Republicans, Democrats and Israel
Bipartisan support for Israel has been one of the greatest casualties of US President Barack Obama's assault on the Jewish state. Today, as Republican support for Israel reaches new heights, support for Israel has become a minority position among Democrats.
Consider the numbers. During Operation Cast Lead -- eleven days before Obama's inauguration -- the House of Representatives passed Resolution 34 siding with Israel against Hamas. The resolution received 390 yea votes, five nay votes and 37 abstentions. Democrats cast four of the nay votes and 29 of the abstentions.
In November 2009, Congress passed House Resolution 867 condemning the Goldstone report. The resolution urged Obama to disregard its findings which falsely accused Israel of committing war crimes in Cast Lead. 344 Congressman voted for the resolution. 36 voted against it. 52 abstained. Among those voting against, 33 were Democrats. 44 Democrats abstained.
In February 2010, 54 Congressmen sent a letter to Obama urging him to pressure Israel to open Hamas-ruled Gaza's international borders and accusing Israel of engaging in collective punishment. All of them were Democrats.
In the midst of the Obama administration's assault on Israel over construction for Jews in Jerusalem, 327 Congressmen signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for an end to the public attacks on the Israeli government. Of the 102 members that refused to sign the letter, 94 were Democrats.
These numbers show two things. First, since Obama entered office there has been a 13 point decline overall in the number of Congressmen willing to support Israel. Second, the decrease comes entirely from the Democratic side of the aisle. There the number of members willing to attack Israel has tripled.
As discouraging as they are, these numbers tell only part of the story. The pro-Israel initiatives the remaining Democrats agree to support today are less meaningful than those they supported before Obama entered office.
Resolution 34 during Cast Lead was substantive. It unhesitatingly blamed Hamas for the conflict, supported Israel and asserted that future wars will only be averted if Hamas is forced to fundamentally change.
Last month's letter to Clinton was much more circumscribed. It focused solely on ending the Obama administration's very public assault on Israel and ignored the nature of that assault. At the insistence of the Democrats, the administration was not criticized for its bigoted demand that Jews not be allowed to construct new homes in Jewish neighborhoods in Israel's capital city.
This week Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat visited Washington. Congressmen Eric Cantor and Peter Roskam - the Republican co-chairmen of the House's Israel caucus -- held a public event with Barkat where they voiced strong support for Israel's right to build in Jerusalem without restrictions.
In contrast, their Democratic counterparts refused to meet publicly with Barkat. They also refused to issue any statements supporting Israel's right to its undivided capital.
In the midst of administration's assault on Israel's right to Jerusalem last month, Representative Doug Lamborn drafted Resolution 1191 calling for the administration to finally abide by US law and move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Lamborn gathered 18 co-sponsors for the resolution. All of them were Republican.
Then there is Iran.
Acting on orders from Obama, House and Senate Democrats have tabled the sanctions bills that passed overwhelmingly in both houses. This week Obama asked Congressional Democrats to water down the sanctions bills to permit him to exempt China and Russia. In so doing, Obama exposed the entire push for sanctions as a dangerous, time-consuming joke. No sanctions passed in Congress or at the UN will make Iran reconsider its decision to build a nuclear arsenal.
This of course has been apparent for some time to anyone paying attention. And recognizing this state of affairs in January, Lamborn and Representative Trent Franks authored a letter to Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging the administration, "to support Israel's sovereign right to take any action it feels compelled to make in its self-defense."
Their letter was signed by 22 other Congressmen. All were Republican.
Similarly, since November Representative Louie Gohmert has been working on a resolution supporting Israel's right to attack Iran's nuclear installations. Gohmert's resolution condemns Iran's threat to commit nuclear genocide against Israel and expresses "support for Israel's right to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats post by Iran, defend Israeli sovereignty, and protect the lives and safety of the Israeli people, including the use of military force if no other peaceful solution can be found within a reasonable time."
To date, Gohmert has racked up more than forty co-sponsors. All are Republicans.
Recent opinion polls show that the Republican -- Democrat divide on Israel in Congress reflects a growing partisan gap among the general public. A Gallup poll conducted in February showed that whereas 85 percent of Republicans support Israel, (up from 77 percent in February 2009), and 60 percent of Independents support Israel, (up from 49 percent in February 2009), only 48 percent of Democrats support Israel, (down from 52 percent in February 2009).
To date, both the Israeli government and AIPAC have denied the existence of a partisan divide. This has been due in part to their unwillingness to contend with the new situation. One of Israel's greatest assets in the US has been the fact that support for the Jewish state has always been bipartisan. It is hard to accept that the Democrats are jumping ship.
AIPAC also has institutional reasons for papering over the erosion in Democratic support for Israel. First, most of its members are Democrats. Indeed, AIPAC's new President Lee Rosenberg was one of Obama's biggest fundraisers.
Then too, AIPAC is concerned at the prospect of its members abandoning it for J-Street. J-Street, the Jewish pro-Palestinian lobby is strongly supported by the Obama administration.
According to Congressional sources, AIPAC's desire to hide the partisan divide has caused it to preemptively water down Republican initiatives to gain Democratic support or torpedo Republican proposals that the Democrats would oppose. For instance, an AIPAC lobbyist demanded that Gohmert abandon his efforts to advance his resolution on Iran. Sources close to the story say the AIPAC lobbyist told Gohmert that AIPAC opposes all Iran initiatives that go beyond support for sanctions.
And now of course, as Obama makes a mockery of AIPAC's sanctions drive by watering them down to nothingness, AIPAC's sanctions-only strategy lies in ruins. But again in the interest of promoting the fiction of bipartisan support for Israel, AIPAC can be expected to pretend this has not happened.
And many prominent Republican Congressmen are loath to call their bluff. Like the Israeli government itself, Republican House members express deep concern that blowing the lid off the Democrats will weaken Israel. As one member put it, "I don't want to encourage the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attack Israel by exposing that the Democrats don't support Israel."
While this argument has its merits, the fact is that many Democrats remain staunch supporters of Israel. Representatives like Shelley Berkley, Nita Lowey, Steve Israel, Anthony Weiner, Jim Costa and many others have not taken stronger stands in support Israel because thanks to AIPAC, they haven't been challenged to do so. If going into the November midterm elections House Republicans were to initiate an aggressively pro-Israel agenda as members like Lamborn, Franks, Gohmert, Cantor, Roskam, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others are already doing, they would compel Democratic members to join them or risk being criticized for abandoning Israel by their Republican opponents in November's elections.
And that's the thing of it. While under Obama bipartisan support for Israel has eroded, popular support for Israel has grown. Indeed polls show a direct correlation between Democratic abandonment of Israel and popular abandonment of the Democrats. What this means is that the partisan divide on Israel is a good election issue for Republicans.
If as projected Republicans retake control over the House of Representatives in November, they will be in a position to limit Obama's ability to adopt policies that weaken Israel. And due to the widespread expectation that Republicans will in fact take over the House, if the Republicans set out clear policy lines on Israel today, their declared policies will immediately impact Obama's maneuver room on Israel. So too, a clear Republican policy on Israel will motivate pro-Israel Democrats to more stridently distance themselves from Obama on issues related to Israel.
Take the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's threat that he will unilaterally declare Palestinian independence in August 2011. To date, Obama has refused to say if he will recognize such a unilaterally declared Palestinian state. Fearing that he may recognize such a state, Israel has gone out of its way to appease Obama.
If House Republicans and Republican House candidates were to collectively pledge to cut off US funding for the PA in the aftermath of such a declaration, they could neutralize the threat. And if they pledged not to fund a US embassy in such a Palestinian state, they would make it impossible for Obama to continue holding his decision over Israel's head.
As for Iran, if Republicans win the House, they will be in a position to use omnibus budgetary bills to force the administration to provide Israel with the military equipment necessary to win a war against Iran and its allies. This would limit Obama's capacity to threaten Israel with an arms embargo in the increasingly likely event that the Iranian axis attacks the Jewish state.
In some House races, Democratic abandonment of Israel is already a key issue. For instance, in Illinois, the race between Republican challenger Joel Pollak and incumbent Democrat Jan Schakowsky has been dominated by Schakowsky's close ties to J-Street and tepid support for Israel. And recent polling data indicate that once a long-shot candidate, Pollak is steadily closing in on Schakowsky's lead.
Exposing the Democrats' abandonment of Israel will be an unpleasant affair. But it won't add to the dangers arrayed against Israel. Israel's enemies are already aware of Obama's animus towards the Jewish state. Demonstrating that the Democrats on Capitol Hill are following his lead on Israel will not add or detract from Iran's willingness to attack Israel either directly or through its Arab proxies, or both.
Moreover, forcing Democrats to account for their behavior will have a salutary long-term effect on their party and on the US as a whole. Support for Israel is a benchmark for support for US allies generally. Obama's abandonment of Israel has gone hand in hand with the cold shoulder he has given Colombia, Honduras, Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Japan, South Korea and other key US allies worldwide. In the long-term, it will be catastrophic if one of the US's two political parties maintains this strategically disastrous policy.
By using support for Israel as a wedge issue in the upcoming elections Republicans will do more than simply constrain Obama's ability to harm the Jewish state. They will be setting a course for a Democratic return to strategic sanity in the years to come. And nothing will guarantee the return of bipartisan support for Israel more effectively and securely than that.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.