What Happened to the Pro-Israel Dems?

By | Jun 22, 2020
Israel, Latest
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1. Eliot Engel as a test case

The future of New York congressman Eliot Engel’s 31-year political career will be decided by voters Tuesday, when the state holds its primary elections.

Engel may or may not survive the surprise political challenge thrust upon him (this column was written Monday) and whether he does, or he succumbs to progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman, will be a result of many factors: voter fatigue, progressive energy and the ability of each candidate to deliver for their constituents on local issues. Israel will not be the deciding factor, even though pro-Israel groups are watching the battle closely and pouring money into it.

Engel, arguably the most pro-Israel lawmaker in Congress, will not win or lose the chance to represent New York’s 16th Congressional District because of his views on the Middle East. But his political predicament provides a glimpse into the state of pro-Israel politics in America.

Engel is a classic moderate Democrat, one who can veer slightly to left or the right on domestic issues, but will always take the hawkish, right of center view, when it comes to Israel. These are the types of Democrats Israel has relied on to build its strong political bond with the party. Think Chuck Schumer, Nita Lowey, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Lieberman (when he was a Democrat) and so many more. They are open to criticizing Israel and to questioning its policies at times (well, Engel less so than others) but at their core, they view America’s alliance with Israel as a cornerstone of any U.S. policy decision relating to the Middle East.

Israel, regardless of whether Engel gets to spend another term in Congress or not, is running out of hawkish Dems to build the bridge it needs to a bipartisan recognition of Israel’s importance as an ally to America. The party is shifting leftwards, while Israel is going right.

Many Israelis and pro-Israel players recognized this inevitable distancing years ago and have been trying to bridge the gap—from dedicated advocacy efforts aimed at progressives at all political levels to (widely unsuccessful) campaigns meant to brand Israel as a liberal haven to heavy-handed attempts to use campaign contributions to bolster struggling pro-Israel moderates and fight off progressives who are critical of Israel.

This battle will continue in election cycles to come, long after Engel and Bowman settle their fight over New York primary voters. But in some centrist Democratic circles, it also comes with an understanding that saving the alliance will require more than helping out their moderate friends. It also calls for standing up to Israel.

2. Centrists speak out on annexation

Israel, determined to make things even more complicated for its Democratic supporters, has set a July 1 deadline for approving a partial annexation of the West Bank.

Israeli unilateral annexation is widely viewed as a blow to the notion of a two-state solution and as a step that would endanger efforts to achieve a peaceful outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

These concerns are shared by most Democrats, and it is interesting to take a look and see how opposition to Israel’s plan made its way from the progressive outskirts of the party, all the way to the centrist hardcore pro-Israel circles. 

It started with a strong rebuke from Senator Bernie Sanders, back at the J Street conference last October, when he threatened that Israeli annexation would be met by a cut of U.S. military aid to the Jewish state. Sanders and other progressives remained active on the issue, joining groups on the left in a call to the governments of Israel and the U.S. to avoid the move. 

Then, as the annexation deadline approached, a group of 19 Democratic senators sent a letter to Israel’s top leaders, warning them of the negative impact the move will have. By now, it was not only the liberals protesting the move. This group included known pro-Israel senators with close ties to the pro-Israel advocacy groups.

And then, last week, Senators Schumer, Ben Cardin and Robert Menendez issued their own statement, warning against the move. “Unilateral annexation,” they wrote, “could undermine regional stability and broader US national security interests in the region.”

This may not sound like the sternest rebuke, but keep in mind: Israel has no stronger allies in the Senate than these three Democrats, who in 2015 broke with President Obama and opposed the Iran nuclear deal, and who have been leading the cause for aid to Israel and for fighting BDS.

Which goes back to Engel and to the future of Israel’s reliance on moderate Democrats. Middle of the road Dems may be a species in danger of extinction, but that’s only half of Israel’s problem with the Democratic Party. The other has to do solely with Israel’s policies and actions, that within a span of a decade, have managed to alienate not only far-left Dems, progressives and run-of-the-mill peaceniks, but even those who you’d usually expect to find keynoting an AIPAC conference or marching at the front of the 5th Avenue Israel parade.

3. DMFI is a bit too much for Engel

Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) is the leading group on the frontlines of the battle for pro-Israel Dems, using the time-tested method of pouring money into campaigns supporting them and opposing their rivals. And while the cause of the PAC is to help get pro-Israel lawmakers elected, it does not necessarily use the Israel argument in its appeal to the public. That was the case with DMFI’s anti-Sanders campaign, which focused on his electability, and now they are doing the same with Engel. Or, at least, that’s what they tried to do.

The PAC’s campaign ad went after Bowman, Engel’s rival, for allegedly not paying his taxes.

But that was a bit too much for many of Engel’s supporters, who came out against the claim that seemed to insinuate that struggling with debt was somehow criminal. Engel distanced himself from the ad and called on DMFI to remove it.

4. The politics of summer camps

For years, the New York Orthodox community prided itself on having close working relations with leaders of the state and the city, regardless of their political affiliation. Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike understood that Orthodox Jews have special needs and interests, and did their best to be responsive. In return, they found well-organized political allies who would help them win crucial districts.

But the coronavirus pandemic has strained this relationship.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s crackdown on mass gatherings in Orthodox neighborhoods and his refusal to reopen playgrounds have caused backlash in the community.

Now, the same is happening with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced that sleepaway camps are canceled for the summer.

For many Orthodox families, this is a real problem. Summer camps serve not only as a well-deserved break for parents, but are also an integral part of the Orthodox educational tradition (and, for that matter, of American Jews).

Agudath Israel of America has been speaking out on the issue, calling out Cuomo and his administration for being deaf to their community’s concerns. The decision to disallow sleepaway camps, Agudah said in a statement, “will be a blow to the physical, socioemotional, and psychological well-being of children who have already endured forced quarantine for nearly three months, as well as their religious development.”

The group is also fighting against New York state’s decision to continue restrictions on communal prayers, even though other events are allowed to take place.

5. David Kustoff and Lee Zeldin show up for Trump

Donald Trump’s team promised hundreds of thousands of participants in the president’s first campaign rally in more than three months, which took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma this past Saturday.

The massive crowds never showed up, but among those who did make it and took front row seats were Tennessee Republican David Kustoff and New York’s Lee Zeldin, the two Jewish Republicans in the House. They were among a dozen or so members of Congress invited to serve as surrogates at the event.

Zeldin has been at the pro-Trump forefront since Trump took office, and even in difficult times he has stepped up to defend the president in the media and in Congress. Trump rewarded Zeldin’s backing with several White House invitations.

Kustoff, while not the most outspoken Trumpist on the national stage, is definitely on the same page with the president and has voted with Trump’s position 95 percent of the time in Congress. He may not be as visible in his backing of Trump as Zeldin, but Kustoff is clearly on board with the president and is more than willing to broadcast this view to his supporters, in a district that voted for Obama in 2012, but went for Trump in 2016.

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