1. Dems are Seething, but Face Limited Options
It’s way too early to assess the fallout of the Rashida Tlaib/Ilhan Omar Israel visit ban. The crisis is very much an active crime scene. Reactions are still pouring in, Trump isn’t done stirring the pot with daily tweets praising Israel and blasting the two progressive lawmakers, and Democrats are still trying to figure out their course of action. The immediate response coming from Democratic circles so far has been a unison of condemnations, uniting everyone from Schumer to Sanders, from pro-Biden mainstreamers to die-hard fans of “the Squad.” But now comes the tougher part—turning words into actions. And while the Dems have many options, none is very good.
There’s the do-nothing approach, which could be attributed to Speaker Pelosi and her circle. According to this school of thought, the harsh words spoken and the unity demonstrated by the party are sufficient. The message has been conveyed. Anything beyond it would play into the hands of Trump, who could easily turn the Democratic mainstream’s decision to stand behind Omar and Tlaib into a claim that the party has adopted their views on Israel. Then there’s the idea being advanced by top moderates in the House, including pro-Israel (and Jewish) committee chairmen Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey, to go after the ambassadors: U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who chose to praise the Israeli government’s decision and Ron Dermer, Israel’s top man in Washington, who personally promised Democrats that Tlaib and Omar would be be allowed in, a pledge later overturned by the Netanyahu government. This, too, is a risky move. Trying to censure Friedman through an Inspector General investigation will lead to no immediate results and will not make Friedman change course or reconsider his actions. As for Dermer, issuing a public statement expressing lack of confidence in him would make little change on the ground and could only tie the hands of Democrats in the future.
Further to the left, Bernie Sanders has suggested tying the $3.8 billion annual aid package Israel receives from the U.S. to the way it treats U.S. lawmakers. This may sound tempting to many Democrats—after all, if Israel won’t even allow elected Democrats to visit the country freely, why should they go ahead and approve this massive foreign aid deal year after year? But in practice, this is a course of action that most Democrats won’t wish to pursue. This huge aid package is purely military—America gives Israel dollars to purchase weapons for its defense. Are Democrats going to raise their hands against providing Israel with means to counter a potential Iranian nuclear program? Hezbollah missiles? Hamas rockets? No, they won’t. Not to mention the fact that almost all this money is used for purchasing American-made weapons systems. Doing away with billions of dollars of aid will mean thousands of jobs lost in America. Defense contractors and their lobbyists won’t like that. Neither will lawmakers from districts about to lose these jobs. Perhaps the most effective suggestion so-far has come from Rep. Mark Pocan, chairman of the House progressive caucus, who called on all members to avoid visiting Israel until Netanyahu reverses his decision and allows Tlaib and Omar in. Had it not been voiced by a progressive, this idea could actually unite Democrats behind a meaningful way to express their dismay.
2. Look at Steny Hoyer and See the Face of Long-term Damage to Israel’s Relations with Democrats
The fact that Dems have limited options around Netanyahu’s decision doesn’t mean Israel is in the clear. Even without official acts of censure, the nation’s daily dealing with Democrats in Congress and throughout the political system, will inevitably become more difficult. Take, for example, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. The Jewish state has known few stronger defenders than this Maryland Democrat. He built a reputation of a trusted vote willing to work hard to advance pro-Israel legislation and to smooth tensions. Hoyer has also been at the forefront of defending the party’s pro-Israel stance when questioned by the progressive wing. Recently, Hoyer took issue with the portrayal of the Democratic Party as one being led by Tlaib, Omar, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when it comes to Israel. “The fact of the matter is we have 62 new members in Congress, but three get all the publicity,” Hoyer told Jewish activists earlier this year, fighting to remind them that the party hasn’t changed because of a handful of progressive newcomers. But now even Hoyer has had enough. He issued harsh statements taking Ambassador Dermer and Prime Minister Netanyahu to task and has led the drive to take real action in response to Israel’s ban on Tlaib and Omar. Israel, or at least the current Israeli government, may have lost an important ally in Congress. Sure, Hoyer will still fight for foreign aid and will keep his door open to pro-Israel advocates, but Netanyahu’s continuous alignment with Trump has taken its toll. In the future, expect Hoyer to be just a tad bit less enthusiastic in praising the Israeli government, or in battling members of his caucus who criticize Israel. That’s what long-term damage looks like.
3. Understanding AIPAC’s Response
A lot of attention was given to AIPAC’s statement denouncing the Israelis decision on Tlaib and Omar, and rightly so. It’s not every day that you see the pro-Israel lobby stand up publicly against an Israeli decision. But it had no choice. AIPAC lobbyists are in the trenches every day, working each and every congressional office to get pro-Israel legislation advanced. They’re the ones who will face the immediate consequences of an Israeli break with half of Congress. They also have to work twice as hard to keep their position in the center, as a non-partisan lobby made up of pro-Israel (albeit somewhat hawkish) activists who support both parties and donate to politicians on both sides. Saying nothing after Israel’s decision would have made it harder for Democrats to feel AIPAC is their home.
4. Bibi’s Calculation
Netanyahu, of course, had no choice but to ban Omar and Tlaib’s entry. The Israeli leader who had tied his destiny with an American president known for valuing loyalty above policy, could not say no to a direct, public request from Trump not to allow the two Democrats in. Not after getting the Jerusalem embassy, the Golan Heights and an emerging peace plan that looks more like a settler’s dream than a State Department paper. Moving forward, Netanyahu’s calculation is simple: he played nice with Trump and will be duly awarded for that. The Democratic establishment probably already dislikes him (they were around, after all, for his 2015 anti-Obama Congressional speech) but they’ll continue doing business because, as Democratic leaders have already noted, Israel is a cause greater than any one leader or any one crisis. Ass for the progressive wing and younger Democrats? Well, they’re most likely already lost. Nothing Netanyahu would have said or done could win them back.
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