Analysis |

Engel’s Defeat in N.Y. Should Spur Netanyahu to Rethink Annexation – but It Won’t

Strategic importance of U.S.-Israeli ties mandates postponement of any final decision on the Palestinian territories until the presidential elections in November

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) votes at a school near his home in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx borough of New York City, on June 23, 2020.
U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) votes at a school near his home in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx borough of New York City, on June 23, 2020.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Throughout his 30-plus years in Congress, Eliot Lance Engel has been one of Israel’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill. He supported Labor government policies, as in the Oslo Accords, as well as positions held by Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right, including opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and support for Donald Trump’s transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

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Engel is liberal on most domestic issues but fiercely hawkish on foreign affairs, particularly on policies that advance Israel’s national security interests. He is considered a classic AIPAC-type congressman, one of a dwindling group of old guard Democrats who have helped maintain a semblance of bipartisan support for Israel in an era of political polarization and Democratic radicalization.

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New York Democratic House candidate Jamaal Bowman greets supporters in Yonkers, New York, on June 23, 2020.
New York Democratic House candidate Jamaal Bowman greets supporters in Yonkers, New York, on June 23, 2020.Credit: Getty Images / AFP

Results of the Democratic primary held in New York’s 16th Congressional elections held on Tuesday indicate that the veteran Jewish Representative has been defeated by his surging upstart rival Jamaal Bowman.

The African-American school principal had trailed Engel by significant margins throughout the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic in New York and up until the recent outburst of public rage following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In recent weeks, support for Bowman has skyrocketed, bringing him to within striking distance of his formidable and supposedly invincible opponent. 

Alarmed by Engel’s dwindling poll numbers, pro-Israel groups spent millions of dollars in an effort to buttress his campaign. Old-guard Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer intervened on his behalf.  Bowman, on the other hand, was endorsed by the leaders of the Democratic progressive wing, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as by the slew of radical Democrats who have distanced themselves from their party’s traditional support for Israel, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.

Political commentators may argue about whether and how much Engel’s stalwart support for Israel played a role in his defeat, but as far as appearances are concerned, there’s no denying the bottom line. Engel’s ouster, along with a slew of other victories wracked up by radicals in Tuesday’s primaries, would be seen as a symbolic defeat for supporters of Israel and as a sweet victory for its critics. It should also post yet another warning sign for Netanyahu about the potentially devastating price Israel could pay for his proposed July 1 annexation. Unfortunately, it is likely to have the exact opposite effect.

Annexation would galvanize the radical wing of the Democratic Party just as the 2020 election campaign gets into high gear. It would provide an outlet for releasing the pent-up rage that has accumulated among Democrats since Netanyahu’s clash with Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal and throughout four years of Israel’s unprecedented tilt toward Trump. Annexation could position Israel in a place it has hitherto avoided: Smack dab in the middle of a contentious U.S. election campaign.

Annexation would radicalize Democratic opposition to Israel, pressuring presumptive candidate Joe Biden and putting him on the defensive. Biden, another vestige of a long-gone era when Democrats were considered far more pro-Israel than Republicans, is in no position to ignore or alienate his muscle-flexing radicals. He would have to placate them in one way or another.

U.S. President Donald Trump winks at Netanyahu during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. 
U.S. President Donald Trump winks at Netanyahu during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. Credit: Reuters / Brendan McDermid

Biden has criticized Netanyahu’s planned annexation, labeling it, through adviser Anthony Blinken, as a grave mistake. Biden has no interest in highlighting his differences with Netanyahu - but annexation could force his hand. The rise of the radicals could compel him to stiffen his opposition to a move that he explicitly warned against but, under other circumstances, he could very well ignore. If Biden wins, he will carry his party’s escalating censure of annexation into the White House.

Netanyahu’s plan to rush annexation of West Bank territories while Trump is still in power could turn into a red flag for Democrats, endangering Israel’s most strategic alliance if and when the opposition party takes over the White House. Annexation would entrench Netanyahu’s image among Democrats as Trump’s BFF and as their party’s premier antagonist abroad.

The rational thing for Netanyahu and Israel to do would be to announce that in light of the close ties between the two countries and out of deference to its elections process, Israel would postpone its decision until Election Day: If Trump wins, Netanyahu can go full speed ahead. If Biden wins, Netanyahu’s delay could avert, or at least mitigate, potentially destructive fallout.

Netanyahu, however, is likely to reach the opposite conclusion. Throughout his career, but especially since they supported the Obama Iran nuclear deal he so vehemently opposed, Netanyahu has viewed most Democrats as his – and, by extension, Israel’s – enemies. If this was true in 2016, when Netanyahu prayed for Clinton’s defeat, it is doubly true in 2020, when he is invested so heavily in Trump and when Democrats seem to be veering away from their traditional support for Israel, which wasn’t good enough for Netanyahu anyway.

Netanyahu views the rise of leftist Democratic radicalism as a deterministic process that simply corroborates his own prescience. In this way, he absolves Israel and himself of any responsibility for its deteriorating stature among Democrats: It doesn’t matter what Israel will do, he tells confidantes, Democrats will be against us anyway.

Engel’s defeat won’t induce Netanyahu to exercise restraint or caution, but quite the contrary. He will view it as proof that Israel has only a narrow window of opportunity to realize its dream of annexing biblical territories and that the task has turned more urgent than ever.

Democrats, he will argue, are a lost cause. Israel must grab whatever concessions it can from a Trump administration, for as long as it’s around. If and when Trump is removed, Netanyahu will deduce, winter is coming anyway, no matter what Israel does.  

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