Commentary Magazine


Topic: pro-israel community

GOP Doesn’t Play Fair. They Back Israel.

New York Times coverage of Republicans tends to be biased and judgmental. Conservatives are generally portrayed as either conniving and cynical big money manipulators of simple-minded voters (the standard trope about establishment Republicans) or as racist fire-eaters (i.e. Tea Partiers). But occasionally even the Grey Lady gets something right in its political coverage. That’s the case with the piece published today in which they note in their headline that, “For GOP, Support for Israel Becomes a Litmus Test.” They’re right about that and the contrast with Democrats, especially in the wake of the tirades against Israel’s government emanating from the White House in recent weeks, couldn’t be greater. While, as I noted yesterday, Democrats are claiming that the GOP is trying to turn Israel into a partisan wedge, what is really happening is that one of our two major parties has become a bastion of support for the Jewish state while the other is drifting away from it.

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New York Times coverage of Republicans tends to be biased and judgmental. Conservatives are generally portrayed as either conniving and cynical big money manipulators of simple-minded voters (the standard trope about establishment Republicans) or as racist fire-eaters (i.e. Tea Partiers). But occasionally even the Grey Lady gets something right in its political coverage. That’s the case with the piece published today in which they note in their headline that, “For GOP, Support for Israel Becomes a Litmus Test.” They’re right about that and the contrast with Democrats, especially in the wake of the tirades against Israel’s government emanating from the White House in recent weeks, couldn’t be greater. While, as I noted yesterday, Democrats are claiming that the GOP is trying to turn Israel into a partisan wedge, what is really happening is that one of our two major parties has become a bastion of support for the Jewish state while the other is drifting away from it.

As the Times points out, it used to be the Democrats who were the pro-Israel party and Republicans were the ones who were divided on the issue. That changed in the last quarter of the 20th century as GOP leaders like Ronald Reagan (who, despite clashes with Prime Minister Menachem Begin early in his tenure, was rightly seen as a warm supporter of Israel) and the influence of evangelical voters made life difficult for Republicans who were opposed or even merely unenthusiastic about the Jewish state. By the time of George W. Bush, whose closeness to Israel was something Obama set out on his first day in office to change, the GOP was unified behind the Jewish state. Even an outlier on foreign policy like Senator Rand Paul, whose father was hostile to it, has made a concerted effort to at least appear to be pro-Israel as he attempts to make a serious bid for the party’s presidential nomination.

What the Times leaves out of their story is that the opposite trend has been happening among Democrats as polls have consistently shown lower support for Israel among them for more than 20 years.

To some on the left, like J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami, strong support for Israel and opposition to efforts to pressure it to make suicidal concessions to its foes is a sign of growing radicalism among Republicans. But, unsurprisingly, he has that backwards. By embracing Israel, Republicans have moved into the mainstream on a key foreign policy issue since most Americans feel a tremendous sense of kinship with it for a variety of reasons, including religious motivations as well as its status as America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East.

The change among Republicans distresses the J Street crowd and those even farther on the left who eschew mere pressure tactics on the Israelis and prefer to isolate it or support the efforts of those who wish to destroy it.

Other more mainstream Democrats think there’s something fishy about it since it puts them in the position of having to compete with a rival party where backing for Israel is universal while they are forced to admit that many Democrats, including the president of the United States, are not exactly fans of the Jewish state and its democratically-elected government. But their claims that Republicans are making Israel a partisan issue are false. It is the Obama administration that has sought to break up the bipartisan consensus in Congress in favor of more sanctions against Iran or support for the Netanyahu government by appealing to the partisan loyalties of Democrats.

Whereas the president is seeking to convince Democrats to be less supportive of Israel and its security, Republicans understand that putting yourself on the wrong side of the issue is politically dangerous. That’s why Jeb Bush was quick to disassociate himself from James Baker’s attacks on Israel in front of J Street, in spite of the fact that the former secretary is a faithful Bush family retainer.

This doesn’t mean that there still aren’t Democrats who back Israel though they have been awfully quiet about the way the president has been bashing Netanyahu and the Israeli electorate in the last week. But what it does mean is that there is no use pretending that the bulk of the two parties are united on the issue. As the Times reports, there’s no longer much room in the GOP for opponents of Israel. At the same time, President Obama has transformed the Democrats from a bastion of pro-Israel sentiment to the home of most of its most vicious critics. Supporters of Israel, no matter their partisan affiliation, should be delighted about the former and deeply worried abou the latter. If voters are noticing the difference it isn’t because the GOP is acting unfairly. It’s because some of the most important Democrats in the country have abandoned Israel.

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Conference Vote Demonstrates J Street’s Irrelevance

Today, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will vote on the J Street lobby’s application for membership. The question has split the Conference with more conservative pro-Israel groups expressing opposition and left-wingers and centrists seeming to favor it. If, as some expect, J Street wins the vote, it will probably be interpreted as a victory for “diversity” of thought about Israeli politics. More to the point, the group and its allies will spin the ballot as proof that its brand of left-wing politics and support for U.S. pressure on the State of Israel to “save it from itself” has gained legitimacy in the American Jewish organizational world.

But both celebrating J Streeters and opponents who will mourn its growing acceptance should calm down. The fact is, joining the Conference as just one more not particularly influential member among a long roster of generally well meaning but politically insignificant groups is actually a huge step down for J Street from where it started a few years ago. The best thing that could happen to J Street would actually be to lose this vote.

Here’s why:

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Today, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will vote on the J Street lobby’s application for membership. The question has split the Conference with more conservative pro-Israel groups expressing opposition and left-wingers and centrists seeming to favor it. If, as some expect, J Street wins the vote, it will probably be interpreted as a victory for “diversity” of thought about Israeli politics. More to the point, the group and its allies will spin the ballot as proof that its brand of left-wing politics and support for U.S. pressure on the State of Israel to “save it from itself” has gained legitimacy in the American Jewish organizational world.

But both celebrating J Streeters and opponents who will mourn its growing acceptance should calm down. The fact is, joining the Conference as just one more not particularly influential member among a long roster of generally well meaning but politically insignificant groups is actually a huge step down for J Street from where it started a few years ago. The best thing that could happen to J Street would actually be to lose this vote.

Here’s why:

J Street burst upon the public scene at the end of 2008 hoping to capitalize on the victory of Barack Obama. At that point J Street’s ambitions soared as high as the new president’s popularity. Its goal was nothing less than to challenge and then replace AIPAC as the voice of American Jewry on Israel. More sober observers always thought this was a pipe dream and today it seems not so much over-ambitious as it does ridiculous. But at the time the J Street crowd was drunk on the Obama victory and convinced that the traditional overwhelming support in the community for the Democratic candidate meant that most American Jews shared Obama’s desire for pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to achieve peace. Since they wrongly believed AIPAC to be a right-wing dominated clique rather than a bipartisan consensus-driven umbrella coalition, J Street thought its appearance on the scene would shove the older group aside and establish the newcomers as the go-to organization for American Jews on Israel. It was, they thought, the perfect opportunity at the perfect time for a group whose raison d’être was to take Obama’s side against the Israelis.

To say that these hopes were quickly dashed is the understatement of the 21st century. AIPAC shrugged off the J Street challenge without missing a step. The left-wing group quickly proved that it was out of step with even most liberal supporters of Israel by opposing its counter-attack against the Hamas terrorist base in Gaza and went downhill from there. Not only did J Street soon find that it had little influence in Congress in comparison to AIPAC’s across-the-board support but it also rapidly began to comprehend that even its friends in the Obama administration were not interested in boosting it at the expense of its mainstream rival. Even worse, every time Obama picked a fight with Israel’s government to the cheers of his J Street fans, he eventually always disappointed him by backing down. By the time of his 2012 election-year Jewish charm offensive, the president was not only seeking to please the very people J Street despised, he was appearing at AIPAC and taking a tough stand on Iran that left-wingers opposed.

Though J Street has survived these disappointments and has enjoyed some moments of triumph during Obama’s second term as the president once again found himself at odds with Israel on both Iran and the peace process, it remains a noisy but marginal group. While it can count on support from the New York Times, it is still out of step with mainstream Jewish opinion (as its support for engagement with the Hamas terrorists proved again last week) and its positions are completely at odds with the views of a majority of Israelis.

The arguments against J Street’s acceptance are not without merit. The group’s positions are, at best, unhelpful to Israel and by seeking to undermine efforts to isolate anti-Zionist organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace it has hurt rather than helped the fight against the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on the Jewish state. But so long as J Street adheres to a position of support for Israel’s existence and opposition to BDS, the rationale for keeping them out of such a non-exclusive and diverse group like the Conference is a tough sell.

Were J Street to be denied entry to the Conference it would, however, be a huge public-relations coup and allow it to milk the situation for sympathy and depict its critics as seeking to silence a voice for peace. But its potential entry into the Conference would be confirmation that rather than a significant force on the Jewish scene, J Street is just one more insignificant Jewish group among a welter of such organizations whose infrastructure consist of little more than a staff and a mailing list.

To say this is not to criticize the Conference which, under the leadership of Malcolm Hoenlein, has done great service to the community by helping to mobilize support for consensus positions on the issues. But joining it will be proof that rather than challenging AIPAC, all J Street has accomplished is to attain the dubious distinction of being the leading left-wing sparring partner for the Zionist Organization of America and its leader Mort Klein.

The point here is that rather than signifying its acceptance, today’s vote is merely a sign that J Street failed in its mission to overturn the Jewish consensus on Israel. A seat in what is, for all intents and purposes, a debating society–most of whose members are little known even among American Jews–strikes me as a poor consolation prize for such a defeat.

UPDATE:

J Street’s application to join the Conference was rejected. My take on the vote can be read here.

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