As New Congress Convenes, Democrats Seek to 'Balance Damages' of Trump's Israel Policies

Former diplomats warn of a Netanyahu failure to 'deal with new reality' in Democratic-led House

File photo: House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi meeting U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump at the White House, December 11, 2018.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP

WASHINGTON – The new U.S. Congress will hold its first session on Thursday, nearly two months after the U.S. midterm elections in which the Democratic Party took back control over the House of Representatives.

For the first time since entering the White House two years ago, U.S. President Donald Trump will have to deal with a new reality in which his political rivals will have real power in Washington, limiting his ability to promote his legislative and budgetary priorities.

The new Congress will also present a fresh challenge to Israel after two years of complete Republican control in Washington. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his current right-wing coalition, Israel has grown close to Trump over the past two years.

Dan Shapiro, who was the U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration (and had previously worked as a staffer in Congress), told Haaretz that “Israel dealt with a certain political situation in Washington since 2016, and now that situation is about to change. I hope Israel will succeed in dealing with this new reality.” He added that some Israeli politicians aren’t fully aware of the importance Congress has within the complicated American system of government.

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Shapiro predicts that American security assistance to Israel won’t be affected by the new balance of power in Washington, since “this is an issue that enjoys a clear bipartisan consensus.” In fact, the only Senator to recently take action against U.S. military aid to Israel has been Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky. The Democratic majority in the House, Shapiro said, will very likely continue to support Israel’s security needs.

Where a change in policy could take place, he added, was on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Trump administration made as string of controversial decisions in 2018 to almost completely cut U.S. aid to the Palestinians, including money that was supposed to support cancer treatments, coexistence programs between Israeli and Palestinian children, and humanitarian projects that don’t directly benefit the Palestinian Authority.

Shapiro thinks Democrats will try to look for ways to “balance some of the damages” that Trump’s administration has caused in this arena in 2019. He specifically mentioned the danger to USAID’s activities in the West Bank and Gaza. “This is an issue where Congress could potentially still have an impact,” he stated.

A Democratic source on Capitol Hill who is involved in the party’s foreign policy agenda told Haaretz this week that “veteran members of Congress, who are well informed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, know that even some former senior Israeli security officials have expressed concern about some of Trump’s steps against the Palestinians. They will try to find ways to support some of the programs that the administration has hurt.”

The Democrats could also use their oversight authorities to demand answers from the administration regarding its constantly-delayed Middle East peace plan, and also on Israeli attempts to annex parts of the West Bank. Shapiro said it “wouldn’t surprise him” if Democrats would try to get administration officials to address these issues on the record in public testimonies.

One instance where Democratic oversight and the prominence of certain Democratic lawmakers could work in favor of the Netanyahu government’s agenda is Syria. Democrats such as Rep. Elliot Engel of New York, who is slated to become the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, could demand more clarity and information from the administration on its timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, and on a broader Syrian policy, where Israel is trying to push back against Iran’s growing presence.

The Democratic staffer who spoke with Haaretz estimated that “overall, there will be issues on which the new Democratic majority will be critical of Israel, such as settlements and the peace process, but when it comes to Israel’s security, there will be substantial support for Israel.”

Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York, told Haaretz that “Democrats have a long history and solid record of supporting Israel, so there will be no immediate impact on U.S.-Israeli relations.” Pinkas was in Washington last month and he met with a number of prominent Democratic legislators. In his analysis, “the Democratic electoral majority reflects changing demographics in the U.S. that Israel should be very attentive to.”

He expressed concern, however, that Prime Minister Netanyahu “sees President Trump as his extension, and himself as the Republican Senator from Israel, so there is little Israel, under his government, can do to restore bipartisanship.” Pinkas accused Netanyahu and “certain political elements” in the U.S. of “poisoning” bi-partisanship with regards to Israel, in order to promote “short term political gain.”

Shapiro said that while there is concern about Israel’s alignment with Trump, he believes whatever damages were caused to Israel’s standing among Democrats over the past two years, can be reversed with a smart and respectful approach.

Shapiro said that while there are indeed “Democrats who feel abandoned or ignored” by Israel, the new Congress “gives Israel an opportunity to strengthen and emphasize bi-partisanship.” His recommendation on how to do that: “Show respect to the Democrats, engage them seriously and openly, and show appreciation for their support even when there are disagreements over specific issues.”

Nancy Pelosi, who will become the Speaker of the House, has known Netanyahu for decades, and recently met him during a visit she made to Israel last year. While she has continuously supported U.S. military assistance to Israel, she has also been critical of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and has called on Israel to recommit to a two-state solution.  

While the new Congress will include a number of new members who have been very critical of Israel, and have even expressed support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, the vast majority of newly elected Democrats have taken a more mainstream position on the issues. The pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC has described the incoming Congress as “solidly pro-Israel”.