The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Democrats have an Israel problem — and it’s not Ilhan Omar

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Warsaw on Thursday. (Michael Sohn/AP)

The Democratic Party has problems with Israel. But Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), the new members of Congress who have attracted attention with toxic tweets and support for boycott, are not the main protagonists. They represent a minority of Americans and are isolated in the Democratic caucus.

The bigger trouble for Democrats is embodied in the man who has dominated Israeli politics for the past decade — and who is favored in upcoming national elections. Benjamin Netanyahu has doggedly and successfully worked to thwart the goal pursued by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and still embraced by most Democrats: a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He relentlessly campaigned against Obama’s nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, an initiative most Democrats still support.

Along the way, he has openly wedded Israel’s government to the Republican Party and helped to divide U.S. opinion on Israel along partisan lines. That bond has intensified during the Trump administration: Netanyahu has embraced, defended and even imitated a president who is regarded unfavorably by a solid majority of Americans and passionately despised by most Democrats.

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes the thin line between criticizing Israel and being labeled anti-Semitic, after Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) comments about AIPAC. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

You would think a foreign leader seeking to cultivate broad sympathy in the United States would avoid the polarizing vortex of President Trump. Yet, as he seeks a new term as prime minister, Netanyahu has gone so far as to drape a huge image of himself with Trump across a Tel Aviv office building.

The results have been predictable. Polling by several organizations shows that Netanyahu’s personal ratings among Democrats have plummeted during Trump’s presidency, along with support for Israel. In 2015, 31 percent of Democrats said they had a favorable view of Netanyahu, according to Gallup; by August 2018, that had dropped to 17 percent. According to Economist/YouGov polling, the percentage of Democrats who said they considered Israel to be an ally dropped from 31 percent to 26 percent in just six months between December 2017 and May 2018.

The second poll was taken after Trump took two actions celebrated by Netanyahu and strongly opposed by Democrats: abrogating the Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The latter step was widely seen as sabotaging the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. According to the Economist/YouGov poll, just 16 percent of Democrats supported the embassy move, while 61 percent opposed it — including 47 percent who did so strongly.

A majority of Democrats still say they believe the United States should protect Israel — 54 percent called it a “very important” or “somewhat important” goal last May. That would not include Omar and Tlaib, both of whom have endorsed the BDS movement — for boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel. Only 20 percent of Americans now say they support BDS. But as Netanyahu and Trump collaborate, the attitudes of Democrats seem to be changing fast.

Netanyahu’s war with the Democrats extends back more than two decades, and there has been fault on both sides. When Netanyahu ran for prime minister in 1996, Clinton endorsed the more dovish Shimon Peres. After Netanyahu’s victory, his first meeting at the White House was rocky: “He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires,” Clinton told adviser Dennis Ross.

Netanyahu proceeded to sabotage the Mideast peace process, dragging his feet on every step. His poor relations with Washington were widely seen as contributing to his ouster in a 1999 election. But Clinton failed to close a deal for a Palestinian state, thanks mostly to the intransigence of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. After Palestinians waged a campaign of suicide bombings, and after Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, turned aside another statehood offer, Israelis voted Netanyahu back into the prime minister’s office in early 2009.

Not surprisingly, given that history, Netanyahu was greeted by Obama with suspicion that soon turned to hostility. His administration portrayed the Israeli leader as the primary obstacle to peace while giving Abbas a generous pass for his own intransigence. When Netanyahu came up for reelection in 2013 and 2015, Obama did his best to repeat Clinton’s feat of driving him out of office. He failed — and Netanyahu returned the favor by backing Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election.

By now, having outlasted both Clinton and Obama, Netanyahu seems to have written off the Democrats as losers who can’t harm him. His actions suggest a bet that Trump, or someone much like him, will control the White House indefinitely. Or maybe he’s simply a short-term tactician: After all, he’s simultaneously seeking to woo voters and dodge a pending criminal indictment.

Either way, what happens to Netanyahu this spring will have more impact on the Democratic Party’s relations with Israel than anything Omar or Tlaib do. If he remains in office, an already troubled relationship is sure to get worse.

Read more from Jackson Diehl’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Ilhan Omar’s tweets were appalling. What happened next was inspiring.

Gilad Hirschberger: Israel’s political identity crisis goes beyond left or right

Max Boot: Trump’s bear hug risks crushing Israel