Forget Tlaib and Omar, Democratic 2020 Front-runners Should Worry Israel More

While the new generation of pro-BDS lawmakers are making news, Democratic presidential contenders' opposition to 'pro-Israel' legislation signals a much deeper shift

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, who all voted against the anti-BDS legislation in the Senate on January 29, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, who all voted against the anti-BDS legislation in the Senate on January 29, 2019.Credit: AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Two newly elected congresswomen may be generating a lot of headlines, but Israeli officials are most concerned about the heated Senate debate about Israel in the past month than the pro-boycott statements of Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

While Israeli officials are worried about the media attention Tlaib and Omar are receiving – which is seen as helping to advance their views and possibly creating more support for them – they are not perceived as having the potential to weaken or delay pro-Israel legislation in Congress. The representatives' ability to pass laws that would harm or upset the Israeli government is seen as even more limited.

Bradley Burston describes his visit to the West Bank with settler leader Daniella Weiss

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But talking with Haaretz, Israeli officials admit greater concern that close to half of all Democratic senators voted against the anti-boycott, divestment and sanctions legislation proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida) last week.

Almost all of the Democratic senators who are potential 2020 presidential nominees – from Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders (an independent who caucuses with the Democrats) to Sherrod Brown, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand – opposed the legislation, citing concerns over freedom of speech. The senators said that although they oppose BDS, they also oppose legislation that would force state contractors to sign a declaration saying they don’t boycott Israel or its settlements in the occupied territories.

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar smiling during a news conference with Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 30, 2018.Credit: Bloomberg

The anti-BDS legislation being opposed by high-ranking Democratic senators and presidential hopefuls has been a flagship project of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States for the past decade. It has also received strong support and encouragement from senior officials in the Israeli government. The pushback on the Democratic side to the legislation, which is coming from the mainstream of the party, is more consequential in the long-term than the provocative statements of freshman members of the House of Representatives, according to Israeli officials.

Yet the media in Washington is constantly providing a megaphone to Tlaib (Democrat of Michigan) and Omar (Democrat of Minnesota), who are the only members of Congress to publicly support the BDS movement. Omar published a tweet in 2012 accusing Israel of “hypnotizing the world” and “evil doings”; Tlaib last month accused Republican senators who promoted the anti-BDS legislation of forgetting which country they represent. Both statements drew strong condemnation from leading Jewish groups, who have accused Tlaib and Omar of expressing anti-Semitic sentiments.

The media coverage of Omar’s views received a boost last month when she was appointed to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This role will give her a major platform to promote her views on Israel, although it probably won’t have much of an impact on actual legislation since the chairmen of that committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (Democrat of New York), and its MidEast subcommittee, Rep. Ted Deutch (Democrat of Florida), are both strong supporters of Israel.

Omar and Tlaib are more outspoken in their criticism of Israel than almost any other lawmaker in Washington. Tlaib also supports a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – something that forced the left-leaning J Street to rescind its endorsement of her during the 2018 midterm elections. Yet at this point their views don’t seem to have much support among other members of the party.

The greatest promoters of the two new lawmakers’ anti-Israel statements during their first month in Congress have actually been Republicans, eager to paint them as “the new face of the Democratic Party” on Israel. Every time either woman expresses an opinion on the subject – for example, when Omar compared Israel to Iran last week, and said it causes her to "almost chuckle" when the Jewish state is called a democracy – there are immediate reactions from Republican politicians and apparatchiks, who denounce the statements and use them to attack the Democratic Party.

What has made this line of attack easier and more effective for Republicans has been the reaction from the Democratic side. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the most prominent Democratic politician in the United States today, has yet to address Tlaib and Omar’s statements on Israel. Last week, Engel and Deutch both issued statements criticizing the two lawmakers. But as influential as they are on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel and Deutch’s statements will never have the same impact as one by Pelosi.

Ultimately, though, very few elected Democrats in D.C. advance the extreme positions Tlaib and Omar hold on Israel. An overwhelming majority still prefers a two-state solution over the “one-state” idea supported by Tlaib, and an overwhelming majority voted in recent years for security assistance to Israel – counter to the position of Tlaib and Omar, who both want to limit that aid.

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, right, embracing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the first session of the new Congress in Washington, January 3, 2019. Credit: \ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

Mainstream party resistance to the anti-BDS legislation will also be a bigger challenge for the newly formed Democratic Majority for Israel, which was first reported in Haaretz last week.

The pro-Israel group, led by pollster Mark Mellman and former Clinton adviser Ann Lewis, will have an easy time denouncing outrageous statements by Tlaib and Omar – as Mellman has already done in the days since the group’s existence became public. It will be much harder for the group to decide whether or not to endorse Democrats who have opposed the anti-BDS bill, but are otherwise supportive of Israel’s security and a negotiated two-state solution.

The problem for Israel can be summed up thus: The new members of Congress who are anti-Israel are making a lot of noise, but their actual influence in the Democratic Party is not very high. The bigger challenge is the changing attitude among lawmakers who consider themselves supporters of the Jewish state, but who are reshaping the boundaries of what that support needs to look like.

This challenge is made even more difficult due to the political bond between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Likud party revealed a new set of election billboards featuring a picture of Trump and Netanyahu shaking hands and smiling. (The joint photo also shows the two men as the same height, although Trump is actually about 8 centimeters, or 3 inches, taller than Netanyahu.)

The billboards caused supporters of the Democratic Party to denounce the Trump-Netanyahu “bromance.” Comedian Sarah Silverman, who is followed by 12.6 million people on Twitter, wrote: “Puke. I can offer is this: How much Netanyahu represents the hearts and minds of all Israelis = how much Trump represents the hearts and minds of all Americans. I only ask we condemn the administrations not the people.”

Former Pentagon and State Department official Ilan Goldenberg, meanwhile, wrote: “There will come a time when Israelis realize what a massive mistake this is. The image of Israel in the eyes of most Americans will be permanently damaged if it hasn’t been already.”