2018 U.S. Midterm Elections

Netanyahu Envoy Throws Midterm Lifeline to Republicans

The Israeli prime minister is riling Democrats by bedding down with Trump.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)

For many Democrats, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, this week swaggered across the invisible red line of American politics, positioning himself squarely on the side of the Republican Party in the final days of a hard-fought midterm election.

Dermer defended President Donald Trump on charges that his anti-immigrant rhetoric may have indirectly incited the perpetrator of the largest mass killing of Jews on U.S. soil last Saturday in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism in America, Dermer said in an interview with MSNBC, is as much a result of left-wing activists pursuing a boycott of Israeli products as it is a result of right-wing American nationalism.

“I see a lot of bad people on both sides who attack Jews,” Dermer said.

The remarks, according to several Democratic congressional staffers and partisans, represented the latest evidence that Israel’s right-wing government was openly throwing its lot in with Republicans. And that could be somewhat risky for Israel’s interests if, as most polls indicate, Democrats retake the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

“The price is that Israel is not getting its message across to Democrats because they don’t have a trusted interlocutor,” one Democratic congressional aide said. The aide warned that Israel may face an “uphill battle” securing the House’s support in the event of some new unforeseen crisis.

Ron Klein, a former Florida congressman who chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and other Democratic aides say that if they win the House, it is unlikely that there will be much of a change on core issues, including the more than $3.8 billion a year the United States spends in military assistance to Israel. Indeed, the Obama administration negotiated the aid package, which will result in more than $38 billion in assistance to Israel over the next decade.

“In Congress, Democrats, like Republicans, have always supported Israel, and that won’t change,” another Democratic congressional aide said. “With few exceptions, they have not been willing to publicly criticize Israeli policies, even when those policies are at odds with U.S. national interests.”

One area that may see a shift, according to Democratic congressional aides, is U.S. funding for humanitarian programs in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. The United States cut nearly $600 million in annual funding for Palestinians, including about $350 million for a U.N. program that provides schooling and medical care for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Democrats view the provision of aid as vital to preserving the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians on a two-state solution.

“I think there would be a significant amount of pressure to reverse some of those cuts,” said Daniel Shapiro, who was the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration.

Even so, the second Democratic congressional aide said, “It’s clear that the Netanyahu government has an alter ego in the White House. As a result, they seem to have concluded that they are best off attaching their horse to that wagon and not worrying about anybody else.”

In the past several years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has steered the ruling Likud-led coalition government into a closer embrace of the Republican Party—and its base of evangelical Christians and older, conservative American Jewish supporters—at the expense of Democrats, these officials say, testing the limits of a long-standing tradition of bipartisan support for Israel. The strategy has resulted in a series of successes, including the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the cutoff of aid to Palestinians.

But it has also added to a list of Democratic grievances with Netanyahu’s government. Democrats have nursed resentment toward the Israeli prime minister ever since he addressed a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress in 2015 to attack President Barack Obama’s effort to negotiate a nuclear pact with Iran.

Those feelings have resurfaced in light of Dermer’s remarks, which were seen as providing political cover for a president facing allegations that his anti-immigrant rhetoric may have provided inspiration to an anti-Semitic assailant who allegedly slaughtered 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue known for helping to resettle refugees.

“His comments were a low blow for a lot of Dems,” the first Democratic congressional aide said. “I think it’s no secret that Dems don’t trust him and that he has shown himself to be a better ambassador for Trump than Trump has in Israel.”

“I respectfully but strongly disagree with Ambassador Dermer,” added Klein, who knows the Florida-born Israeli diplomat well. “The masking by Donald Trump of anti-Semitic signals and messages cannot be ignored by Ron Dermer or anybody else.”

Some analysts of the region say Netanyahu’s failure to manage relations with Democrats carries long-term risks.

“He is playing an incredibly dangerous game,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, which receives funding from the United Arab Emirates and corporate donors. “It is very dumb to make Israel a partisan issue because the party in power changes and you risk losing support.”

American Jews—a traditional source of support for Israel—are expected to vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, according to a survey conducted by the pollster Mark Mellman. According to the poll, which was commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute, 74 percent of Jewish respondents said they planned to vote for Democratic candidates. Only 26 percent planned to vote for Republicans.

A new generation of Democratic candidates from New York to Detroit to Minnesota have expressed a willingness to break with Democratic Party orthodoxy, questioning Israel’s moral authority in its struggles with the Palestinians and calling for an end to military aid.

“It is used to be—10, 15, even five years ago—that you had to leave the Democratic Party to offer strong criticism of the Israeli occupation,” Ibish said. “The Bernie [Sanders] wing, while not against the special relationship, is very critical of the occupation, and it’s still very much in the party.”

But with Democrats facing the prospect of a return to power in the House, party leaders have been attempting to dispel any suggestion that they are seeking payback against an Israeli leader they believe has embraced the Republican Party at their expense.

The narrative suggesting a deep “fracture” between the Democrats and Israel is “overblown,” said the second Democratic congressional aide. The aide, who spoke like other staffers on condition of anonymity, conceded that there may have been some residual “bad blood” over Netanyahu’s decision to denounce Obama’s Iran nuclear deal before the U.S. Congress. But “at the end of the day, the folks in our caucus who are strong supporters of Israel tend to believe the relationship is bigger than the personalities at any given time,” the aide said.

In recent weeks, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer—an outspoken supporter of Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem—and other party leaders have sought to counter reports that a new wave of progressive Democrats will turn the party away from Israel.

“Senate Democrats are very strongly pro-Israel and will remain that way,” Schumer told the Jewish Insider last month, adding that he intended to push for legislation opposing the movement to boycott companies that do business with Israel.

The liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street, which has endorsed scores of Democratic candidates in the House and Senate races, has distanced itself from candidates who have questioned the core pillars of the Democratic platform on the Middle East, including a commitment to a two-state solution.

In August, J Street withdrew its endorsement from Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, who has vowed to support a cut in military assistance to Israel. Tlaib, who appears all but certain to take the House seat in Dearborn, Michigan, will be one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress.

Klein said progressive critics of Israel, including Tlaib, represented a small minority in the Democratic Party.

“Is she going to change Congress and change the national conversation [about Israel]? I don’t think so,” he said.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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