Analysis

Thanks to Trump and IfNotNow, Israel Becomes Go-to Wedge Issue in U.S. Election

While they come from totally opposite sides of the political spectrum, the president and anti-occupation group’s viral PR tactics have a similar political goal

An IfNotNow protester demonstrating in Washington, May 2018, left, and President Donald Trump in Wisconsin. July 12, 2019.
Gili Getz / Carlos Barria, Reuters

President Donald Trump has never hesitated to use his much-vaunted Twitter feed to slam Democrats as being anti-Israel. But in recent days he ratcheted up that charge to a whole new level, using Israel as part of the justification for his widely condemned attacks on the four Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad” (Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley).

In a tweet Sunday morning, Trump called for the congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.”

Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, all criticized by President Donald Trump in a swath of tweets on July 14 and 15.
/AP

After a news cycle of disbelief and harsh condemnation that the president of the United States would make such blatantly racist remarks, Trump pushed back in a subsequent tweet in which he attacked them for “disgusting language and the many terrible things they say about the United States” — and also about Israel.

“So sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country and who, in addition, hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion,” Trump tweeted.

He resumed his attack Monday morning, asserting that the progressives “have made Israel feel abandoned by the U.S.”

He asked: “When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said.”

The tweets were a crude version of the message Trump and his supporters have worked hard to promote: A simplistic black-and-white political approach in the United States to Israel — you either venerate Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government or, in the president’s words, “hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion,” or at least stick up for politicians with those views.

There is no room in this landscape for combining support for Israel with deep and substantive criticism of its policies or political leadership — hence the need for a “Jexodus” (exodus of Jews from the Democratic Party) to support Trump in 2020.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a mirror image of this approach was playing out as young “fellows” from the anti-occupation activist group IfNotNow continued their summer project of approaching 2020 Democratic presidential candidates at campaign meet-and-greets, turning the encounters into viral videos, and then giving them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on their reactions.

They had already given senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren their stamp of approval. Sanders agreed to pose with the activists behind a “Jews Against the Occupation” sign. And when they approached Warren and she was asked if she would push the Israeli government to end the occupation, she replied, “Yes. So I’m there!”

The group then excitedly released a statement saluting Warren for her “firm” agreement and praising her for views that have evolved to be “farther in line with her progressive values.”

IfNotNow continued its Israel litmus test for “true progressivism” among Democratic candidates over the weekend. At a town hall in Laconia, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked by an activist: “All my life, politicians have talked about a two-state solution for Israel but don’t address the ongoing military occupation. Yes or no, are you willing to condemn the occupation?” Buttigieg’s answer: “The occupation has to end. And the militarization — even people from the Israeli right, like [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon at the end of his life, recognized that this state of affairs is unsustainable.”

Buttigieg’s response won IfNotNow’s approval, with a statement offering praise for his willingness “to call out the occupation and the Netanyahu government’s policies that have entrenched it by moving away from peace.”

He still had room for improvement, however, with IfNotNow tweeting that “We still need to hear how Pete Buttigieg — and other candidates — will use American leverage to pressure Israel to end the occupation.”

The Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, was up next. He was approached by an IfNotNow fellow who asked him if “the occupation is a human rights crisis” and if he would “pressure Israel” if elected president. Biden answered: “I think the settlements are unnecessary,” but that “the Palestinians have to step up too and stop the hate, so it’s a two-way street.”

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden answering questions from reporters after a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, July 12, 2019.
\ BRIAN SNYDER/ REUTERS

Asked again about the occupation, Biden said: “I think occupation is a real problem, a significant problem.” Asked if he would pressure Israel to end it, he told the activist to look at his record and said “You know I have.”

According to IfNotNow, Biden “deflected” — and , childing him, pointed out that the current situation was due to the “failed policies of the Obama administration” and “a continuation of tired Democratic rhetoric that condemns Netanyahu in word without committing to meaningful action to hold the Israeli government accountable.”

Pushed again on actions that he would take to help the Palestinians, Biden told the activist: “I will tell them to accept the notion that Israel has the right to exist — and I will insist on Israel, which I’ve done, to stop the occupation of those territories, period.”

Despite his denunciation of the occupation — arguably as definitive as those of Warren or Buttigieg — IfNotNow criticized Biden for having “retreated into AIPAC’s anti-Palestinian and false talking points.”

If Buttigieg earned a B+ and Biden a C-, there was one candidate who was determined to flunk the group’s test.

The question posed to Sen. Cory Booker was the most intersectional of the queries. An activist told him she “really looked up to” his leadership on criminal justice reform, but then pivoted. Because of this, she said, “It has been really painful and difficult for me to understand as you’re speaking out against mass incarceration how the imprisonment of Palestinian children, thousands of them, in military prisons is something you could ever be OK with.” She then hit him with the “Is the occupation a human rights crisis?” question.

Booker answered: “So I’m sorry that you think I could be OK with that, which I’m not, and I will continue to do everything I can to address this issue.” The activist interrupted him with an attempt to pin him down on the occupation and Booker then responded: “You’re not gonna get me to address that question as you want, and I know that that’s a question you’ve been asking every presidential candidate. But I’m working on this issue even more than on any other foreign policy issue.” After she tried to press him more, he ended the conversation with “If that’s your issue, I would understand if you want to support someone else — but know I’m just as committed as you are.”

Booker’s refusal to straightforwardly condemn the occupation, despite his protests, led IfNotNow to conclude that it “looks like he’s choosing AIPAC over the grassroots.”

While they come from totally opposite sides of the political spectrum, Trump and IfNotNow’s viral PR tactics have a similar political goal. From the right and the left, both are attempting to whittle away at the mainstream American-Jewish political construct that has been in place for decades, combining progressive and liberal positions on hot-button domestic issues like immigration, abortion and criminal justice with a supportive and affectionate-yet-critical relationship with the Jewish state.

Trump’s message — amplifying one that Jewish Republicans have unsuccessfully worked to push for years — is that you can’t be a real supporter of Israel from the Democratic side of the aisle. Even if you aren’t among those criticizing Israel more harshly, don’t support a two-state solution or support boycotting the Jewish state, you are among those “sticking up” for those who do.

In the world of IfNotNow, Democrats should not be permitted to wear the mantle of being an advocate for social justice, progressive and liberal values without vocally advocating against Israeli policies and justice for the Palestinians.

Dissatisfied with “lip service” against the occupation, real progressives — as they see it — must commit to taking active steps to pressure Israel. 

Trump, meanwhile, continued to reference Israel in further tweets on Monday — calling Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” a bunch of communists who “hate Israel, they hate our own Country ... they accuse people who support Israel as doing it for the Benjamin’s, they are Anti-Semitic, they are Anti-America.”

Between the determination of the small but loud Jewish group and Trump’s Twitter bear hug, Israel and the Palestinians have become an anomaly: A foreign policy hot potato in the early stages of a presidential campaign when, normally, all eyes are on domestic issues. 

Israelis themselves can only look on nervously, a bit baffled by these developments and deeply skeptical as to whether all of this attention can possibly be a good thing.