As U.S. Midterms Near, Israel Seen Needing Less Love for Trump and Better Ties With Democrats

With a ‘blue wave’ possible in November – including candidates more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Israel could find itself suffering for its Trump messiah complex, analysts say

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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U.S. President Donald Trump talks on a podium near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks on a podium near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.Credit: \ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — Last week Haaretz reported on an internal Foreign Ministry document that outlines Israel’s top diplomatic objectives for the upcoming year. One goal is “strengthening ties with the Democratic Party” in the United States; there was also a reiteration of the importance of bipartisan support in Washington.

The same objectives were mentioned by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, at a speech last week during a Rosh Hashanah reception. “The Jewish people are a very big tent,” Dermer said, adding that the event hosted people “from across the political and ideological divide. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. We should always remember that despite our differences, we are still one people.”

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It’s no surprise that almost two years after President Donald Trump’s surprise victory, making November’s midterm elections particularly contentious, Israeli diplomats are stressing bipartisanship. Israeli officials are emphasizing their concerns about support for Israel among Democrats, especially among younger voters and minorities.

These concerns have been reinforced by a number of polls over the past year. One recent survey showed that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is relatively popular among Republicans, he’s very unpopular among Democrats. An earlier poll showed that fewer Democrats choose to state they sympathize with Israel more than with the Palestinians.

Following the news of the Foreign Ministry report last Wednesday, Haaretz spoke to experts and former American and Israeli officials on what can be done to strengthen Israel’s standing among Democrats.

Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel for most of the Obama administration, says that while it’s good to see Israeli officials addressing the issue, “there’s no doubt that more can be done.”

Shapiro says the most urgent thing Israel can do is “convince Democratic voters that it is committed to achieving a two-state solution, even if not in the immediate future. The view right now is that this government isn’t committed to keeping the two-state solution alive. That’s not helpful in any way.”

Two states, anyone?

The current right-wing government in Jerusalem doesn’t officially support a two-state solution. In fact, it offers no official solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigns for fellow Democrat Kaniela Ing ahead of a Democratic primary, Honolulu, August 9, 2018.Credit: Marco Garcia / Reuters

Shapiro warns that this “raises questions” about Israel’s direction. The bond between Israel and the United States is based “on common values and security interests,” he says. The common-values part of the equation is threatened by the idea of permanent Israeli control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem without providing equal rights.

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According to Shapiro, the Israeli government’s relationship with Trump could also be less flattering. “It’s natural for any foreign government to want to enjoy a strong and healthy relationship with the American president,” he says.

“Nobody expects Israel not to strive for that goal. But there is a difference between thanking the administration for decisions that Israel supports, and embracing the president’s politics and speaking of him sometimes in almost messianic terms. That is unnecessary and it can be alienating for those who disagree with him.”

Democrat Ilhan Omar speaks during an interview at a cafe in Minneapolis, August 16. 2018.Credit: Jeff Baenen / AP

Shalom Lipner, a former official at the Prime Minister’s Office who has worked extensively on Israel’s ties with world Jewry, makes a similar point on how Netanyahu and other senior officials talk about Trump.

“Everyone understands that the prime minister and the ambassador to Washington have to work closely with the administration and to thank him for his support,” Lipner says. The problem is that sometimes they choose to flatter Trump in ways that “create division and tension,” Lipner says.

“I’m not sure it’s necessary to constantly emphasize, again and again, how much this president is supposedly ‘the greatest supporter Israel has ever had’ – which is clearly a comparison to his predecessors.”

Lipner says that while such statements are appreciated by Trump, “they are also heard by people in the Democratic Party and in the parts of the Republican Party that are less satisfied with Trump. I understand what Israel gains by doing this, but it’s important to also think about the future price.”

Israel, Lipner adds, can’t accept a scenario in which it becomes a partisan issue associated clearly with the Republicans. “American politics go through pendulum swings every few years. If Israel will give up the Democratic Party, just because right now there are some challenges, that will cause trouble.”

Shapiro says Israel should look not only at national American politics, but also at ties with local officials at the state and municipal level. “You have to work with governors, mayors, state legislators and in some places even city council members,” he says. “If you don’t invest in a bipartisan approach, you’ll lose many places.”

New generation

Democrats have suffered big losses at the state level over the past decade, but they’ve won a string of victories in local elections since Trump entered the White House – including in races that took in parts of the country previously considered solidly Republican.

Halie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, says she wasn’t surprised to see the Foreign Ministry prioritize ties with the Democratic Party as an objective for the coming year.

“Israelis are very politically astute, and they’re seeing what we’re all seeing, which is a blue wave coming in November,” she says. “Americans as a whole are overwhelmingly rejecting the administration’s policies. We believe this will lead to an overwhelming election this November.”

Soifer rejects the notion that Israel should be concerned about its standing with the Democrats. “There is a natural alliance between the Democratic Party and Israel. Democrats in Congress are overwhelmingly supportive of the U.S.-Israel relationship and of military aid to Israel,” she says. “That will not change. This will always continue and it will even increase.”

While it’s true that the vast majority of Democrats in Congress consistently support military aid to Israel and oppose boycotts and sanctions against Israel (and the West Bank settlements), Israeli officials are concerned about the new generation of Democratic politicians much more critical of Israel and its policies. That includes at least three politicians who will very likely be elected to Congress this November – Rashida Tlaib in Michigan (who is poised to become the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress), Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York.

One Israeli official who requested anonymity said that “we have great friends and supporters in both parties. Overall, support for Israel is still strong and bipartisan in the United States. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore some worrying trends that are taking place. I don’t think we have a real problem right now with either one of the parties, but I do think we could have a problem in the future. That’s why we need to start working on it today.”

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