Liberal Critics of Israel Are Emboldened by Netanyahu's Congress Speech

The sense of malaise pro-Israel Democrats are experiencing has spread from the liberal wing of the party toward the center.

Netanyahu waves during his address to Congress, Washington, March 3, 2015 (Reuters)
Netanyahu waves during his address to Congress, Washington, March 3, 2015. Reuters

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine is a longtime centrist Democrat from a purple state who has little in common with his party’s liberal wing. But Kaine found himself joining forces with progressives March 3 in boycotting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress.

Initially it was Netanyahu’s timing, just two weeks before elections in Israel, that angered Kaine, along with the way Israel’s Washington ambassador arranged the speech secretly with Republican congressional leaders — excluding the president and his fellow Democrats.

Kaine, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, saw Netanyahu’s congressional jeremiad against a potential deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program under these circumstances as a political stunt.

After the speech, Kaine, who in fact agreed with some of Netanyahu’s points, felt even more incensed.

“It was just an exercise to paint a straw man and knock it down,” he told the Forward in a March 10 interview. “My concern about the real purpose of the speech was sort of demonstrated by the speech itself.”

Kaine’s views on Netanyahu’s speech and on some of his policies illustrate how the sense of malaise pro-Israel Democrats are experiencing has spread from the liberal wing of the party toward the center, even among some who share the Israeli leader’s concerns about a potential nuclear deal with Iran.

Kaine is hardly an Israel scolder; even his dissatisfaction with recent events is couched in nuanced and cautious ways. That’s a far cry from some progressives in his own party who have increasingly pulled no punches in their criticism of the Israeli leader. One of them, Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, who is Jewish, went as far as calling on Israeli voters to oust Netanyahu.

Kaine, a former governor of Virginia who was considered by Barack Obama as a possible running mate in 2008, talked about a sense of sadness at the way Israel and the Republicans had treated pro-Israel Democrats like himself. “I think the behaviors we’ve seen in the last weeks make those of us who are pro-Israel Democrats feel like they are trying to push us away,” he said. He cited by name House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Israeli envoy Ron Dermer — and Netanyahu himself. Democrats, he added, “don’t like feeling like we’re being pushed aside when we’ve been strong supporters of Israel for a very long time.”

As the Netanyahu speech recedes in Washington’s rearview mirror, the longer-term damage the episode wreaked on the bipartisanship that had long characterized Congress on Israel remains unclear. The lingering feelings expressed by centrists like Kaine may not augur well. And the efforts by some liberal activists to, at the very least, pry support for Israel from its long-standing mandatory place on the liberal agenda may have gotten a boost.

Under different circumstances, Kaine, a member of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Near East and South and Central Asian Affairs, would have been an important ally for Netanyahu in Congress. He agrees with the Israeli leader’s concerns over Iran’s belligerence toward its neighbors, and agrees, too, on the safeguards necessary to ensure that Iran doesn’t cheat its way around the nuclear deal now being negotiated between itself and six other countries, including the United States. Kaine has also co-sponsored a bill requiring congressional involvement in any deal ultimately reached with Iran.

“The president cannot negotiate over the congressional sanctions regime and have an expectation that Congress will just stand back and not do anything on this issue,” Kaine said, defying a threat by President Obama to veto the bill. But the spat over Netanyahu’s speech has now clouded his view of the Israeli prime minister.

He also has “deep concerns” about Netanyahu’s decisions regarding the Palestinian conflict. “I worry that some of the activities vis-à-vis Palestine have weakened Israel’s future security, not strengthened it,” Kaine said. Once an integral part of any pro-Israel coalition, Democrats now face growing pressure to distance themselves from this cause. But there are differences.

The dissatisfaction of progressives on the left, as opposed to Kaine’s newly found disappointment with Netanyahu’s policies, has long been festering, often over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians under its rule. The discontent on the liberal end broke out loudly and clearly following the March 3 speech to Congress, which served, some argue, as a watershed moment for progressive Democrats.

“Frustration has been building up for a while,” said Mik Moore, a political consultant who has been active in progressive causes, when describing the feeling among the liberal grassroots. “Netanyahu’s speech was a galvanizing moment. They see it as an embodiment of everything they feel is wrong with Israeli policy.”

Centrist Democrats, deeply involved in pro-Israel activity, agree with this diagnosis, but were more optimistic about making amends. “We have some repair work to do with people to the left of center,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, former head of the National Democratic Jewish Council and currently executive director of the Interfaith Alliance. He does not believe, however, that liberals are turning their back on Israel. Those who are, Moline argued, are “politically insignificant.”

The struggle over Israel between those on the left and the Jewish community’s pro-Israel institutions is evident on both sides of their growing divide. With increasing urgency, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the large, establishment Washington Israel lobby, is seeking out liberal activists to shore up its bipartisan bona fides. On the other side, Israel has become such an explosive issue that some liberal politicians will do anything to run away from dealing with it. Literally.

In a video that made waves on the Internet, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has emerged as liberals’ greatest political hope, was seen last July fleeing a reporter who was attempting to ask her about Israel’s actions during the 2014 Gaza war. Warren, an outspoken leader on the left’s domestic economic agenda, has said little about Israel since then. When mulling whether to attend Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, she waited until the last minute before announcing she would skip it.

Amid the sea of cheers that ultimately greeted the Israeli leader in Congress, it was easy to ignore the absence of Warren and the 55 other lawmakers who weren’t there. But the boycotters delineated, for the first time in Congress, the boundaries of support for Israel and defined themselves as a group willing to speak up against the prevailing consensus. The dissenters included many who had been associated with pro-Israel activity for years. At this stage, most observers say it’s unlikely that Washington lawmakers will take out their ire toward Israel’s government in congressional votes and speeches.

“They expressed what they felt, but I don’t see it having any hangover effect,” said Ann Lewis, a former adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton who has been involved in outreach efforts to the progressive community on AIPAC’s behalf. Consistent polling results over the past decade have shown that rank and file Democrats express markedly less sympathy for Israel than Democratic members of Congress, many of whom have longstanding connections to pro-Israel supporters who donate to their campaigns. The party itself is also highly reliant on Jewish pro-Israel donors and key activists in the Democratic camp.

Lewis said it is clear that when the next funding bill comes up to provide foreign aid to Israel, Kaine, Schakowsky and almost all their colleagues who sat out Netanyahu’s speech will vote in favor.

For progressive activists outside the beltway, the issue of Israel may be harder to resolve. Reconciling support for Israel and a liberal worldview has become increasingly difficult in the grassroots progressive environment.

Rabbi David Paskin of Temple Beth David in Florida says he is “conflicted” on Israel. “I’m very progressive on social and domestic issues,” Paskin said. “I want to be progressive, but it’s harder when it comes to Israel.” He does not always sense his continuing deep concerns over Israel’s security and wellbeing shared among fellow progressives.

On March 2, Paskin, who attended the AIPAC annual conference in Washington that coincided with Netanyahu’s speech, was among dozens at a packed closed-door session on pro-Israel outreach to progressives. There, the discussion quickly turned heated when former Democratic congressman Barney Frank (who is Ann Lewis’s brother) chided the lobby for not speaking out against Netanyahu’s visit and for avoiding any criticism of Israeli policies. According to two session participants, Frank argued that this reluctance causes pro-Israel activists to lose their credibility among progressives.

Tempers flared even more, they said, when Frank claimed that Israel and AIPAC had lobbied members of Congress a decade ago to support the war in Iraq. Similar arguments in the past have been hurled at the lobby by anti-war activists from the left and have always been vehemently denied. Frank, faced with vocal resistance from AIPAC members in the room, clarified that while calling for war was not the lobby’s official position, some of its top members advocated for it personally in their meetings with him and other members of Congress.

Efforts to contact Frank to ask about this exchange were unsuccessful.

The difficulty in reconciling liberal values and support for Israel has been on the mind of the Jewish community for years, and has only deepened since the collapse of the latest American attempt to broker a peace agreement and Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank drags on, with no end in sight amid repeated wars in Gaza take place with high civilian death rates.

AIPAC has responded by highlighting Israel’s liberal values, at least relative to the region, including civil rights, religious freedom and progress toward equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Faced with these pulls and counter-pulls, some Jewish activists have chosen instead to focus on the American domestic liberal agenda, leaving the issue of Israel for others.

One such group, Bend the Arc, held its first national fly-in March 10, with dozens of activists and donors descending on Washington for political meetings and lobbying. Warren was among those addressing the Jewish group, whose agenda includes racial equality and immigration and social justice but steers clear of any discussion of Israel or foreign policy.

Meanwhile, on the far left, activists have been watching events unfold with hope that the latest flap will help win over some of the struggling liberals and convince them to take a more critical stance on Israel.

“The idea of being progressive about everything except Palestine has become harder to maintain,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. She said those on the left who support Israel live in a “cognitive dissonance,” which Netanyahu’s speech made even more evident. The partisan divide emerging over Israel, she claimed, can make it easier for Democrats to express dissenting views.

Still, up to now, most in the Jewish community view groups such as JVP as being outside the pale. Establishment Democrats argue that such a shift among elected officials, even those on the left, is unlikely to happen. Even at the height of the Netanyahu speech debate, it was easy to spot many Democrats attending AIPAC’s conference.

And even those who boycotted the speech opened their doors to AIPAC’s members when they came to lobby on Capitol Hill. Those members went to great lengths to stress that they remain supportive of Israel. Their specific target, they said, was Netanyahu.

“I don’t know a single senator who is not pro-Israel: Democrat or Republican,” Kaine said.

Most pro-Israel advocates would agree. But most also agree that this distinction between Israel and its elected leader is something new, with unknowable future implications.

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