WASHINGTON — Forty-one Democratic members of Congress are visiting Israel this week as part of a delegation led by the House majority leader, Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer. The trip is taking place after months of headlines, both in the United States and Israel, about tensions and distance opening up between Israel and the Democratic Party.
Some members on the tour believe those headlines have been exaggerated — and that the delegation itself helps prove that exaggeration.
“I’m not surprised at all that so many members joined us on this trip,” said Rep. Brad Schneider, a Democrat from Illinois, for whom this is his third visit to Israel since he was elected to Congress in 2012. “The press has their story, but this is what’s happening right now. We have more than 40 members on this trip, the majority of them freshmen. When I went on a similar trip in 2013, we had 34 members.”
Schneider spoke with Haaretz by phone hours after the delegation finished a visit to Ramallah, which included a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The legislators also spent more than an hour Wednesday evening with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and are scheduled to meet former army chief Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main challenger in the upcoming election.
The trip has been organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, which is affiliated with AIPAC, the strongest lobby group supporting Israel in the United States. Hoyer has been the most senior Democrat to join such trips every other year, usually bringing with him a large group of recently elected freshmen members of Congress. The previous tour took place in 2017.
According to a list of participants viewed by Haaretz, more than 30 of the participants on the trip are freshmen members of Congress who were elected in the Democrats’ “blue wave” victory in the 2018 midterm elections.
During this year’s AIPAC conference, Hoyer mentioned the delegation in a speech in which he tried to create distance between the Democrats as a whole and a small group of lawmakers very critical of Israel who have expressed support for the BDS movement. “There are 62 freshmen Democrats,” Hoyer said. “Not three.”
The three he was referring to are Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all of them new in Congress after winning elections in urban districts where Democrats have a huge advantage and face no real competition from the Republicans.
“That’s not the profile of most of our freshmen,” said a Democratic staffer working for a member currently on the Israel trip. “If you look at the people who joined this trip, you’ll see many people from swing districts for whom it’s important to be seen as pro-Israeli. That doesn’t mean they can’t criticize the Israeli government or the settlements, of course. But they don’t want to be associated with the AOC camp on this issue.”
Republicans in Congress have been trying in recent months to link the entire Democratic Party to Omar, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez’s views on Israel. “Some Republicans are trying to make Israel into a wedge issue to attack Democrats,” Schneider said. “It’s not something new. That kind of behavior is bad for the U.S.-Israel relationship. We need to maintain strong bipartisan support for Israel. As long as I’m in Congress, that’s something I’m going to work hard to maintain.”
Last month, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Almost 90 percent of Democrats in the House voted in favor of the resolution, which was opposed by only 16 Democrats and one Republican. At AIPAC, that vote and this week’s delegation are seen as positive signs after months of negative headlines related to Israel and the Democratic Party.
Those headlines included not only the media fixation on Omar, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez, but also a series of stories about Democratic presidential candidates denouncing Netanyahu’s alliance with a racist party and noting the corruption allegations against him. Before that, The New York Times published a story on “a new wave of Democrats” that “tests the party’s blanket support for Israel.”
Mark Mellman, a pollster and political consultant who this year helped launch Democratic Majority for Israel, an organization of Democrats who support the U.S.-Israel alliance, said that “the overwhelming majority of Democrats support Israel, and that hasn’t changed. A few people in the party do not, and they get 100 times more press coverage than the majority of the party, unfortunately.”
Mellman added that “criticizing the Netanyahu government, or talking about occupation, that doesn’t make you anti-Israel. The BDS vote was an interesting test — almost all the Democrats voted in favor of it, and even among the 16 Democrats who opposed it, most of them voted that way because of concerns over free speech, not because they support BDS. That shows you where the party really is, more than the media hype over a small group of lawmakers.”
An April poll by the Pew Research Center showed that while a majority of Democratic voters have a positive view of Israelis, an even larger majority had a negative view of the current Netanyahu government. This explains why so many Democratic presidential candidates have attacked Netanyahu in recent months, most of them taking a nuanced position of support for Israel but opposition to its right-wing, nationalist prime minister.
“The atmosphere is changing in the Democratic Party,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president and founder of J Street, the progressive Jewish group that has become the main left-wing alternative to AIPAC over the past decade. “The party’s approach is becoming more moderate and balanced. More than 170 Democrats have already expressed support for a resolution in favor of a two-state solution. More and more Democrats recognize that being critical towards Netanyahu is well within the bounds of being pro-Israel,” he said.
J Street has been organizing its own congressional trips to Israel that so far have attracted around 50 participants overall. The organization’s next congressional trip to Israel will take place this fall. “Our trips are different,” Ben-Ami said. “They are more balanced and provide a more in-depth look. We don’t hide the occupation from the participants. We take them to Hebron, we have meetings with both settlers and Palestinian human rights activists.”
The trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation also includes time in the West Bank, as well as meetings with Israeli peace activists and civil society leaders who are critical of Netanyahu’s government. The press release promoting this year’s tour put more of an emphasis on those parts of the trip compared to the press release ahead of the 2017 tour, one Democratic congressional staffer said.
Meeting with Palestinian entrepreneurs
In 2017, the press release, issued by Hoyer’s office, mentioned meetings with Netanyahu, then-Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman and “military officials.”
This year, Friedman’s name isn’t mentioned. Instead, the press release mentions, aside from meetings with Netanyahu, Abbas and Gantz, “young Palestinian entrepreneurs, Israeli civil society leaders, and peace activists.”
A source with knowledge of the trip’s itinerary said: “Yes, this year’s itinerary includes meetings with Israeli civil society and peace activists and with Palestinians, both leaders and individuals, but that’s not new. Previous trips always include meetings with those types of groups.” Schneider added that he did not think this year’s itinerary was significantly different than on previous visits.
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, said that trips like the current one are an important way to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, and that it is wise to expose members of Congress to different views and perspectives within Israeli society.
Shapiro warned that Israel was facing a danger of “greater identification with one party in the United States over the other,” and that it would be “very short-sighted” for Israeli officials to move the country in such a direction. “The relationship between the two countries is more stable and secure when it’s based on bipartisanship,” he said. “There are always changes of power in Washington.”
In about two weeks, another kind of Israel trip is scheduled to take place — this one initiated by Tlaib and possibly also attended by Omar. Their tour is being produced by the New York-based organization Forum for Cultural Engagement. It’s not clear yet what their trip will include, but it will likely be very different from both the AIPAC and J Street congressional versions.
Israel faced a dilemma over whether to let Tlaib and Omar enter the country, because they support the BDS movement. Eventually, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, announced that out of “respect for Congress,” the authorities would allow the trip to go forward. Israeli officials expect it to generate headlines, perhaps more than the current trip, which will have 10 times more lawmakers on it.
Aaron Keyak, a Democratic consultant who previously led the National Democratic Jewish Coalition, said that “no matter how many times President Trump says that representatives Tlaib and Omar are the face of the Democratic Party, it doesn’t make it any more true. We are a diverse party with some areas of meaningful disagreements on the issues; for example, on details of health care reform. But at least when it comes to congressional votes, Israel is not one of those issues.”
He added that “the more Republicans push this falsehood and weaponize support for Israel in their partisan warfare, the worse it is for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”