By Bryant Harris September 12, 2018
President Donald Trump’s embrace of pro-Israel groups’ lobbying agenda is unintentionally undermining Washington’s historic bipartisan support for the country.
Trump may have pleased Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and slashing Palestinian aid, but a chorus of critics worry that the moves have only set back a two-state solution. Israel, in turn, has been hemorrhaging support from the American left.
A January Pew Research Center poll found that only 27% of Democrats view Israel more favorably than Palestine, versus 79% of Republicans. Netanyahu is even more divisive, with an August Gallup poll indicating that a meager 17% of Democrats approve of the prime minister versus 64% of Republicans.
The partisan split was on full display in the wake of Trump’s decision to upend decades of US precedent in May by relocating the US Embassy.
The influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) welcomed a “momentous day” for US-Israeli relations and called on other countries to follow suit. The liberal Jewish affairs group J Street, by contrast, bemoaned the “disastrous consequences” of Trump/Netanyahu policies that grant Israel one of its prime demands without addressing the Palestinians’ parallel claim to East Jerusalem.
The division has also played out on Capitol Hill.
Although many Democrats supported the embassy relocation, others who previously endorsed legislation urging the move said the timing and circumstances were wrong. These include high-profile Senate Democrats Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., both potential 2020 presidential contenders from the party’s progressive wing, as well as the more centrist Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. All three senators also expressed concern over Israel’s use of deadly force against protesters at the Gaza border earlier this year, even as most Democrats remained silent.
Some Republicans have exploited the tensions to portray Democrats as insufficiently supportive of Israel, in part to woo Jewish voters, most of whom favor the Democratic Party.
In unusually partisan remarks for a US ambassador, Trump’s envoy to Israel David Friedman stated in May that “there’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats.” He went on to bemoan the absence of Democrats at the embassy’s inauguration; Democrats said they were never formally invited.
“There is clearly a political electoral wedge being driven by Republicans, and I think President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu are contributing to that,” Ron Klein, the chairman of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told Al-Monitor in a June interview. “Israel’s not best served by just lining up with one political party.”
Republicans in turn argue that Democrats’ disdain for the president prevents them from giving him due credit on Israel.
“It’s tough for them to separate their pro-Israel attitudes from their attitudes when it comes to Republicans and the president,” Neil Strauss, the digital director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, told Al-Monitor in June.
Much of the partisan animosity predates Trump, however, and is aimed at Netanyahu, who actively lobbied Congress to tank President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. Trump finished what the Israeli leader had started when he pulled out of the deal in May and started reimposing sanctions.
The growing fissures have left rival interest groups scrambling for influence.
AIPAC continues to dwarf its rivals, spending $3.4 million last year on congressional lobbying and public outreach versus J Street’s $400,000, according to Al-Monitor’s review of public disclosures. Bolstering AIPAC’s efforts, its sister organization, the American Israel Education Foundation, spent almost $2 million to send 128 lawmakers and staffers on trips to Israel and the West Bank in 2017.
Unlike AIPAC, J Street directly endorses congressional candidates via its JStreetPAC, which spent almost $3 million through July 31 in the 2017-2018 electoral cycle supporting 136 current House and Senate candidates. The group made headlines when it endorsed Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib, who could be the first Muslim American congresswoman after winning the Democratic primary in Dearborn, Michigan, and again when it withdrew its endorsement on Aug. 17, citing Tlaib’s stated opposition to a two-state solution.
Both lobby groups have been lobbying key Democrats such as Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who voted against the Iran deal but spoke at J Street’s annual conference this year. AIPAC has aggressively lobbied for Cardin-sponsored legislation that critics say violates free speech rights. The House foreign affairs panel in June passed its version of the bill criminalizing participation in certain political boycotts targeting Israel.
The Israel Anti-Boycott Act comes in response to a 2016 UN Human Rights Council resolution that called for a database of all companies enabling or profiting from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Trump administration pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council in June, and national security adviser John Bolton announced in August that the United States would cut its funding.
Separately, AIPAC is also lobbying Congress to pass legislation intended to give legal cover to the dozens of states trying to implement their own laws against the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment (BDS) movement.
In another win for the pro-Israel lobby, Trump signed into law legislation earlier this year that mandates a 5% cut to UN agencies or entities that take “an official action that is against the national security interest of the United States or an ally of the United States, including Israel.” The president also signed legislation in March restricting aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it doles out so-called martyr payments to Palestinians who carry out attacks against Israelis, before freezing about $500 million in Palestinian aid and support to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in August.
Israel, however, has also received some pushback from the Trump administration.
Like his predecessors, the president has expressed frustration with Netanyahu’s push to expand West Bank settlements. In February, he told an Israeli newspaper that settlements “complicate” the peace process.
A few days later the White House dismissed Netanyahu’s claim that the two leaders had discussed plans for Israel to annex West Bank settlements as “false.” And Bolton poured cold water on Israel’s request that the United States recognize its sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights in Syria despite a push by right-wing Republicans in Congress.
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