Do the Democrats and Israel Have a Future Together?
By JASON HOROWITZMARCH 20, 2015
Last September, on the afternoon of Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, Elliott Abrams sat cross-legged on a basement carpet in Virginia playing marbles with his grandson. The former George W. Bush administration official, who supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East, is the father-in-law of a young rabbi at a reform synagogue in Washington that had been torn between its love of Israel and its loathing of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
Abrams, a staunch supporter of Netanyahu, told me that he wasn’t particularly worried about fading Jewish support for Israel, like that on display in his son-in-law’s congregation, even among the more skeptical younger generation. “Fifty-year-olds are always more supportive than 18-year-olds,” he said. “And so give them 30 years, and they will be more supportive. I don’t see any long-term erosion of support.”
What really concerned him, he said, were the non-Jewish voters who make up the rank and file of the Democratic base. “Look, I’m Republican,” Abrams told me. “But the problem that no one wants to talk about is the erosion of support in the Democratic Party.”
I thought of Abrams’s remarks this week, during the final chaotic days before Israel’s national elections, in which Netanyahu — trying to rally conservative support in a tight race against the Labor Party challenger, Isaac Herzog — disavowed the two-state solution, warned about the threat posed by “droves” of Arab voters and acknowledged the tactical appeal of expanding Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. Although he has since tried to walk back his comments about the two-state solution, at least, the Obama administration and Democrats in general remain enraged. The party was already furious with Netanyahu for his slights of the Democratic president, and many now consider him the de facto president of the Israeli chapter of Republicans Abroad.
While a deepening polarization among American Jews about Netanyahu puts Obama’s potential successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a politically uncomfortable position, it is the transformation of Israel into a partisan issue that fills Democratic Jewish officials with dread. Clinton’s advisers can always take solace knowing that the Democratic base will vote for a Democratic candidate no matter what. But Jewish Democrats worry about the prospect of keeping liberal support for Israel a viable long-term position for a party base that is overwhelmingly non-Jewish and increasingly critical of the country.
After all, many younger Americans know Israel only as a nuclear-armed force that is the dominant power in its region. On college campuses, pro-Palestinian groups like Students for Justice in Palestine have long framed the Israeli occupation as the civil rights issue of our time. A Pew Research Center poll over the summer showed that 29 percent of voters under the age of 30 blamed Israel more than Hamas for the war in Gaza, while only 21 percent blamed Hamas more. African-Americans and Hispanics were also more likely to blame Israel.
This trend has clearly frightened the Jewish establishment. The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee has sought to improve its engagement with progressives and college students, calling on, among others, Ann Lewis, a confidante of Clinton, to assist in progressive outreach. And Malcolm Hoenlein, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told me he was reaching out to Hispanics and Hollywood. “We have now taken several trips of movie stars to Israel,” he said. “We have had the stars of ‘Avatar,’ ‘Twilight,’ ‘Baxter’” — he presumably meant “Dexter” — “‘House M.D.’, ‘Hollywood 202101 whatever.’”
And support for Israel has also declined within American government in general. A recent focus group of congressional staffers — tomorrow’s policy makers — revealed ebbing support for Israel. “If national politics and the presidency continues to be in the hands of the Democrats,” said Hebrew Union College professor Steven Cohen, a leading tracker of Jewish demographic shifts, “then most of the mid-and-low-level policy analysts and foreign-service people will essentially be sympathetic to the Palestinians.”
But as far as Netanyahu’s right-wing government is concerned, the future is now. They see Obama and his potential nuclear deal with Iran as a threat to their security. They see American support for a two-state solution and a freeze on settlement growth as a naïve recipe for more missiles landing on Israeli homes.
And so Netanyahu has essentially thrown his lot in with the Republicans. His open hostility to Obama has infuriated Democrats. When he spoke to Congress this month — an invitation he accepted from the speaker of the House, John Boehner, without informing the White House — several Democratic members refused to attend. Significantly, the boycotting congressmen included members of the Congressional Black Caucus, an indication about the feelings of the party’s base.
This realignment by Netanyahu is a drastic shift. Even as U.S. foreign policy has grown increasingly partisan, support for Israel has generally been a rare point of agreement between Republicans and Democrats, and successive Israeli governments and their allies in Aipac have generally made a priority of keeping it that way. For instance, before returning to Israel in 2013 and entering politics there, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren reached out to progressive synagogues and think tanks for their help in improving the relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party’s ascendant base.
But Oren was replaced by Ron Dermer, a Miami Beach native and Netanyahu’s closest confidant, who, before becoming an Israeli citizen, worked for the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Widely credited with organizing Mitt Romney’s election-season trip to Israel in 2012, Dermer is viewed by Democrats and the White House as part of the Republican opposition.
I met with Dermer last year, during a visit to Israel’s heavily guarded embassy in Washington. In a compound decorated with reproductions of ancient mosaics, Dermer waved his bodyguard out of his office and called for a cappuccino. He spoke so incessantly over the next two hours that the foam sank before he could take a sip. “The challenge now is that people see a strong Israel,” Dermer told me. “But people don’t understand something the prime minister often says — that Israel can go from great strength to great vulnerability very fast.”
Like Abrams, Dermer wasn’t worried about liberal Jews. He argued that “a lot of the fissures” in the American Jewish community would seal up the moment Israel came under attack. But when I asked him about the broader liberal antipathy toward Israel on college campuses and among Democratic voters, he said: “Israel is a symptom of a problem, but it’s not actually the problem that’s on campuses. It’s not an anti-Israel thing. It’s a problem of moral relativism. And we are low hanging fruit.”
“I think the progressive case for Israel is an easy case to make,” he went on. “We’re the only country that’s had a chief justice of the Supreme Court, a speaker of the Knesset and a prime minister who were women. You have gay rights in Israel. You have a gay-pride parade in Tel Aviv, and gays all around the region are strung up in public squares. And then you have respect for minority rights in Israel.”
To make that case, Dermer said: “I’m going to go into every arena. You have to correct the misperceptions. When I see someone who is on the progressive side of the aisle and they are concerned and say, Well Israel is doing A, and Israel is doing B, I want to engage them, and I want to explain, and I want to put it in context for them. I’m not willing to give up.”
A few months ago, Dermer did attend a private meeting at the Center for American Progress, Washington’s leading liberal think tank, to meet with leaders from the black and Latino communities who had concerns about what they considered the Israeli occupation of Palestine. But unlike his predecessor Oren, Dermer’s outreach was less than diplomatic. According to one person at the meeting, he was defensive and aggressive, browbeating attendees with familiar Israeli talking points.
It is clear that both he and Netanyahu prefer a Republican audience. Dermer was the keynote speaker of the Christians United For Israel meeting at the Washington Convention Center last July. Netanyahu sent in a grateful video message. CUFI, as the organization is known, was founded by John Hagee, a Texas megachurch pastor who has preached against Catholicism, Islam and homosexuality and has written books including “Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change,” which argues that four big, red moons in 2014 and 2015 will harken a major shift for Israel.
Last year’s conference featured some of the Republican Party’s staunchest Israel supporters, including Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. A ballroom of 4,000, including a tattoo-covered man with a Star of David on his cheek, applauded uproariously as speakers bashed the Obama administration. “John Kerry,” Hagee bellowed, “you can park your State Department jet in the hangar. Your effort to win your Nobel Prize at the expense of Israel is over!”
In the halls, organizers had erected an installation dedicated to “The Battle for the Future: Israel on Campus,” featuring a replica of a campus Apartheid Wall, which organizers said was used on college campuses to “to turn the student body against Israel.” Resembling a piece of set design from a Michael Keaton-era Batman movie, the colorful graffiti on the wall referred to Hamas as “Freedom Fighters” and depicted an Israeli flag bearing the words “Fascist State” next to the equation “End of Zionism = Peace.” Next to the wall stood a banner featuring a healthy-looking college student smiling under the advisory, “Remember: These materials DO NOT represent the views of CUFI.”
During the evening’s gala held in a grand hall, a group of singers — including Pastor Hagee’s children — sang Hebrew anthems on stage. Evangelicals jumped out of their seats, joining conga lines and raucous hora circles. Sheldon G. Adelson, the Republican super donor and the object of much wooing from potential 2016 Republican candidates, was given the Defender of Israel Award. Dermer’s speech at the end of the evening was interrupted by shouts of “War criminal!” from protesters who infiltrated the event. Dermer seemed less than eager to engage them, or to explain or to offer context. Instead, to the rapturous applause of the people in the room, he called them “moral idiots.”76
The protesters might have represented the left-wing fringe, but their criticism, and hostility to Israel, is gaining steam in the mainstream of the Democratic Party — in large part because Dermer and his boss seem to have aligned themselves with Obama’s Republican enemies.
It is hard to believe that, come election time, Israel will be the primary voting issue for black, Latino and young voters. But Jewish Democratic supporters of Israel nevertheless don’t like advocating a minority position within, or against, their party. And Republicans like Abrams worry that the increased Democratic pressure could result in a weakening of American support for Israel in the United Nations. It may already be happening. This week, White House officials suggested that Obama might now support a Security Council resolution calling for the establishment of a sovereign Palestine
“Democrats have to address it,” Abrams told me in September, as he reached to retrieve one of his grandson’s marbles. “Democrats who feel less supportive are not going to listen to me. They are going to listen to Hillary Clinton.”
Jason Horowitz is a correspondent in the Washington bureau of The New York Times.