the debate centering on “why don’t progressive want to save children in Sderot” rather than on why the Democratic leadership is refusing to have a real discussion about aid to Israel.
The Establishment: This was a pretty good round for all establishment players: AIPAC and the pro-Israel centrists offered their collective gevalt cry and rallied their supporters in an effective push on Congress, which resulted in a quicker and stronger show of support than anyone had expected. It was also a good chance for mainstream Democrats to take on the progressive wing and brandish their pro-Israel credentials. The numbers drove home the message that voices critical of Israel are marginal—and they aren’t growing. Add to that the decisive actions taken by Democratic leadership (with Steny Hoyer moving a bill in record time of less than 24 hours) and Ted Deutch’s strong denunciation of Rashida Tlaib, and you get a powerful pro-Israel package that could go a long way in refuting Republican claims that the party has lost its pro-Israel base.
Israel: Watching from the sidelines, Israel—the potential recipient of this generous funding—registered several gains at the end of this tumultuous week. It will get the $1 billion aid and get it much faster than if it gone through the Continuing Resolution process or later as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Israel also had a chance to sit back and hear Democrats and Republicans compete over who loves Israel the most. Internally, the debate gave members of the current Israeli coalition government an opportunity to bash former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “clearly siding with the Republicans” and driving a wedge between Israel and the Democrats. For Likudniks, on the other hand, it was further proof that prime minister Naftali Bennett can’t manage Israel’s relations with America.
2. Who voted how?
Nine members voted against the Iron Dome funding in the House—eight Democrats (Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Andre Carson, Ayanna Pressley, Cori Bush, Marie Newman, Jesus Garcia and Raul Grijalva) and one Republican (Thomas Massie). Two Democrats (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hank Johnson) voted “present.”
Now, it may be unpleasant, but it’s relevant for those following the pro-Israel outreach efforts, so let’s look at the breakdown: Of the 10 Democrats who did not support the funding, most are women and Black or Hispanic. All three Muslim members of Congress also voted against the bill.
Does it matter?
No. Each member had their own explanation (read a useful rundown of their statements here) and it had nothing to do with their race, ethnicity, gender or religion. But it is also true that pro-Israel community, as well as Israel’s diplomatic missions across the U.S., have been spending a lot of time, energy and resources over the past decade in making sure that the pro-Israel tent is not made up only of white Jewish males. The breakdown of this recent vote suggests that there’s still work to be done.
And what about the sole Republican objector?
Rep. Massie is just a guy who opposes foreign aid. Nothing personal here. This is a long standing strand within the GOP, but it usually excludes Israel. Massie’s vote ruined what could have been a perfect picture for Republicans.
3. Will it matter for future funding?
At the end of the day, this is the biggest question. Was this a one-time glitch that allowed a handful of progressives to mess with the leadership’s plans to fund Israeli weapons, or is it a first sign of a trend that Israel and its supporters in the U.S. will have to deal with?
The numbers suggest Israel doesn’t have much to worry about. A huge majority of Dems will always be there to join an almost-unanimous GOP and pass funding for Israel.
But it’s not all rosy.
Iron Dome was an easy one. After all, it’s hard to find many votes to oppose a defense system whose only use is to prevent rockets from hitting civilian populations. But what happens when more controversial items come up? Smart bombs which Israel uses in Gaza, jet fighters deployed to bomb residential buildings? Bulldozers that raze homes of Palestinians? Israel and its supporters are well prepared with responses to why the American taxpayer should pay for all of this, but it will become harder to make the case. No longer an automatic nod of approval, but a need to actually provide mainstream Democrats with answers that can satisfy their constituents, when faced with challenges from the progressive end.
4. But wait, what about Bibi?
The Iron Dome debate led to another eye-opening conclusion: It’s not about Netanyahu. Or at least, it’s not only about him.
Some in Israel were wondering aloud this week: What is it that these progressive Democrats don’t understand? Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli leader who supposedly undermined Obama and sided with Trump, is gone, so why are they still giving Israel a hard time?
Well, because the schism between progressive Democrats and Israel goes way beyond Netanyahu. True, the former Israeli prime minister managed to irk many in the Democratic Party, even stalwart supporters like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. For them, the new Bennett-Lapid government, with its declared goal of mending relations and restoring bipartisanship, is all they needed to hear.
But on the progressive end, it was always about policy, and here there’s been little change. Bennett has nothing to offer Democrats, who care about the Palestinian issue and who are devoted to the cause of ending the conflict and establishing an independent Palestinian state. For them, it’s always been about the policy. Bibi was just a distraction.
5. Bennett comes to town
On Monday morning, Prime Minister Bennett spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Before hunkering down at his hotel in observance of Sukkot (which means he can only head back to Israel Tuesday night) he met with Jewish leaders for his first in-person (and virtual, for those who can’t make it) time as Israel’s leader. He didn’t offer anything in terms of specific issues (like the Western Wall or Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but he did stress that he wants to cooperate with diaspora Jewry, and that he sees diaspora Jews and Israel “as one.”