Democrats Challenge Trump’s Take That Omar and Tlaib Set Party’s Stance on Israel

For many Democrats, it’s ‘support Israel, not Netanyahu,’ while backing the two-state solution that the Trump administration has played down

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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington,March 3, 2015.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington,March 3, 2015.Credit: AP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — Democratic members of Congress are pushing back against U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts to portray their party as fully aligned with representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib when it comes to support for Israel.

In the days since Trump called Jewish Americans who vote Democrat “very disloyal” and said Omar and Tlaib are “the face of the Democratic party,” several senior Democrats have come out against Trump’s comments — while also highlighting their party’s support for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, wrote in USA Today that Trump’s politicization of the U.S.-Israel relationship is harming both countries.

“Trump’s attempts to use Israel as a diversion tactic to drive a political wedge between Democrats and Republicans, Jews and non-Jews, is divisive, dangerous and reprehensible,” wrote Wasserman Schultz, who is Jewish. “Let me set the record straight: Regardless of the rhetoric spewed by the president, Israel continues to receive overwhelmingly bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress.”

As an example of that support, she mentioned the recent vote against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that was supported by 90 percent of Democrats in the House of Representatives. One issue Trump mentioned in his attack on pro-Democrat Jews was Omar and Tlaib’s position that the United States should cut military aid to Israel.

Wasserman Schultz wrote about this: “Let’s also not be distracted by hyped discussions of cutting foreign aid to Israel. As a senior member of the Committee on Appropriations, I understand and strongly believe that U.S. assistance to Israel is a critical investment in U.S. national security, as well as the stability of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.”

In fact, over the years, the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress have voted in favor of military aid to Israel. The Obama administration’s 2016 agreement with the Israeli government secured $38 billion of security aid to Israel until 2026.

President Barack Obama and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Miami, April 29, 2011.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wasserman Schultz warned in her article that “Israel cannot afford to let Trump’s diversionary tactics send a message to its enemies that America’s strong, bipartisan commitment — economic or otherwise — is anything but ironclad.” She said Trump “emboldens those trying to harm Israel, and compromises the bipartisan U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Over the past week, three senior Democrats in the House met with Israeli diplomats in an attempt to diffuse some of the tensions created by Trump’s comments and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to let Omar and Tlaib visit Israel this month.

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met in New York with Consul General Dani Dayan. Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, chairman of a subcommittee on the Middle East, met with officials from the Israeli Consulate in Miami. And Rep. Brad Sherman of California, a member of both Engel’s committee and Deutch’s subcommittee, met with the new Israeli consul general in Los Angeles. Sherman wrote on his Twitter account after the meeting: “Israel is our most important ally in the Middle East.”

All three lawmakers are considered strong supporters of Israel. They all voted against the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and have all promoted legislation in support of Israel’s security over the years. At the same time, all three were critical of the Netanyahu government and the Trump administration over the decision not to let Omar and Tlaib into Israel — a decision that came shortly after Trump tweeted that Israel would show “great weakness” by allowing them in.

Omar-Tlaib fiasco

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill were angered and disappointed over Israel’s handling of the event. Several weeks before Omar and Tlaib’s planned arrival, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, said the two lawmakers would be allowed into Israel “out of respect for Congress.”

Three weeks later, a delegation of more than 70 members of Congress — the majority of them Democrats — visited Israel with an organization affiliated with AIPAC. During their time in Israel, both the Democratic majority leader, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and the Republican minority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, praised Israel for deciding to let Omar and Tlaib in.

The Israeli reversal on that issue embarrassed the congressional leaders who had supported Israel’s original position. Hoyer, who is considered a very pro-Israeli legislator, was especially furious and accused Dermer of lying to him.

Following Netanyahu’s capitulation to Trump, there were media reports about an intention among Democrats to take congressional action against Dermer. But several sources in the party told Haaretz this week that no such effort was likely anytime soon. The approach among Democratic leaders is that despite the great anger toward Dermer and Netanyahu, it’s not politically helpful for the party to keep this issue in the headlines.

Another senior Democrat who criticized Netanyahu’s decision was Jerry Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Several times in recent years Nadler has spoken out against Netanyahu’s policies and his handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Yet Nadler also criticized Omar and Tlaib last weekend for sharing an anti-Semitic cartoon on social media, and this week he pressed the Trump administration on why it hasn’t brought to trial a Palestinian living in Jordan who took part in a 2001 bombing in Israel in which Americans were killed as well.

U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler at a session of the House Judiciary Committee, Nov. 29, 2017.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Nadler’s approach represents a broader view within the Democratic Party — one of supporting Israel and expressing disagreement with Omar and Tlaib’s views, but also attacking Netanyahu, who is deeply unpopular among Democratic voters and has angered many Jewish Americans in recent years.

For many Democrats, the “supporting Israel, not Netanyahu” approach means finding allies among Israelis who oppose the prime minister’s right-wing policies.

For example, following the passage of the anti-BDS resolution in the House, a group of right-wing Israeli lawmakers, including several members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, sent a letter to congressional leaders denouncing the resolution — because it included language in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The letter irked congressional leaders, but this week 25 retired senior Israeli security officials sent a counter-letter thanking the House members who led the anti-BDS resolution. Among the signatories were former army generals and a former head of the Mossad.

Rep. Brad Schneider, a Democrat from Illinois and one of the original co-sponsors of the anti-BDS resolution, told Haaretz this week: “I very much appreciate the letter of support from these esteemed individuals,” adding that they “have the experience, insight and wisdom of having spent their careers fighting for and protecting the Jewish state.”

Schneider, who also took part in the AIPAC-affiliated trip to Israel this month, said that the former security chiefs “recognize better than most that the path to peace will be a long, difficult journey. But they also understand that any steps that would undermine or abandon the two-state vision represents a real and significant threat to Israel’s long-term security and identity as a democratic and Jewish state.”

Two-state tussle

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks at the 2019 AIPAC policy conference, Washington, March 26, 2019.Credit: Jose Luis Magana,AP

Netanyahu has spoken out against the two-state solution in recent years, and the Trump administration has overturned the policies of previous Republican and Democratic administrations by not supporting such an approach. Most Democrats, meanwhile, continue to support the two-state solution, as do most American Jews, according to opinion polls.

This is one reason why the “new normal” for many elected Democrats is to seek ways to express their support for Israel while also criticizing Netanyahu’s policies. Democrats now running for president have largely adopted this line, and almost all of them came out against Netanyahu’s decision not to let Omar and Tlaib into Israel two weeks ago.

This approach was also on display last week when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke on the phone with President Reuven Rivlin, who is despised by Netanyahu and is often the target of vicious attacks by the prime minister’s people. By holding the call and making it public, both Pelosi and Rivlin sent a message that the U.S.-Israel relationship was not entirely about Trump and Netanyahu’s politics, and that at least some Israeli leaders reject Trump’s claim that Omar and Tlaib are “the face of the Democratic party.”

A Democratic staffer told Haaretz that the phone call was helpful because “it reminded everyone that there are 235 Democrats in the House, led by Speaker Pelosi, and only two of them are supporters of BDS. That’s less than 1 percent. Most Democrats continue to support Israel — they just don’t support Trump and his political partner Netanyahu.”

The staffer added that Omar and Tlaib played no role in the Democrats’ victory in the 2018 midterm elections, which brought the party control of the House for the first time since 2010. The districts they represent were held by Democrats before the election and have been under Democratic control for decades with no real competition.

Meanwhile, several moderate Democrats who managed to “flip” competitive districts from Republican control have also been trying to distance themselves from Omar and Tlaib on Israel.

U.S. lawmaker Max Rose during an interview in Washington, D.C., December 2017.Credit: Thomas McKinless / CQ-Roll Call

Rep. Max Rose of New York, an Army veteran who won a district previously held by Republicans, told Haaretz last week that the majority of Democrats support Israel — and the two-state solution. And Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, who like Rose is Jewish and a military veteran (she was an officer in the Navy for two decades), met with the Jewish community in her district; one topic was her support for Israel and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama, noted this week during a briefing organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America that Trump was ignoring the voices of Democrats like Rose and Luria, and trying to draw the attention only to Omar and Tlaib.

“It’s a total mischaracterization of the Democratic Party’s positions on Israel,” Shapiro said, adding that Trump conflates “the views of maybe 1 percent of the Democratic members of Congress with those of 99 percent of them.”

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