Pro-Israel Democrats Relieved by Keith Ellison's Defeat as Spotlight Shifts From Israel Rift

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Newly elected Assistant Democratic National Chair, Keith Ellison (L) and newly elected Democratic National Chair, Tom Perez speak with the press during the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. February 25, 2017.
Newly elected Assistant Democratic National Chair, Keith Ellison (L) and newly elected Democratic National Chair, Tom PerezCredit: CHRIS BERRY/REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Tom Perez, the former Labor Secretary under President Obama who on Saturday became the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, doesn't have much of a public record when it comes to Israel.  He has spent most of his career dealing with economic and social issues, and under the Obama administration had very little input in anything related to foreign policy.

For these exact reasons, his victory over Rep. Keith Ellison in the battle to lead the DNC was welcomed by many pro-Israel Democrats with a mixture of joy and relief. A victory by Ellison, who had received much criticism for past statements he made against the Jewish state and for his ties to anti-Semitic figures such as Louis Farrakhan, would have highlighted the divide over Israel within the Democratic Party. With Perez at the helm, Israel is less likely for now to emerge as a leading point of discussion.  

"I'm so glad Tom Perez won and even happier Israel proved not to be an issue," Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic campaign adviser who advised much of the party leadership over the years on issues related to Israel, told Haaretz following the vote. "Keith Ellison’s record on Israel was an unfortunate distraction in a campaign about almost everything else. Tom has a lot of work to do but as Democrats and all Americans – Jews included – get to know him better, they’ll find a tough, smart, hardworking leader with extraordinary qualities and a lifelong record on all the issues we hold dear."

The little Perez has said so far on Israel was closer to the traditional line of the Democratic Party than to Ellison's. When asked at one debate about the BDS movement, Perez said he did not support it and added that some of its activities were "destructive." When the Obama administration abstained last December in a UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlements, Perez did not express an opinion, saying it would be wrong for him as a sitting cabinet member to do so. 

Perez's positions on Israel, unlike Ellison's, never became a leading issue during his campaign. His message was focused on rebuilding the Democratic Party at the grassroots level and advancing an economic agenda that will allow it to take back power at the local and national levels. "People in the party who are pro-Israel supported him first and foremost because of this message," one Pro-Israel Democratic donor told Haaretz. "If Israel came up at all, it was mostly in the context of Ellison's record, which many people were worried about."

The Jews for Progress Super PAC congratulated Perez, saying: "We are confident that with Chairman Perez as the leader of our party, we will be able to work with the DNC to sufficiently fight against the White House’s most oppressive actions."

"The DNC needs to lead all factions of our party and fight for the roots of what we stand for as progressives including economic justice, civil rights, quality and affordable healthcare, comprehensive immigration reform, gun violence prevention, environmental protection, women’s rights, the separation of religion and states and, of course, perhaps most of all, strong support for Israel," Jews for Progress said in a statement.

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