How many times have we heard Democrats such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic National Committee, declare that Israel should not be a partisan issue? How many times have Democrats deplored those who would “politicize” the relationship with Israel? Well, it is time to apply the test to their own ranks.
The president is on a mission to marginalize and bully Israel, threatening to stop vetoing anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, crying racism over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election remarks and ignoring Israel’s concerns about an Iran deal, which would leave it no choice but to attack Iran to thwart a nuclear-ready enemy sworn to its annihilation. The president insists on distorting the prime minister’s comments about a two-state solution even after Netanyahu repeatedly clarified his remarks. It is fair to say President Obama treats Israel much worse than any other ally and refuses to extend common courtesies and the benefit of the doubt to its elected leaders that he would routinely extend to our enemies. Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams puts the issue this way: “What’s happening here is not a reasonable U.S. reaction to what Netanyahu said, but an effort by Obama to find some excuse, any excuse, to change our policy toward Israel. Republicans will fight such a change. But the coming weeks and months may be a test of Israel’s self-proclaimed supporters in the Democratic party, among them Hillary Clinton. Will they let Obama get away with abandoning Israel like this?”
Few elected Democrats have spoken out against the president’s temper tantrum, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) described his conduct. There are three reasons they may be remaining silent.
First, they might agree with him. Support for Israel in Democratic ranks has been trailing that of Republicans for years, and one need look no further than J Street or liberal blogs to see the nonstop castigation of the Jewish state. Maybe elected Democrats, as with green extremists, now intend to cater to the most left-wing elements, which are also the most anti-Israel. After all, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and virulent anti-Israel sentiment infested universities, so we can’t really be surprised when that anti-Israel sentiment metastasizes to elected liberals. It is quite possible that elected Democrats would see little to be gained and a lot to be lost in defending the Jewish state. In this explanation, Democrats are principled but no longer all that concerned about the Jewish state.
Second, it might be that many Democrats are quietly appalled by Obama’s conduct but publicly silent. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) claims to be a good friend of Israel, shows up periodically at AIPAC policy conferences to tout his pro-Israel credentials and yet won’t criticize the president’s recent behavior. This – sorry, Rep. Wasserman Schultz – is politicizing the Israel issue by putting partisan politics and animosity toward Republicans (who are roundly criticizing the president) above their concerns about Israel. In other words, if a Republican president were carrying on in such fashion, they’d be condemning the president without hesitation.
A third alternative is that Democrats might not realize what is going on. They might not have seen the president’s fit over Netanyahu’s speech as part of a pattern or realized he cynically was playing the race card against the reelected prime minister (because such a charge carries a lot of weight with the president’s base). In this scenario Democrats are dupes, maybe misinformed by the media, which helped the president distort the prime minister’s remarks.
Whichever way you look at it, we get to the same result: One party is nearly entirely pro-Israel, sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish state, unwilling to leave it to the mercy of the jackals at the U.N. and exceptionally nervous that the president is engaged in a dramatic realignment that leaves him partners with Iran against the interests of Israel and our Sunni allies. And one party, well, just isn’t.
It is therefore unavoidable that Israel becomes politicized and falls prey to partisan politics. Republicans want voters to know which party is supportive of Israel and which is not, while Democrats don’t feel comfortable fessing up to their new identity as fair-weather friends of the Jewish state.
There is a way to remedy this problem. Democrats can speak up. Hillary Clinton, who fancies herself a friend of Israel, could denounce the president’s efforts to denigrate the elected leader of Israel, incite anti-Israel activities at the U.N. and convey to our enemies that there is considerable daylight between the United States and Israel. Then there would be no contest as to which party is pro-Israel and which is not. In other words, if there actually is strong and bipartisan support for Israel, it would cease to be a source of partisan antipathy.
And while we’re talking about this, we should get to the nub of the matter. Obama is desperate to close a deal that gives Iran thousands of centrifuges, contains a sunset clause and would rely essentially on inspectors to keep the Iranians from cheating. That, as Michael Hayden, Olli Heinonen and Ray Takeyh write, is a small fig leaf for a policy that boils down to containment because inspectors alone cannot detect and report violations nor can violations be confirmed and new sanctions implemented in time to prevent breakout in the sort of deal that is forthcoming. (“As negotiations between Iran and the great powers press forward, Secretary of State John F. Kerry seems to have settled on this defense of any agreement: The terms will leave Iran at least a year away from obtaining a nuclear bomb, thus giving the world plenty of time to react to infractions. The argument is meant to reassure, particularly when a sizable enrichment capacity and a sunset clause appear to have already been conceded. A careful assessment, however, reveals that a one-year breakout time may not be sufficient to detect and reverse Iranian violations.”)
Israel has made clear it views such a deal, which is vastly different from the one the president said he was pushing and eviscerates existing U.N. resolutions, as a very bad one indeed.
But in Congress, most Democrats have hemmed and hawed, delayed votes and refused to unequivocally oppose a deal of this type, although they fret about it, promise votes in the future and insist they don’t want to give Iran the bomb. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to take up Israel sanctions last year, and the contingent of pro-Israel Democrats can’t seem to round up a dozen or so of their colleagues to override a veto on measures to sanction Iran or require a congressional vote on an Iran deal. (Co-sponsors of legislation are therefore forced to delay votes again and again.)
So let Democrats show what friends of Israel they are. They can denounce the president’s now-undisguised hostility toward Israel’s prime minister. This week they can, by unanimous consent, allow votes on the Senate floor on Menendez-Kirk and Corker-Graham-Menendez (or at the very least, mark up the latter in committee). There could be as much Democratic as Republican support for measures to require congressional approval of any deal and freeze lifting of sanctions and to impose sanctions against Iran if a deal along the lines Congress has previously articulated is essential.
In other words, Democrats can demonstrate beyond a doubt that they are every much as supportive of Israel and every much as dedicated to preventing Iran from waltzing into the club of nuclear powers. Or they can do the president’s bidding. They can’t do both. When the president is as hostile to Israel as this one, the rest of the party must make a choice: Defend behavior and policies hostile to Israel or oppose them. They are fully entitled and may find it politically desirable to do the former. But then we will know beyond question that support for Israel is a fundamental principle for only one party. Quite simply, it’s time for Democrats to put up or shut up when it comes to their purported pro-Israel bona fides.