Analysis

Midterms Were Good for the U.S., the World, Trump (Maybe) Netanyahu (Possibly) and Jews (At Least American)

The prime minister should deflect alarmist warnings and seize the opportunity to mend fences with both Democrats and American Jews

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference in the East Room of the White House, Washington, November 7, 2018.
AFP

NEW YORK – 1. Although he didn’t invent it, Ehud Barak enshrined the idiom in the folklore of Israeli politics. “Dawn of a new day,” Barak told tens of thousands of jubilant supporters who came to celebrate his victory in the 1999 elections over Benjamin Netanyahu. Given that Barak went on to become the shortest-ruling prime minister ever and that most Israelis take a dim view of his brief time as prime minister, “Dawn of a new day” is used these days mostly ironically.

But “Dawn of a new day” is an apt description of the state of the American union on the morning after the midterm elections. The new day might be cloudy with severe storms on the horizon, but for Democrats it is nothing less than a deliverance from darkness to light. After two years of helpless heckling from the bleachers, Democrats are back in business, playing once again on the same field as the big boys, with the second most powerful political institution in Washington now behind them. 

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For an hour or two after the votes began to be counted, the prospect of failure was in the air. Democrats might pick up seats, but not enough to secure a House majority. The consequences would have been enormous: The triumph would have been notched up to President Donald Trump and he would have become emboldened as well as even more insufferable. Democrats in particular and liberals in general, in America and around the world, would have been crushed by the defeat and terrified of what it portends.

As it is, Trump probably deserves credit for averting even greater Republican losses. Though they studiously refrained from counting their chickens before they hatched, many Democrats secretly dreamed that their blue wave would grow into a political tsunami that would rival the Republican Tea Party putsch in the 2010 elections, in which Barack Obama’s Democrats lost a staggering 63 House seats. 

Given that Trump has only himself in mind, his tweeted boast on Tuesday night (and repeated in his cantankerous, bizarro news conference on Wednesday) that the GOP enjoyed “tremendous success” in the elections was less far-fetched than his usual norm – though it inevitably brought to mind the Pyrrhic statement of “Another victory like this and all is lost.”

Exit polls showed that Democratic gains in the House were an expression of no confidence in Trump’s presidency. But he is incapable of learning from his failures or even recognizing their very existence. Thus, the prospects that Trump will retain anything from the lesson that the voting public wished to teach him are less than dim. Which means the clock is already ticking on an early clash between the White House and the newly constituted, Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. 

And if you thought up until now that Washington in the days of Trump resembles an asylum that has been taken over by its patients, rest assured you ain’t seen nothing yet.

2. The new reality that will kick on January 3, when the 116th Congress will convene and be sworn into office, is so different from what Trump has experienced so far that his tenure will probably be divided in the future into BM – before midterms – and AM. The next two years will be far more precarious for Trump, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. The earth has moved under his feet. His one-man rule is over. He is entering a political Twilight Zone, “between the pit of his fears and the [low-altitude] summit of his knowledge.”

After two years in which Trump turned Congress into a rubber stamp and the GOP into his private doormat, Trump will now have to contend with a lean and mean Democratic machine, led by politicians who want to start making headlines so that Democrats can appreciate how tough they are with the White House. 

They will make Trump sweat for every nickel they appropriate; they will follow the president’s every move like a hawk, waiting for him to stumble so they can come down on him like a ton of bricks. With their powers of subpoena, the new Democratic chairpersons of the House’s 20 standing committees will be able to launch investigations, call witnesses, unseal documents and demand that Trump finally release the tax returns he so zealously conceals.

Trump may be protected by his presidential immunity, but his advisers, assistants and relatives aren’t. Each and every Democratic committee chair will hold a potential Sword of Damocles over Trump’s head, ready to summon John Kelly or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or even Ivanka Trump, at a moment’s notice.

And if Trump plans to derail Robert Mueller’s investigation, he should hurry. He has less than two months to get the job done. Come January, there will be a new sheriff in town. It’s going to be a whole new ball game.

Instead of the kowtowing Devin Nunes as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee – who saw his job as covering for Trump and obstructing Mueller – Trump will have to deal with the far more formidable Adam Schiff from California, who managed to drive Trump crazy even when he was toothless.  

3. Judging by his rambling press conference on Wednesday, Trump intends to go through the motions of seeking areas of agreement with Nancy Pelosi, should she be elected Speaker of the House, and with her Democratic minions. Ideologically, this shouldn’t present a problem, because Trump has no real ideology other than himself. And finding common ground with a Democratic House could enhance Trump’s currently nonexistent reputation as a centrist and a unifier.

Cooperating with Pelosi, however, presents some risks for Trump, on the assumption that he intends to run again for president in 2020. Conservatives might be able to stomach the idea of pragmatic collaboration with Democrats, but Pelosi is viewed by many of them as the liberal devil incarnate. Trump’s sway over his base might be strong enough to drag them along, but sooner rather than later he is bound to return to his genuinely garrulous, divisive and self-centered self. He’s like the scorpion that stung the frog that carried him across the river, drowning them both: He just can’t help himself.

4. But beyond the new array of power politics and the anticipation of a battle royale on Capitol Hill, the outcome of the elections provided a much-needed shot in the arm for beleaguered liberals everywhere. Trump’s total victory in 2016, coupled with what seemed like the inexorable march of xenophobic nationalism in its wake, demoralized liberals and sparked fears that their condition might be terminal.  

The Democratic victory in the House sends a strong signal that all is not lost. The case for enlightened liberalism lives on, at least for now. In most international capitals, the Democrats are viewed as the responsible adults who will finally be able to tame the chaos that is the Trump administration. Social Democratic countries such as Canada and Germany will once again be able to find sympathetic ears in the U.S. capital, even if their influence over foreign policy is only negligible.

5. For American Jews, the Democratic victory came just in time. The Jewish fears and apprehensions sparked by the bloody massacre in Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue were compounded by a sense of isolation and disenfranchisement: No one in the Trump administration, and very few in the GOP leadership in Congress, really speaks their language. The Trump administration apparently knows how to talk to Israelis, but can’t seem to tell the difference between the Jewish state and its own citizens. 

Trump showed his cluelessness in his press conference by responding to a question about homegrown right-wing anti-Semitism with quotes from Netanyahu about how great he really is. For most American Jews, the threat they face from white supremacists in the United States has very little to do with the conflict in the Middle East. This seems obvious to most people, with the possible exception of Trump and Israel’s own right-wing government.

6. In many U.S. Jewish communities, the tensions between right and left, which have escalated during Trump’s first two years in office, are accompanied by an unspoken debate about the cardinal question of Jewish identity – to wit, are Jews actually white, and thus potential candidates to ally with Trump’s constituency, or are they non-white, and thus aligned by nature with America’s minorities. Conservative Jews, including many Orthodox, share many of the sentiments of Trump’s voters about illegal immigrants.

But most American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal, tend to side with non-whites, either because they believe in tikkun olam and social responsibility or because they believe that minorities must hang together so as not to be hanged apart. Now that the Democrats have emerged as the party of women, youth and minorities of all shapes and sizes, they are bound to attract liberal Jews like never before, but to repel conservatives with even greater intensity.

7. Finally, there is the special case called Israel. On Israel’s right-wing fringe, which unfortunately dominates Netanyahu’s coalition, the Democratic victory is already being described as a triumph for BDS supporters and Islamic radicals, who, in fevered right-wing paranoia, are often portrayed as the true pullers of Democrat strings.

The groundbreaking election of two Muslim women to Congress provides right-wing alarmists, for whom any critic is a Hamas sympathizer and any Muslim a potential bin Laden, with sufficient grounds to run around hysterically claiming that Democrats are latent anti-Semites just waiting to pounce on the Jewish state.

Given the escalating rhetoric in advance of the upcoming elections, it’s not unreasonable to expect Knesset lawmakers and cabinet ministers to cater to their own base by inflating the isolated pockets of resistance to Israeli policies – which have indeed expanded – as a dire threat to the future of the Jewish people.

Netanyahu, at least as he was before turning ever more Trumpesque, should know better. A Democratic House leadership that include Schiff, Nita Lowey, Eliot Engel and Jerry Nadler may express more public reservations about specific Israeli policies, but is fundamentally as anti-Israel as your local Hadassah chapter.

Many will tell Netanyahu that his chickens are coming home to roost, that his shortsighted estrangement with American Jews has now deprived him of valuable conduits to the Democratic Party. This doesn’t seem serious: Notwithstanding their grievances toward Netanyahu, most Jewish leaders will be more than happy to feel needed again, now that their ties with Democratic lawmakers have regained their previous market value.   

The expectation that Israel’s position on Capitol Hill is now weaker or that the House of Representatives will transform into a bedrock of anti-Israel agitation is both paranoid and far-fetched. On the contrary, Israel could provide one of the rare issues on which Democrats and Republicans can easily find common ground. 

Thus, the new reality that will prevail in Washington from January could give Netanyahu an opportunity to mend fences with Democrats and American Jews at the same time. All that is required of the Israeli prime minister is discretion and restraint. But both traits are also the first that Netanyahu will shed as he prepares to woo his angry base once again. Perhaps he will decide that Democrats are true enemies after all.