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Flap over tweets could forecast Democratic divide on Israel

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) listens to President Trump’s State of the Union speech this month.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) listens to President Trump’s State of the Union speech this month. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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A Minnesota congresswoman’s criticism of Israel’s influence in Washington has exposed a potential fault line in the Democratic Party, one that could pose challenges for its presidential candidates if Israeli policies toward the Palestinians become a contentious issue in the campaign.

For now, the episode seems to have demonstrated the depth of support for Israel among most Democrats and the ongoing influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which was the target of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s criticism.

The question for Democrats moving forward, however, is whether growing support for Palestinians among the party’s liberal base will force 2020 hopefuls to edge away from the party’s long tradition of unflinching support for the Jewish state.

In the near term, the suggestion by Omar (D-Minn.) on Twitter that Israel’s allies in Congress were motivated by money shored up support for Israel and AIPAC, prompting public statements by Democratic leaders calling on the congresswoman to apologize, which she did.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) apologized on Feb. 11 for what some criticized as anti-Semitic comments. (Video: Joyce Koh, Rhonda Colvin, Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, President Trump called her apologies “lame,” prompting her to respond that Trump had long “trafficked in hate.”

House Republicans, who had called for harsh punishment of Omar, forced a vote on a more generic measure condemning anti-Semitism in all forms, which passed on a 424-to-0 vote.

AIPAC urged potential donors in an email this week to make donations in response to Omar’s tweet. The freshman congresswoman, meanwhile, seemed taken aback by the backlash to her remarks and scrambled Wednesday to make amends with Jewish colleagues.

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)

Democratic leaders, for their part, were eager to move on. “The real test are actions going forward,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). “We need to treat one another with respect.”

At a time of growing frustration among some Democrats with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its leader’s embrace of Trump, the near-universal condemnation of Omar’s remarks as touching on anti-Semitic themes may make it harder in the immediate future for presidential contenders to take a tough stand against Israel.

For now, most of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders are largely avoiding the subject. Four of the five senators running for president voted against a measure proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would allow state and local governments to refuse to do business with companies that support the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS.

Among those contenders, only Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) voted for it. The legislation split Senate Democrats overall, with 22 opposing the legislation and 25 backing it.

The candidates who opposed it said that they did so on free-speech grounds, saying it would penalize people for their political viewpoints.

“There are ways to combat BDS without compromising free speech, and this bill as it currently stands plainly missed the mark,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in a statement.

AIPAC said in a statement that it supported the right of local governments to counter Israel boycotts.

The issue remains a potentially perilous one for Democrats. The Jerusalem Post recently criticized Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when she did not contradict a New Hampshire voter who said Israel’s West Bank settlements represented an “apartheid situation in Palestine.”

Warren did, however, speak out in support of Israel in response to the voter’s question.

“Israel lives in a dangerous part of the world where there are not a lot of liberal democracies,” Warren said, according to the Jerusalem Post. “We need a strong Israel there.”

The subject of Israel could become an issue again for Democrats in March, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Washington for AIPAC’s annual conference and a meeting with Trump.

Netanyahu has feuded with Democratic leaders, including President Barack Obama, shied away from backing a two-state solution that is popular with Democrats and forged close ties with Trump. Earlier this month the prime minister posted a picture of a billboard from his reelection campaign in which he is shaking hands with Trump, above the message: “Netanyahu: In another league.” Trump then reposted it.

The sight of the two politicians together in the White House could make Democrats more willing to step up criticism of Israel, especially its current government.

In the near term, though, big changes to the Democrats’ approach to Israel are unlikely, said those who follow U.S.-Israeli relations. Most Democrats have little interest in provoking a break with Israel that could serve only to aid Trump.

“Republicans have an interest in trying to politicize Israel policy at this point,” said Dennis A. Ross, a former ambassador and top adviser to Republicans and Democrats on Middle East policy.

Within hours of Omar’s remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) condemned them.

“What you saw is, this suggests that there are clear limits for progressives and clear red lines that Democrats are prepared to impose,” said Aaron David Miller, a former senior State Department official and director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

If anything, Omar’s comments — stating that some people’s support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” or cash — could make it harder for liberals frustrated by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to speak out.

“The space for criticism of Israel on the part of progressives has contracted rather than expanded,” Miller said.

New Democrats push party, and 2020 candidates, to the left

Over the longer term, however, the left’s growing frustration with the Israeli government could begin to undermine a decades-long bipartisan consensus on U.S. policy. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Omar, the first two Muslim women in Congress, have backed efforts to use economic pressure to punish Israel for its policy toward the Palestinians.

The BDS movement does not have widespread support in the political arena. Its supporters say that could change if Israel continues to pursue harsh policies toward the Palestinians.

Backers of Israel play down the chances of that.

“The anti-Israel stuff is pretty fringe. It’s certainly alarming to hear people say things that are over the line . . . but there still is a big consensus on Israel and things aren’t changing,” said Josh Block, who heads the Israel Project, a nonpartisan group that supports the Jewish state.

There are also limits to Trump’s appeal to Jewish voters, who tend to vote Democratic. The president has faced criticism for retweeting anti-Semitic memes.

Omar seized on that Wednesday in responding to the president’s criticism of her.

“You have trafficked in hate your whole life — against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more,” Omar said in a tweet. “I learned from people impacted by my words. When will you?”

Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.