The Distinction Democrats Need to Make on Israel

Supporting the Jewish state and supporting Netanyahu are not the same thing.

Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms were a sharp rebuke of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans. Now, heading into 2020, Democrats have reason to be cautiously optimistic: several polls show that the top Democratic challengers for president would beat Trump in a head-to-head matchup if the election were held this month.

With Trump increasingly vulnerable to electoral defeat, we know he will do whatever he thinks it takes to maintain his grip on power—including by trying to use Israel to divide Democrats.

This week, Trump invoked the dual loyalty canard and said that American Jews who vote for Democrats showed “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” And last week, he successfully pressured Jerusalem to bar two elected members of Congress from entering the country. This shows that part of his re-election strategy is to cast a small group of legislators as the face of the Democratic Party.

Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib both support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and Tlaib has called for a one-state solution that would spell the end of the Jewish state. But those views are marginal inside the Democratic caucus—we are talking two out of 235 Democratic lawmakers.

Still, Trump clearly sees an advantage in using them to try to drive a wedge between Democrats and politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship, which requires bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. His nonstop tweeting about the episode makes that abundantly clear. Democrats therefore need a plan to make sure that Trump’s frantic efforts to portray Democrats as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel fail.

First and foremost, Democrats need to clearly state the obvious: Democrats overwhelmingly support the democratic, Jewish state of Israel—and have ever since Harry Truman recognized the country just moments after it declared independence. Just last month, congressional Democrats passed a decidedly pro-Israel resolution in the House condemning BDS. The vast majority of Democrats supported the measure; even one member of the “Squad,” Ayanna Pressley, voted for it.

Second, Democrats need to explain why Jews vote Democratic. Trump disingenuously says Jewish Americans are “leaving the Democratic Party.” That’s empirically false—more than 75 percent of all U.S. Jews voted for Democrats in 2018—and is unlikely to change next year. Trump clearly does not understand the commitment of American Jews to Democratic candidates and ideas. Israel is just a part of the equation. Polling of the U.S. Jewish community shows that health care ranks as its top concern, along with education, immigration reform, human rights, and ensuring a strong social safety net. None of Trump’s actions and policies on those issues will endear him to Jewish voters.

Third, Democrats need to clearly make the case for why Democratic policies are in fact best for Israel and the United States, and even for the long-term interests of Palestinians, who deserve to live with self-determination.

Democrats should run on significant portions of President Obama’s legacy, such as expanding foreign aid and U.S.-Israeli military cooperation, funding the Iron Dome missile defense system, and more. At the same time, they should offer alternative visions to resuscitating the moribund peace process and preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Fourth, Democrats can embark on an aggressive strategy that criticizes Trump and the Republicans’ Israel agenda. Most Americans still support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s cutting aid to the Palestinians, closing the PLO’s Washington office, and enabling Netanyahu’s far-right government makes that prospect exponentially more difficult. Most Americans also wanted Trump to remain in the Iran nuclear deal. But now, since the president has withdrawn the U.S. from the landmark pact, we are on the brink of war with a country that hates and represents a real existential threat to Israel. These are policy positions around which virtually all Democrats, progressives and centrists, can unite.

Lastly, Democrats need to speak the truth to Israel. As Joe Biden famously once said about the U.S.-Israel relationship: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” The truth is, Trump and the Republican Party are fine with drunk driving. Trump panders to Bibi’s every desire, which is intended to help Netanyahu’s short-term electoral interests, but will be deleterious to Israel’s long-term existential interests.

Democrats will need to emphasize a clear distinction between support for Israel and support for Netanyahu: support for Israel means being a good enough friend to stop your friend from getting in the car after she’s had too many; support for Netanyahu means giving your intoxicated friend the keys. Through that framing, Democrats can also speak to progressives who want to see a president more sympathetic to Palestinian national desires without relinquishing guarantees of Israeli safety.

Democratic criticisms of the current right-wing Israeli government are more supportive of the Israeli cause than anything Trump has done. It will take effective messaging to make that clear, but voters are smart enough to understand that acts of tough love—like stopping Israel from building more settlements or annexing the West Bank—are nevertheless acts of love.

The American electorate remains supportive of Israel. But that’s not because the Netanyahu government has been brilliantly making the case. If anything, Bibi’s tumultuous relationship with Obama and obsequious relationship with Trump have made the case much tougher. Rather, Americans support Israel because they believe in the essential right of Jews to live in a state of their own in their ancestral homeland.

If Trump wants to quarrel about which party is a better home for pro-Israel supporters and American Jews, fine. The key will be for Democrats to fight back and not let Trump provoke them into arguing with themselves—especially when he’s the one who most endangers the future of Israel and American Jews.

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Marc R. Stanley

Marc R. Stanley is a former chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.