If the first round of Democratic presidential debates proved anything it was the growing power of the party’s left wing. On a number of issues - ranging from immigration to health care to race - the pressure to hew to stances popular with the Democrats' liberal activist base was intense. That put more moderate candidates at a disadvantage.
And that pressure leftwards created a consensus on some topics, like decriminalizing illegal immigration and giving them government-paid health care, that will gift Republicans and President Donald Trump with the ammunition to brand their opponents as radicals in the 2020 election.
It won’t be long until Democratic candidates feel that left-leaning pressure on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and the anti-occupation, anti-Zionist IfNotNow movement, which has just announced its decision to branch out into electoral politics, want to be a key amplifier and conduit of that pressure.
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IfNotNow doesn’t have a mass following. But it has a dedicated cadre of supporters who have had an impact out of proportion to their numbers when it comes to their goal: making opposition to Israel’s presence in the West Bank a major topic of conversation in the Jewish world.
IfNotNow’s attempts to influence the way U.S. Jewish summer camps teach about Israel and to disrupt Birthright Israel trips haven’t had much success in terms of changing curriculums or deterring young Jews from visiting the Jewish state. But it has served to move the discussion about IfNotNow’s anti-Zionist agenda from the margins of Jewish life to the mainstream.
That, along with the efforts of fellow opponents of Israel such as Jewish Voice for Peace, has undermined the liberal Zionists of J Street, who have found themselves judged as insufficiently radical to win the hearts and minds of young left-wing Jews.
The question is now whether the group’s investment in a non-profit spinoff that will train volunteers to "birddog" candidates - a tactic of following them around on campaign tours, seeking opportunities to ambush them with loaded questions and impromptu, and sometimes unwelcome, lectures - during next year’s crucial early New Hampshire primary will have a similar impact on the Democratic Party’s stance on Israel.
If the early going in the Democratic race is any indication, their chances of success shouldn’t be dismissed.
Though the intersectional left has strong support among grassroots Democratic activists, most of the party’s officeholders and voters are still broadly supportive of the State of Israel. None of the party’s presidential candidates have a good word to say about the Netanyahu government -seen as too-close an ally of Trump and the Republicans - and have opposed the administration’s tilt toward the Jewish state.
But none of them have positions that resemble those of IfNotNow or the likes of radical pro-BDS and one-state heroes like Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
But the dynamic of the 2020 race is one in which activist groups already have shown an ability to push mainstream Democrats to the left. It was exactly the kind of effort that IfNotNow is planning that helped pressure former vice president Joseph Biden into abandoning his support for the Hyde Amendment that banned government funding for abortions.
With Democratic candidates demonstrating that their main fear is being outflanked on the left, the early state primaries may prove fertile ground for the efforts of those who wish to drive the Democrats away from their traditional stances on Israel.
The positions of IfNotNow and their partners in Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine should not be confused with those of liberal Zionists who also oppose settlements and think Israel should do more to advance the peace process.
IfNotNow couches its rhetoric in the language of human rights activism - but its rejection of Jewish sovereignty and rights, and disinterest in opposing efforts to eliminate the Jewish state, are actually antithetical to any notion of peace based on two states.
That ought to mean that Democrats should ignore them. But in a Democratic campaign in which moderation has already become a dirty word, any cause that can link itself to the popular memes of intersectional ideology can make life difficult for candidates that don’t wish to be identified as opponents of the left.
So while it’s not likely that IfNotNow volunteers can persuade the candidates to adopt their anti-Zionist platform, confrontations on the campaign trail - especially in state like New Hampshire where local retail politics is a must - might produce the sort of viral video moments in which some Democrats might be persuaded to agree in the heat of the moment to statements that will illustrate their party’s drift away from Israel.
But if anyone thinks this will do either the Democrats or the Palestinians any good, they are sadly mistaken.
As much as Democratic candidates fear being targeted by the left, moderate and independent voters will still decide the 2020 general election. While most liberals are convinced that Trump is too unpopular to be re-elected, the president’s chances should not be dismissed.
The more the Democrats adopt positions that are popular among liberal primary voters - but viewed with dismay by most Americans, the better his chances for winning another four years in the White House will be.
While polls show the Democratic party membership divided on Israel, the same polls show the rest of the country is very much on the side of the Jewish state with respect to the conflict with the Palestinians. If leftists push the Democrats further away from mainstream positions, that will only help Trump: it gets far easier to make the case that, no matter what you think of him, his opponents can’t be trusted on Israel.
Nor do IfNotNow’s efforts do any favors to the Palestinians. Like the Iranians, the Palestinian Authority may be betting on waiting out Trump and hoping for a more sympathetic president to be elected in 2020.
But ignoring Trump’s overtures and offers of economic aid in an election year - when he is likely to be eager for any agreement that he can portray as a foreign policy achievement - is a mistake.
For too long, the Palestinians have clung to the myth that the West will someday reject Israel. The more Jewish radicals reinforce that delusion, the more likely that the Palestinians will engage in yet more self-destructive intransigence that will only further isolate them on the world stage.
For IfNotNow, the 2020 campaign trial is an opportunity to expand their reach. But their every "success" will be a net loss for the Democratic Party - as well as for the Palestinians.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin
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