Ever since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election on November 8, and even more intensely since he entered the White House on January 20, senior figures in leading Jewish organizations in the United States have been sending clear messages to Israeli officials about not alienating the Democratic Party.
In messages that have been conveyed to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, as well as to the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, these individuals have stressed that despite its desire to forge a close relationship with Trump, Israel must move cautiously and avoid making any moves that would distance the Democrats from the Israeli government and make it difficult for Israel’s friends in the party to come to its assistance.
No fewer than five senior officials in centrist American Jewish organizations that are known for their unequivocal support of Israel told Haaretz that they personally had conveyed messages of this nature to officials in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, to the Prime Minister’s Office and to the Foreign Ministry.
One of the five — none of whom wanted to be named — said the response he got from his Israeli interlocutors was “a silent nod that expressed understanding, but not agreement.”
Another senior official said, “Close cooperation between Israel and the Trump administration on security and diplomatic issues is a good thing, but when the prime minister seems like he is literally hugging Trump and tweets praise for his plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico, that goes beyond diplomatic relationships and becomes political.”
A senior Foreign Ministry official, who also asked not to be named, confirmed the messages, telling Haaretz that they had come from both representatives of Jewish organizations identified with the Democratic Party and from representatives of Jewish groups affiliated with the Republican Party and with the right.
Two examples of actions by the Israeli government that caused concern in the American Jewish community in this context were Netanyahu’s tweet on January 30 supporting Trump’s initiative to build a wall along the Mexican border — the subject of intense political dispute between Democrats and Republicans — and the unqualified support Netanyahu gave Trump during their joint press conference at the White House on February 15. That, in light of criticism of the president on a number of issues connected to the Jewish community, from the handling of the wave of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States to the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement issued by the White House that didn’t mention the Jews.
According to this senior official, during February a leadership delegation from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC came to Israel and held meetings with senior Foreign Ministry officials. During these conversations the AIPAC representatives said they were concerned by what they saw as Netanyahu’s overly tight embrace of Trump. The AIPAC officials stressed that they were pleased that relations between the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House had improved, but noted that in the current American political climate Israel had to take into account the antagonism toward Trump among Democratic Party supporters.
Two weeks ago the leadership of the North American Reform Movement met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and conveyed a similar message. Sources who participated in that conversation noted that the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and other senior officials stressed to Netanyahu that they were worried about undermining bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.
The need to restore good relations with the Democratic Party and to assure bipartisan U.S. support for Israel was the main topic at a conference of heads of Israeli diplomatic offices in North America that took place a month ago at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. A senior Foreign Ministry official noted that the issue of assuring bipartisan support came up repeatedly in nearly every discussion that was held during the conference.
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said during one of the discussions, “One of our central goals has to be to preserve bipartisan support for Israel because we can’t know what’s going to happen in November 2018.” Dermer was quoted to this effect by two Israeli diplomats who were present when he spoke; He was referring to the midterm elections, when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 of the U.S. Senate’s 100 seats will be contested, and to the possibility that the Democrats could take back control of at least one of the houses of Congress.
AIPAC’s concern about the effect of American polarization on bipartisan support for Israel was very evident during the lobby’s annual policy conference in Washington this week, with AIPAC officials making every effort to give it a bipartisan atmosphere.
The fact that the new U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was confirmed by the Senate in a vote that was almost totally split along party lines was perceived as a warning light for the pro-Israel lobby. All of Friedman’s predecessors had won overwhelming support from both parties and had faced almost no Senate opposition. In Friedman’s case, however, 46 of the Senate’s 48 Democrats voted against his appointment and only two voted in favor, an unprecedented nadir for a nominee for that position. This is one of the reasons that for AIPAC, strengthening bipartisan support for Israel was marked as the central goal of this year’s conference.
The first speaker at the AIPAC conference was the lobby’s president, Lillian Pinkus. On Sunday morning Pinkus stood before the thousands of people in the audience and for 10 minutes reiterated one clear, easy-to-grasp message — that Israel’s supporters in the United States must not allow Israel to become a partisan issue in American politics, where voters’ positions follow their party affiliation almost automatically.
“We will not allow — frankly, we cannot allow — support for Israel to fall victim to this same divisiveness that overwhelms nearly every other political issue,” she said. “We will work harder than ever before to hold the ideological center, preserving support for the Jewish state as a bipartisan cause both parties champion.”
Immediately after Pinkus left the podium, Dermer got up to address the crowd, and gave a speech that seemed to ignore the message conveyed by the previous speaker, and even to contradict what he himself had said only a few weeks before, during the envoys’ conference at the Foreign Ministry. Thus, for example, he praised the two most senior Republicans who were on the list of conference speakers — Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — but didn’t acknowledge the two most senior Democrats at the conference, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Dermer also declared during his speech that under the Trump administration, “For the first time in many years, perhaps even many decades, there is no daylight between our two governments.” That remark by Dermer immediately made headlines, since it implied that the relationship with the Trump administration was better than the ties with any previous administration, including the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, two presidents considered friends of Israel who had close working relationships with Israeli prime ministers during their terms in the White House.
It’s not the first time that Dermer’s public statements have increased concerns that support for Israel would be perceived by Democratic Party supporters, especially young people, minorities, and most American Jews, as being identified with support for Donald Trump. In November, when Trump’s senior adviser Steve Bannon was accused of anti-Semitism, Dermer stood before the cameras in the Trump Tower lobby in New York and defended Bannon. The logic behind that move was that Dermer would thus garner appreciation from the incoming administration. The downside was that the Israeli ambassador was filmed enthusiastically defending a man who was not just accused of anti-Semitism, but of promoting racist positions against Hispanics, blacks and other minorities.
The praise Dermer heaped on the Trump administration contrasted with the dialogue that took place in the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem only a few hours earlier. Netanyahu congratulated acting National Security Adviser Jacob Nagel as he finished his term, and praised him for his work on obtaining the security aid agreement with the Obama administration last year. That agreement, which gives Israel $38 billion in aid over 10 years, is the largest aid package the United States has ever granted any country.
Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz cut off Netanyahu at that point, saying, “It’s a good thing that happened. With the cuts the Trump administration is making now in foreign aid it isn’t certain that would happen again.” Netanyahu responded by saying “No comment.” But Steinitz didn’t get the hint. “In retrospect, the signing came at the right time,” he added. This time Netanyahu didn’t answer, responding with a long silence.
On Monday, in the video address Netanyahu sent to the AIPAC conference, the prime minister thanked Trump for not touching Israel’s defense aid package despite the fact that America’s overall foreign aid budget was being cut substantially. Netanyahu did not mention former U.S. President Barack Obama, the man who actually signed the aid agreement with Israel. Toward the end of his address, Netanyahu threw out a weak remark about the importance of bipartisan support for Israel, but it’s doubtful it erased the impression left by Dermer’s speech.
A source in the Israeli Embassy in Washington on Monday rejected the complaint about Dermer, noting that on Sunday afternoon Dermer appeared at a closed meeting of AIPAC donors, where he clearly stated that bipartisan support for Israel was a fundamental strategic asset for Israel. According to the source, Dermer said that it didn’t matter whether someone was a Democrat or a Republican, everyone should be happy that there was “no daylight” between Israel and the United States.
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