WASHINGTON - Steve Israel began our interview with a joke. “I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and complained about a tremor in my face that I can’t get rid of. The doctor looked at it and said, 'It’s a smile. You just haven't had one in many years.'”
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Israel, a former Democratic Congressman from New York, retired from the House of Representatives in January after 16 years of service. During a lengthy conversation with Haaretz last week, he indeed smiled and laughed quite often – even when discussing some of the most critical issues he dealt with as a politician, such as the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the Democratic Party’s troubles in “Middle America” and the corrupting effect of big money on American politics.
The district Israel represented is located in Long Island, and while Democrats won it in the last presidential election, it is considered a swing district – results for presidential races over the last three decades have been relatively close. Israel himself, however, won comfortably in his eight straight election victories. The closest margin between him and one of his opponents was 9 percent, in 2014. Despite these statistics, in early 2016 he surprised many in Washington by announcing that he has decided to quit politics.
“It was a combination of a number of factors,” he said of his decision to leave Congress. One of those factors, and perhaps the most prominent one, was that he had become “very frustrated with the fundraising process in Congress.”
As a representative of a competitive district, “I found myself having to raise a minimum of $1.5 to $2 million on every campaign, and thus spending way too much of my time soliciting donations instead of solving problems," Israel said. "If you’re a member in a competitive district, you sometimes have to spend 20 to 30 hours a week calling donors. That doesn’t leave you enough time to focus on the things you really care about, like working for the middle class or on improving health care.”
Israel wrote an article on this frustration last year in The New York Times under the headline, “Confessions of a Congressman”; it went viral because of its unusual level of candor. “In the days after my first election to Congress, in 2000, I attended several orientation sessions in Washington, eager to absorb the lessons of history,” Israel explained in the article.
“I wanted to learn what Congressman Abraham Lincoln had learned, to hear the wisdom of predecessors like John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Joseph Gurney Cannon. The romance was crushed by lesson No. 1: Get re-elected. A fundraising consultant advised that if I didn’t raise at least $10,000 a week, I wouldn’t be back.”
Israel wrote that over the years, he spent roughly 4,200 hours calling donors, attended more than 1,600 fundraisers for his own campaigns (and many, many more to support the election campaigns of other Democrats across the country) and raised tens of millions of dollars. He noted that things have only gotten worse since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the “Citizens United” case, which made it very easy for U.S. corporations to invest unlimited sums of money into political campaigns, without having to disclose the full details of their interests and involvement.
“I always knew during my time in Congress that my opponent could raise money against me,” Israel told Haaretz last week, “but that Supreme Court decision meant any corporation could write a check against me in order to defeat me, and I wouldn’t even know who they were or why they did it. This is a legalized mechanism for extortion.”
'Part of my DNA'
As a former congressman, Israel feels free to discuss the situation and to do so with brutal honesty, hoping that if voters realize how dire the situation is, they will demand a change.
One central issue for him while in Congress was the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. “This issue is part of my DNA,” he said, adding that he is worried by how, in recent years, this relationship has become part of the widening partisan divide instead of remaining a pillar of bipartisan consensus in Congress.
“It became politicized, and that’s not good for Israel. When I first came to Congress, I didn’t think I would ever hear Republican members say that if you’re a Democrat, you can’t be pro-Israel. That’s an absurd and dangerous statement. I’m a Democrat and I have a 100 percent record of support for Israel. But there was a political calculation made by Republicans during the Obama years, that they could use tensions between the two governments in order to throw a wedge between Israel and the Democrats.”
“The Republicans hoped to use this thing in order to erode Jewish support for the Democratic Party," he said. "That failed, but I fear that this effort has been bad for Israel. I worked every single day, I was in Congress to depoliticize the Israel relationship and defuse any possible tensions between our two countries. I hope I succeeded.”
One specific event in which Israel came out against the leadership of his own party was the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. He voted against it and had a 20-minute conversation with President Barack Obama explaining his decision to reject the agreement.
When asked to sum up Obama’s legacy on the United States' relationship with the Jewish state, Israel used the words “conflicted” and “complicated.” His reasons: “The optics of the relationship were not good. The appearance was not positive. The headlines were all about tensions and disputes. But I know for a fact, as does every objective analyst of the relationship, that the military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries reached unprecedented heights during those years, and in fact had never been closer.
"This created an enormous sense of frustration for me, because I would go to town hall meetings and hear people accuse the administration of being anti-Israel, when in fact there were unprecedented levels of cooperation between Israel and the United States on the defense and intelligence fronts.”
As for President Donald Trump’s Israel policy, the former Congressman said it’s still too early to pass judgement.
“You can’t judge him after only seven months. People had all kinds of hopes and expectations – that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, cancel the Iran deal or commit to the two-state solution and convene a peace summit. He’s not there yet on any of these things," he said. "I’m an outspoken critic of Trump and his policies on many issues, but with regards to Israel, I think he deserves more time to articulate a policy and implement it.”
Despite strong and diverse criticism of Trump, Israel added that it would be wrong for the Democratic Party to make the current president the sole focus of its congressional campaigns ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. He described a tactical debate within the party between “those who say our message should be aimed at Trump, and those who say we need to offer our own policy ideas. I tend to come down on the side of offering solutions, especially when it comes to making things better for the middle class. And we need to do it in an efficient way, not by putting a 22-point plan on a website. We need to develop a clear message that instantly resonates with voters. Many people are realizing that the president is not making things better for them, but that’s not enough – we also need to convince them how our party and our candidates will be there for them.”
Israel succeeded in doing that in his district for 16 years. In 2018, however, he will be busy with other challenges, including promoting his new book, “Big Guns,” which is due to come out in April. The novel, Israel’s second book, is about what he describes as “the absurdity” of the gun debate in Washington.
“I used sharp humor to bring readers into the most bizarre and absurd realities of Capitol Hill. I learned in Congress that there are absurdities most Americans wouldn’t believe if they read about them in a book, but sadly, they are happening in our real life,” he said. The book follows an attempt by the gun lobby to pass a bill that would make it compulsory for every American citizen to own a gun, “with waivers for children under the age of four.” This idea came to Israel’s mind after he read about a town in Georgia that, following the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, passed a directive stating that every resident must own and carry a gun. “I thought it was unbelievable, but also a good starting point for political satire,” he added.
Despite the joy of writing books, teaching and mostly staying away from Washington, Israel says that there is something he misses about being in Congress. “The only thing I miss is the quiet collegiality that most people never hear of between members on both sides of the aisle," he said. "I developed strong friendships with people with whom I fundamentally disagree on many issues. Sometimes we were even lucky enough to work together on legislation. But unfortunately, in the current 24/7 news cycle, the media and the public aren’t really interested to hear that story. People are much more into the fist fights and the nastiness. I wish things were different, but I don’t think this will change in the near future.”