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This Week Proved the Fight Over Israel in the New Congress Will Be Long and Ugly

Israel is now, whether Israelis like it or not, a tool for advancing political and partisan agendas in Washington

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are sworn in, January 3, 2019.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are sworn in, January 3, 2019.Credit: \ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – The political feud that erupted this week in Washington over legislation in support of Israel and against the BDS movement made it very clear that in the new Congress, the battles over Israel are going to be especially ugly and partisan, even in comparison to what took place in previous sessions of Congress.

Israel is now, whether Israelis like it or not, a tool for advancing political and partisan agendas in Washington. This didn’t start under U.S. President Donald Trump or with the current Congress, which was sworn in just last week and has already managed, within days, to experience a nasty Israel-related fight. What we witnessed this week on Capitol Hill is the continuation of a process that has been taking shape for years, and which is very likely to intensify over the coming months.

During the Obama presidency, Israeli and American diplomats who were trying to somehow keep a lid on the endless bickering between Obama and Netanyahu, used to speak jokingly about a “Haaretz-Fox News echo chamber.”

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They invented this term to describe situations when news stories about tensions between Obama and Netanyahu would get published in the Israeli media – many times with a critical tone of coverage towards Netanyahu – and would then be picked up by right-wing news outlets in the United States, who would spin them into attacks on Obama’s supposed “hostility towards Israel.”

Obama is no longer in the White House, but this phenomenon continues – only now, it is focused on the relations between the Israeli government and the entire Democratic Party.

Israeli politicians, diplomats and journalists regularly speak about deterioration of support for Israel among Democrats, who are becoming increasingly critical of the Jewish state. This discussion in Israel often includes criticism of Netanyahu, for supposedly “taking sides in American politics” and “choosing Trump over bi-partisanship.” In the U.S., meanwhile, the very same discussion is often used by Republicans to attack the rival party and accuse it of being anti-Israeli.

This, in a nutshell, is what happened over the past week in Washington. Republicans pushed for a vote on Middle East legislation, authored by Sen. Marco Rubio, which included a number of bills related to Israel. One of those bills, which encourages state governments not to sign contracts with supporters of boycotts against Israel and the settlements, ran into strong opposition from some Democratic senators and the ACLU, who raised concerns about free speech.

Eventually, almost all the Democrats in the Senate voted against advancing Rubio’s legislation, stating a position that no legislation should be approved before Trump and Senate Republicans agree to re-open the government and end the ongoing shutdown. In Israel, some used the occasion to highlight how the country is losing support among Democrats – hinting that it was a failure on behalf of the current government. In Washington, Republicans said that this result proves Democrats are no longer committed to supporting Israel – while Democrats accused Republicans of using Israel for internal politics.

In the days leading up to the vote, the following things happened:

Rubio accused Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, of lying about his legislation’s effect on free speech; Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, wrote that Senators who are pushing forward this legislation in the midst of a government shutdown “forgot which country they represent”; Jewish groups (and Rubio) accused her of using the anti-Semitic “dual loyalty” canard; Rubio wrote that a “significant number” of Democratic Senators support BDS; a number of Democratic Senators attacked him in reply and said this was a lie; and immediately after the legislation failed to pass, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, took steps to bring it up for a vote once again, despite the fact that it is almost certain the result will remain the same as long as the shutdown continues.

For Israeli diplomats and pro-Israeli groups such as AIPAC, this was not a good week. A vote on Israel-related legislation that splits almost exactly along party lines (four Democrats out of 47 supported the bill), and creates a partisan boxing match with Israel in the middle, is the exact opposite of the bi-partisan support that Israel officially wants to preserve, and that AIPAC sees as essential for its success.

Rubio’s legislation will very likely pass sooner or later, because many of the Democrats who voted against it this week essentially support its contents. An older version of it, proposed in the previous Congress, received the support of 15 Democrats at the time. But the fight we witnessed this week was only partially about the legislation itself. It was also a preview of the battles over Israel that will characterize American politics from now until at least the 2020 presidential election. We already know they will be vicious.

In the current political environment, Israeli diplomats and groups like AIPAC face a double challenge. One part of this challenge is the growing “progressive wing” within the Democratic Party which is very critical of Israel, and now includes two members of the House of Representatives who openly endorse BDS. The second part of the challenge is attempts by Republicans to paint the entire Democratic Party with a single brush when it comes to Israel, ignoring the real differences between the few who are truly anti-Israeli and those who have nuanced positions on specific policy questions.

When these two factors combine, they become a real threat to the continuation of bi-partisan support for Israel in American politics.

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