Opinion

Don't Expect Democrats to Obstruct Trump’s pro-Israel Policies – or Punish Netanyahu

Jewish conservatives warn a Democrat-run House of Representatives will be Corbyn-style hostile to Israel, and Jewish liberals think Democrats will penalize Netanyahu for his love affair with Trump. They’re both wrong

Newly-elected U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and State Attorney General Keith Ellison during their campaign for office, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 26, 2018.
Brian Snyder/ REUTERS

The 2018 U.S. midterm elections were a mixed bag for U.S. partisans. But critics of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believe the Democrats’ capture of the House of Representatives is the start of a process by which Israel will be made to pay dearly for its government’s decision to tie itself so closely to President Donald Trump and the Republicans.

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Yet though the outcome will alter the political landscape in Washington, the notion that Netanyahu’s tilt to the GOP will come back to bite him anytime soon doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Even under new management, politicians who are resolutely pro-Israel, and by no means unfriendly to the government in Jerusalem, will still lead the House. Nor will the Democrats be in any position to impede Trump’s Middle East policies that please Jerusalem. 

US President Donald Trump speaks on drug pricing at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, DC, on October 25, 2018.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP

Even more to the point, the assumption that the midterms are the beginning of the end for Trump, and the first step toward the election of a president who will be more hostile to Israel, aren’t necessarily bolstered by the results of the midterms.

The idea that the Democrats are eager to use their new power to punish Netanyahu for his love affair with the American right rests on assumptions about the party that have been fostered by Jewish conservatives who have sought to paint the Democrats as hostile to Israel.

What’s true is that the two American political parties have more or less exchanged identities on Israel in the last half-century. In the mid-20thcentury, the Democrats were predominantly a pro-Israel party while the Republicans were split on the Jewish state. That changed in the last 30 years, as Republicans became the lockstep pro-Israel party, and Democrats are now divided about support for it. 

Liberals wrongly accuse Jewish right-wingers and Netanyahu of disrupting what was once a bipartisan consensus about Israel by embracing conservative Christians. But this shift occurred with relatively little assistance from the Jews; evangelicals and their allies gained ascendance among Republicans, while the intersectional left, that is unfriendly to Israel, became a factor to be reckoned with among Democrats.

A resident of Mecklenburg County in Charlotte, North Carolina casts her ballot, on November 6, 2018.
Logan Cyrus / AFP

The change among Democrats seemed to have accelerated this year with the victories of a crop of new left-wing candidates who are clearly uncomfortable with or hostile to Israel like the socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib (the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress) and Ilhan Omar (the first Somali-American elected to Congress).

But as much as their presence in the House will provide a platform for radical critics of the U.S.-Israel alliance, and might be a harbinger of a shift to the left, the notion that Democrats are about to become the moral equivalent of the Jeremy Corbyn-led British Labour Party is a fantasy.

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While the left has gained strength, the leadership of the Democrats, especially in Congress, remains solidly pro-Israel, including presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer. Those expecting the House to impede policies such as a cutoff of aid to the Palestinian Authority also forget that the ranking member and likely new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is Elliot Engel of the Bronx, New York who is more or less a Likudnik on Middle East issues. 

Some in the new House majority will make noise about Netanyahu or sign letters Israel won’t like (such as those signed this past year by a minority of Democratic representatives and senators supporting the lifting of the blockade of Gaza). But they lack the power to hinder Trump’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

Just as important as who won in the midterms is who lost. For all of the attention given to the victories of left-wingers, those critics of Israel running outside of deep blue urban districts tended to lose - such as Leslie Cockburn in Virginia and Scott Wallace in Pennsylvania. The icing on the pro-Israel cake is that among the Republicans’ House losses was Dana Rohrabacher, the California representative who was among the handful remaining in the GOP who are not ardent friends of Israel.

Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib (C) celebrates at her midterm election night party in Detroit, Michigan, on November 6, 2018.
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

An even more sobering thought for those fantasizing about the demise of Trump and Netanyahu’s comeuppance is that nothing in the midterm results makes it more likely that the president will fail to be re-elected.

The victories of GOP candidates who were Trump clones over attractive liberal Democrats in the Florida and Georgia gubernatorial races, as well as other victories in red states that produced Republican gains in the Senate, should make it clear that the president’s path to re-election by an Electoral College majority may be steep - but by no means an impossible climb.

The new Democratic House will harass Trump with investigations, and liberals are still counting on the probe into collusion with Russia being led by Robert Mueller to somehow make the bad dream of 2016 go away. That might happen, but Democrats shouldn’t count on it. If Democrats do their base’s bidding and concentrate on trying to impeach Trump, such overreach will - depending on the viability of the Democratic nominee - make a repeat of Trump’s 2016 victory possible.

As their reaction to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting showed, the Netanyahu government sees no reason to step back from a close relationship with Trump and the Republicans. 

As Netanyahu learned after 2012, when his preference for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama was obvious, or during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, if he allows himself to be used as a pawn in American partisan battles, Democrats will resent it. But the costs of those gambles turned out to be minimal. 

No matter what happens in the next two years, or who wins in 2020, there is no reason to believe that the U.S.-Israel alliance is in any real danger.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin