Explained

Reports Like Buzzfeed’s of a Democratic Drift on Israel Appear to Be Greatly Exaggerated

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, don’t expect any radical announcements

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during the former's visit to Israel, May 2017.
Marc Israel Sellem/Pool

“Israel Will Be The Great Foreign Policy Debate Of The Democratic Primary” is a BuzzFeed article making the rounds.

The broad premise is one with which JTA readers are familiar: Democrats are becoming more disenchanted with Israel for myriad reasons, including a lack of progress and new ideas on the Palestinian issue, the parlous relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, and Netanyahu’s close embrace of President Donald Trump.

The more narrow premise — that the Boycott Israel movement is making headway among Democrats, and that this will tear apart the 2020 primary field — seems based more on the wishful thinking of some of the interviewees (an array of Israel skeptics who want Democrats to confront Israel, a Republican who wants Democrats to confront Israel) than on the reality.

There are some small errors (the anti-BDS bill that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., no longer backs is not the one the writers are referring to) and some broader conclusions that have little to support them.

“Some of the Democratic Party’s brightest new stars believe Israel is a rogue state that should be treated like apartheid South Africa” is the lead paragraph, and that’s backed up by naming precisely two: Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who both back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

Then there’s this summary paragraph: “The questions regarding Israel won’t change: Do you believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel? Should the US Embassy be in Jerusalem? Should the United States provide aid to Israel? Does the United States support Israel’s right to defend itself? But if candidates want to win young left-leaning voters, the candidates may find that they have to give different answers.”

The “may” in that last sentence is doing some heavy lifting: Certainly, the polling shows Democrats are less supportive of Israel than they once were. I have not seen data, nor do the writers cite data, that show skepticism of Israel will be a deciding factor for any substantial subset of voters in the primaries.

One thing we’ve seen in the fourth week of the government shutdown is that the Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, are extremely effective whips, keeping the troops in line.

This is the same Chuck and Nancy who appeared in December at the annual conference of the right-leaning Israeli-American Council and assured the crowd that they would not budge an inch in their support of Israel. The then speaker-designate dropped one of her famously dismissive Pelosi-isms in reference to Tlaib and Omar: Don’t pay “attention to a few people who may want to go their own way,” the longtime California lawmaker said.

Expect the same outlook among many if not all of the candidates now fattening the Democratic field: Not one has even come close to embracing BDS. Nor has Israel or the Middle East crept into their campaign launch announcements.

As the BuzzFeed story notes (and as we have reported), Bernie Sanders did open avenues to Israel criticism within the party, particularly during a primaries debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Clinton’s robust response to Sanders in that debate suggests the defend-Israel crowd maintains deep roots in the party (Clinton won the nomination), and Sanders, in that debate and throughout his campaign, made clear he supported Israel as a country — “100 percent” is how he said it in the debate.

Yes, the pro-Israel community has its work cut out if it wants to keep support for the Jewish state a top-tier issue for Democrats, but that’s still very much in the long run. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, don’t expect any radical announcements.

At the Forward, Batya Ungar Sargon takes on the same article and explains why the BDS argument will not be over whether the movement is worthy — no sitting senator, Republican or Democrat, endorses it — but over whether legislation penalizing BDS is constitutional.