Analysis that frames the midterm elections as a negative turning point in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, specifically among the Democratic Party, is short-sighted. Here are three reasons why Congress will not move further away from Israel
Israeli PM Netanyahu addressing the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in 2012
Photo: House Foreign Affairs Committee, CC BY-NC 2.0
Political anxiety among American supporters of Israel is reaching a fever pitch as Democrats close in on a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. In donor conference rooms, meetings of American Jewish organizations, and pro-Israel activist groups, there’s a wringing of hands about the decline in Democratic Party support for Israel, where the blame rests, and what to do about it. But well-intended solutions on how to manage a Democratic House majority as it relates to Israel have generally excluded the expertise of the people who will actually comprise a Democratic House majority.
As someone who served in Congress for 16 years, including six in the House Democratic Leadership (four of which as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), let me humbly offer an insider perspective on the upcoming midterm elections, and how it relates to the critical U.S.-Israel relationship.
First, there is a marked decline in support for Israel among self-described Democratic voters. According to a January survey by the Pew Research Center, only 27 percent of Democrats sympathize more with Israel than Palestinians in the regional conflict. This is an 11 percent decline since the same question was posed in 2001. Democrats shouldn’t sugarcoat this concern or get caught up in a counterproductive debate of who’s to blame. Nor should they dismiss the concern by pointing to the vulnerabilities of Republicans - such as the rise of White Supremacists (or even Holocaust deniers in some cases) within the party. Declining Democratic support for Israel is an undeniable challenge to bipartisan U.S.-Israeli relations that must be corrected.
But the conventional wisdom that the next Congress will move even further away from Israel is just plain wrong.
The Democratic Caucus will grow in the middle. And though some pro-Israel Democratic candidates did lose to critics of Israel, they are the exceptions to the rule
Forgetting the Strategic Value of Bipartisanship
Analysis that frames the midterm elections as a negative turning point in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, specifically among the Democratic Party, is short-sighted. According to the Pew Research Center, more members of Congress chose not to run for reelection “than at any time in the past quarter-century.” Regardless who wins control, whether it’s a wide/narrow Democratic or narrow Republican majority, a new generation of leaders on both sides of the aisle will be sworn into Congress in January.
The path to a Democratic majority in the House requires winning at least 23 seats that are currently held by Republicans. Those seats are all in Republican leaning districts. Democrats have already won all the progressive seats on the map. Now they need to win in places like Iowa, Orange County in California, Kansas, the suburbs of Philadelphia, and southern Florida. Democratic candidates for these seats reflect local values and sentiment, and overwhelmingly support our alliance with Israel.
The math is clear: The Democratic Caucus will grow in the middle. Yes, in some already safe Democratic districts, pro-Israel candidates (such as Rep. Joe Crowley of New York) lost to critics of Israel. But they are exceptions to the rule.
Second, I would caution those who believe they have easy answers to the new reality on the Hill to listen to some congressional heartbeats before they prescribe a cure. Understand the dynamics at play in the Democratic Caucus, how best to maintain relationships with various influential groups within that Caucus (such as the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and others), and the strategies behind securing important committee and subcommittee spots. They need to continue supporting groups like AIPAC because they are essential, and also look for innovative and unconventional portals of engagement between House Democrats and Israel on issues like drought, cyber defense, poverty, and others.
The role of Congress as a co-equal branch of government is often unrecognized by some in Israel. We can do a much better job educating Israeli officials and business leaders on the specifics of how Congress functions
Third, we can do a much better job educating Israeli officials and business leaders on the specifics of how Congress functions. The role of Congress as a co-equal branch of government is often unrecognized by some in Israel. Its primacy in appropriating funds, authorizing programs, and advancing policy aims is a system largely unique to the United States, the intricacies of which may be lost on those who have not followed American politics closely.
The dynamic of the relationship between Democrats in the United States and Israel is unquestionably undergoing a change. Political leaders and organizations in both nations are slipping from an appreciation of bipartisanship as a vital strategic asset. Some bridges have been burned. It’s time to build new bridges. Doing so requires respect and understanding of the political dynamics on both sides of those bridges.
Rep. Steve Israel served in Congress for 16 years, including six in the House Democratic Leadership. He chairs the American-Israel Future Forum, a new organization promoting innovative engagements between U.S. and Israeli political leaders.