Commentary Magazine


Topic: Steve Israel

Who Turned Israel Into a Political Football?

In the last week, the Obama administration has talked about “reconsidering” its policy in the Middle East, a statement widely and accurately interpreted as a threat to abandon Israel at the United Nations and/or to cut military aid to the Jewish state. After six years of sniping at and blaming Israel for the lack of progress in the peace process while absolving the Palestinians for refusing to negotiate in good faith, President Obama’s pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reelection is such that the alliance between the two democracies is in crisis. At the same time, the administration has not hesitated as it recklessly pursued détente with Iran in nuclear talks that appear on track to allow the Islamist regime to become a threshold nuclear power and perhaps to get a bomb either by cheating or even by abiding by a perilously weak deal. But according to Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, the problem between the two countries is solely the work of mischievous Republicans seeking to turn Israel into a political football for their advantage. Can anyone with sense believe such a deceptive argument?

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In the last week, the Obama administration has talked about “reconsidering” its policy in the Middle East, a statement widely and accurately interpreted as a threat to abandon Israel at the United Nations and/or to cut military aid to the Jewish state. After six years of sniping at and blaming Israel for the lack of progress in the peace process while absolving the Palestinians for refusing to negotiate in good faith, President Obama’s pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reelection is such that the alliance between the two democracies is in crisis. At the same time, the administration has not hesitated as it recklessly pursued détente with Iran in nuclear talks that appear on track to allow the Islamist regime to become a threshold nuclear power and perhaps to get a bomb either by cheating or even by abiding by a perilously weak deal. But according to Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, the problem between the two countries is solely the work of mischievous Republicans seeking to turn Israel into a political football for their advantage. Can anyone with sense believe such a deceptive argument?

Rep. Israel is a member of the Democrats’ House leadership team and a fervent partisan so it is to be expected that his instincts always seek to put the president and his party in the best possible light. But what he is doing here is more than just following White House talking points. This is a diversionary effort intended to distract otherwise pro-Israel Democrats from the fact that their party has been hijacked by an administration that has, from its first moments in office, sought to distance the U.S. from its Israeli ally.

In our COMMENTARY editorial on the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations that President Obama has precipitated we discuss at length the history of the administration’s behavior toward the Jewish state. Suffice it to say the quarrel between the two governments didn’t begin when Netanyahu decided to accept an invitation to address Congress on the nuclear threat form Iran. The prime minister’s choice to give an address criticizing the administration’s pursuit of détente with Iran gave the White House a chance to divert attention from their indefensible policy. For weeks, the issue because Netanyahu’s alleged breach of protocol and not a decision by the president to offer Iran a deal that will enable it to keep its nuclear program, breaking his 2012 reelection campaign promise.

The purpose of this tactic was not so much to encourage Democrats to boycott Netanyahu’s speech (something only a few dozen of them wound up doing) but to persuade some of them to abandon their support for increased sanctions on Iran. Up until this January, backing for more Iran sanctions that are intended to strengthen Obama’s hand in the nuclear talks was overwhelming and bipartisan in nature. But the president sought to use party loyalty as leverage to get Democrats to break up that bipartisan consensus and oppose a strong stand on Iran.

If that was not bad enough, Netanyahu’s win last week set off an administration temper tantrum that seemed aimed at downgrading the alliance with America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East.

Yet the response from congressional Democrats was, with few exceptions, silence.

In his Politico article, Rep. Israel rightly cites instances in the past when Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush took stands that were opposed by the pro-Israel community. But what happened in response to those lamentable events puts the current position of most Democrats in a very unflattering light. At those times, pro-Israel Republicans did not hesitate to publicly criticize the head of their party. In the case of the elder Bush, his clash with AIPAC over loan guarantees to the state of Israel prompted a crisis among Jewish Republicans, causing them to abandon him in the 1992 presidential election as he received the lowest vote total for a GOP candidate since Barry Goldwater.

But, with a few notable exceptions, Democrats have reacted to Obama’s verbal assaults and whitewashing of Palestinian intransigence (the true obstacle to peace in the Middle East) by either keeping quiet or actually taking sides with the administration against the pro-Israel community. When faced with the demands of partisanship or their principles, most Democrats have done as Rep. Israel did and stood with Obama even as he fecklessly pursued a weak and dangerous nuclear deal with Iran and engaged in a personal vendetta against the democratically elected government of the Jewish state.

Rep. Israel’s response to this discouraging spectacle is not some much needed introspection about the failure of his party to stand up to the president but an attempt to blame it all on Republicans. To his way of thinking, the problem isn’t that a Democratic president is abandoning Israel and embracing Iran, but that some Republicans have noticed that many rank and file Democrats don’t seem to have a problem with any of this.

The congressman is right that no one ought to question his personal love for the Jewish state with which he shares a name. Nor should anyone on the right jump to the conclusion that all Democrats no longer care about Israel. Though polls have shown far greater levels of support for Israel among Republicans than Democrats for the last two decades (a trend that long predated the Obama-Netanyahu feud), a clear majority of those who identify with the party of Jefferson and Jackson still back the Jewish state.

The problem here is partisanship, but not one caused by the Republicans. The unwillingness of most Democrats to tell the president that they won’t tolerate his attacks and threats being aimed at Israel may mark a turning point in the history of their party. Faced with a choice between an Obama administration that has gone off the tracks on Israel and Iran, Democrats are not speaking up, as they should. When partisans like Rep. Israel demand that loyal Democrats back the president on Iran and the peace process, he is the one that is turning the Jewish state into a political football, not his Republican opponents who haven’t hesitated to oppose the administration. If he wants to prove his pro-Israel bona fides, Rep. Israel needs to start criticizing the president, not the GOP.

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Democrats Afraid to Be Seen with Obama?

Competing for a speaking slot at the Democratic and Republican parties’ presidential nominating conventions is a time-honored tradition every four years. The reason is simple: presidential nominees are generally popular within the party and may be the next leader of the free world, and the conventions provide an opportunity to be seen and heard by millions of Americans. (Nielsen keeps historical convention ratings for Democrats here, and Republicans here.)

So it is surely a sign of something close to panic that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee head Steve Israel is publicly advising Democrats to stay home from President Obama’s nominating convention this year:

The man responsible for getting Democrats elected to the Congress this fall has a message for his party’s candidates: Stay away from the Democratic National Convention in September.

“If they want to win an election, they need to be in their districts,” New York Congressman Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Reuters Washington Summit on Tuesday.

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Competing for a speaking slot at the Democratic and Republican parties’ presidential nominating conventions is a time-honored tradition every four years. The reason is simple: presidential nominees are generally popular within the party and may be the next leader of the free world, and the conventions provide an opportunity to be seen and heard by millions of Americans. (Nielsen keeps historical convention ratings for Democrats here, and Republicans here.)

So it is surely a sign of something close to panic that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee head Steve Israel is publicly advising Democrats to stay home from President Obama’s nominating convention this year:

The man responsible for getting Democrats elected to the Congress this fall has a message for his party’s candidates: Stay away from the Democratic National Convention in September.

“If they want to win an election, they need to be in their districts,” New York Congressman Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Reuters Washington Summit on Tuesday.

Who would have guessed the clear favorite for “least convincing political spin of the year” would go to someone other than Jay Carney or Debbie Wasserman Schultz? Not a single person will buy this spin, for two reasons: First, even if the Democrats expected another wave election in favor of the GOP, the very candidates most susceptible to that wave–less experienced members of the House–would benefit most by appearing at the convention, as it would raise their profile. And second, the announcement from Israel came after Democratic politicians began heading for the lifeboats.

The most notable of these Democrats was Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, whose declaration that she would be caught nowhere near the president’s convention seems to have spooked her party into making a monumental unforced error. If Democrats think they’re headed for another shellacking at the polls, perhaps they know something the rest of the country doesn’t. Because there haven’t been any serious indicators of such a wave–at least nothing like 2010.

Volunteering that information won’t help them, because it won’t increase turnout and it will draw attention to the left’s sense of impending doom–something that occasionally develops into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also forces media outlets to report a story that has thus far flown below the radar. If this were happening to a Republican administration, mainstream newspapers would be running story after story about how the president is so unpopular, even within his own party, that no one will be seen with him, his governance too radical even for the radicals.

But those stories had yet to appear this time, with the media’s election-year sensitivity to Obama’s image helpfully guiding them. Israel took a story the president’s allies were keeping under wraps and put it in neon lights. Don’t believe the polls showing Obama and Romney just about even, the DCCC itself seems to be saying, the president is politically toxic and everyone knows it.

Well, now everyone knows it.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Among the top 10 places Ahmadinejad won’t be going to in New York: “Down on Houston Street sits Katz’s Deli, a venerable New York institution since 1888. But Ahmadinejad’s punim is unlikely to join the sea of faces smiling out from the walls of the not-quite-kosher deli, which is festooned with pro-Israel signs and a world-famous slogan: ‘Send a salami to your boy in the Army.’ While Ahmadinejad probably won’t be tearing into one of Katz’s juicy triple-decker pastramis any time soon, even a Holocaust-denying would-be genocidist can hardly say no when you throw a knish into the bargain.”

Giving thumbs up to Sarah Palin (“All responsible energy development must be accompanied by strict oversight, but even with the strictest oversight in the world, accidents still happen”), Jonathan Capehart writes: “I won’t join the chorus demanding that off-shore drilling be stopped forever in the U.S. for one simple reason: Until renewable energy sources are more widely available we have no choice. We need the fuel.”

So why isn’t he pressing for regime change or objecting to the administration’s attempt to undercut congressional sanctions? “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be arrested and tried with war crimes while he’s in the United States, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said Monday. Ahmadinejad is in New York for the United Nations nuclear summit, and Israel wants to use the opportunity to have the Iranian president taken into custody. ‘Ahmadinejad shouldn’t just be protested in NYC, he should be arrested and tried for incitement to commit genocide,’ Israel said on his Twitter feed.”

Joe Sestak is gaining on Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Senate primary race. Maybe the party-switching wasn’t such a great idea. But even if Specter loses in the primary, he could pull a Crist and run as an independent. Hey, he’s not a party man anyway.

Trouble (for Democrats) in paradise: “The White House and top Democratic officials are circulating a new, private poll to suggest that only one of two Democrats splitting votes in a tightly contested Hawaii special election has a chance of winning the race.” This follows another poll showing Republican Charles Djou leading the race.

Hillary is thinking big again: “The United States and the great majority of the nations represented here come to this conference with a much larger agenda: to strengthen a global non-proliferation regime that advances the security of all nations, to advance both our rights and our responsibilities.” How about just stopping Iran’s nuclear program? Really, do the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and the Gulf States really think Israel’s nukes are the problem?

Double-talk from the Obami again: “Herbert M. Allison, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability, told three House Republicans in a recent letter that ‘Treasury has never represented that the loan payment represented a full return of all government assistance.’ … Interestingly, however, the first sentence in the April 21 news release circulated by the Treasury Department said: ‘The U.S. Department of the Treasury today announced that General Motors (GM) has fully repaid its debt under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)’ So the truth is exactly the opposite of what Treasury’s Allison claimed in this regard.”

Among the top 10 places Ahmadinejad won’t be going to in New York: “Down on Houston Street sits Katz’s Deli, a venerable New York institution since 1888. But Ahmadinejad’s punim is unlikely to join the sea of faces smiling out from the walls of the not-quite-kosher deli, which is festooned with pro-Israel signs and a world-famous slogan: ‘Send a salami to your boy in the Army.’ While Ahmadinejad probably won’t be tearing into one of Katz’s juicy triple-decker pastramis any time soon, even a Holocaust-denying would-be genocidist can hardly say no when you throw a knish into the bargain.”

Giving thumbs up to Sarah Palin (“All responsible energy development must be accompanied by strict oversight, but even with the strictest oversight in the world, accidents still happen”), Jonathan Capehart writes: “I won’t join the chorus demanding that off-shore drilling be stopped forever in the U.S. for one simple reason: Until renewable energy sources are more widely available we have no choice. We need the fuel.”

So why isn’t he pressing for regime change or objecting to the administration’s attempt to undercut congressional sanctions? “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be arrested and tried with war crimes while he’s in the United States, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said Monday. Ahmadinejad is in New York for the United Nations nuclear summit, and Israel wants to use the opportunity to have the Iranian president taken into custody. ‘Ahmadinejad shouldn’t just be protested in NYC, he should be arrested and tried for incitement to commit genocide,’ Israel said on his Twitter feed.”

Joe Sestak is gaining on Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Senate primary race. Maybe the party-switching wasn’t such a great idea. But even if Specter loses in the primary, he could pull a Crist and run as an independent. Hey, he’s not a party man anyway.

Trouble (for Democrats) in paradise: “The White House and top Democratic officials are circulating a new, private poll to suggest that only one of two Democrats splitting votes in a tightly contested Hawaii special election has a chance of winning the race.” This follows another poll showing Republican Charles Djou leading the race.

Hillary is thinking big again: “The United States and the great majority of the nations represented here come to this conference with a much larger agenda: to strengthen a global non-proliferation regime that advances the security of all nations, to advance both our rights and our responsibilities.” How about just stopping Iran’s nuclear program? Really, do the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and the Gulf States really think Israel’s nukes are the problem?

Double-talk from the Obami again: “Herbert M. Allison, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability, told three House Republicans in a recent letter that ‘Treasury has never represented that the loan payment represented a full return of all government assistance.’ … Interestingly, however, the first sentence in the April 21 news release circulated by the Treasury Department said: ‘The U.S. Department of the Treasury today announced that General Motors (GM) has fully repaid its debt under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)’ So the truth is exactly the opposite of what Treasury’s Allison claimed in this regard.”

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Opposition to Obama’s Tactics Builds

Christians United for Israel is not usually in the business of issuing press releases. But these are no ordinary times. In a written statement, the group declares that it is “deeply concerned about the Obama Administration’s escalating rhetoric,” and continues:

CUFI concurs with statements made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak and other Israeli leaders that this announcement was ill-timed.  And CUFI notes repeated press reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu neither knew about this announcement in advance nor hesitated to apologize for it after the fact.

We are therefore surprised that the Administration has chosen to continue to escalate a conflict with one of our closest allies that could have been quickly resolved.

Timing aside, the fact remains that the Israeli policy behind this announcement — to continue building in existing Jewish neighborhoods throughout Jerusalem — is not new.  When it comes to Israel’s bargaining position, nothing has changed.  It is therefore difficult to understand why this long-standing disagreement over policy — which has never been a barrier to negotiations with the Palestinians– is now the source of such tension with the US.

We remind the Administration that Israel has been a committed partner for peace and has taken repeated risks for peace in recent years.  We further note that the Netanyahu government has made important gestures to the Palestinians, including an unprecedented 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction and repeated calls for the resumption of direct negotiations.  The Palestinians, on the other hand, continue to refuse direct negotiations.

So the  ADL and CUFI, Steve Israel and Eric Cantor, and a host of other organizations and politicians along the political spectrum are telling the Obami: bullying Israel will garner no support and quite a lot of domestic opposition. The administration may not be pro-Israel in any meaningful way, but clearly Americans are.

Christians United for Israel is not usually in the business of issuing press releases. But these are no ordinary times. In a written statement, the group declares that it is “deeply concerned about the Obama Administration’s escalating rhetoric,” and continues:

CUFI concurs with statements made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak and other Israeli leaders that this announcement was ill-timed.  And CUFI notes repeated press reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu neither knew about this announcement in advance nor hesitated to apologize for it after the fact.

We are therefore surprised that the Administration has chosen to continue to escalate a conflict with one of our closest allies that could have been quickly resolved.

Timing aside, the fact remains that the Israeli policy behind this announcement — to continue building in existing Jewish neighborhoods throughout Jerusalem — is not new.  When it comes to Israel’s bargaining position, nothing has changed.  It is therefore difficult to understand why this long-standing disagreement over policy — which has never been a barrier to negotiations with the Palestinians– is now the source of such tension with the US.

We remind the Administration that Israel has been a committed partner for peace and has taken repeated risks for peace in recent years.  We further note that the Netanyahu government has made important gestures to the Palestinians, including an unprecedented 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction and repeated calls for the resumption of direct negotiations.  The Palestinians, on the other hand, continue to refuse direct negotiations.

So the  ADL and CUFI, Steve Israel and Eric Cantor, and a host of other organizations and politicians along the political spectrum are telling the Obami: bullying Israel will garner no support and quite a lot of domestic opposition. The administration may not be pro-Israel in any meaningful way, but clearly Americans are.

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The Climb-Down?

Perhaps a mini climb-down has begun by the Obami. After all, they encountered a “firestorm” of criticism from Jewish groups and a bipartisan selection (although many more Republicans) of elected officials and candidates. Rep. Steve Israel is the latest Democrat to weigh in, declaring: “Israel is a close friend and ally and our relationship is based on mutual interests and benefits. We need to reaffirm the American-Israeli relationship as Vice President Biden did at Tel Aviv University last week. The Administration, to the extent that it has disagreements with Israel on policy matters, should find way to do so in private and do what they can to defuse this situation.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand issued a more mild statement, but one expressing concern nevertheless: “The close bond between the United States and Israel remains unbreakable, and America will continue to show unyielding support for Israel’s security. While the timing of the East Jerusalem housing announcement was regrettable, it must not cloud the most critical foreign policy issue facing both counties — Iran’s nuclear threat. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I am focused on strengthening international pressure on Iran’s regime to derail its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Republican Tom Price also issued a stern statement imploring Obama to stop “condemning our allies and started aggressively cracking down on those who sponsor terrorist groups and are ruthlessly pursuing nuclear weapons.”

So maybe someone in the administration took all that in and decided that allowing David Axelrod to play Chicago bully on the Sunday talk shows was not a good idea. As this report explains:

The Obama administration pledged Monday that Israel remained a US ally as congressional rivals rallied behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a feud over the construction of settlements. …

“Israel is a strategic ally of the US and will continue to be so,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters. “Our commitment to Israel’s security remains unshakeable.”

He also declined to comment on Netanyahu’s remarks to his Likud Party that construction would go ahead, saying that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was waiting for a “formal” reply to a tense telephone call on Friday.

“When she outlined what she thought appropriate actions would be to the prime minister, she asked for a response by the Israeli government. We wait for the response,” Crowley said.

Without prompting from reporters, Crowley criticized unnamed Palestinians for their remarks on Israel’s reopening of a landmark synagogue in Jerusalem’s walled Old City that had been destroyed in fighting 62 years ago.

Message received? Well, if so, then who’s running our Middle East policy and how did things escalate to this level? Certainly, a climb-down is preferable to continued escalation, but after a week of this, the Obami amateur hour leaves Israel, the Palestinians, Obama’s domestic supporters, the American Jewish community, and every nation looking on (some with horror, others with delight) baffled. If there is a game plan here or a set of permanent concerns and interests at play, it’s hard to discern. In the feckless and reckless Obama foreign policy, uncertainty is the order of the day. Allies should be forewarned: they may be on thin ice at any time. And our foes? Well, they must marvel that the U.S. is so cavalier with its friends and so willing to adopt the rhetoric and positions of its enemies. And for those nations on the fence, why would they have confidence in the U.S. administration? Being a “friend” of the U.S. is a dicey business these days.

Perhaps a mini climb-down has begun by the Obami. After all, they encountered a “firestorm” of criticism from Jewish groups and a bipartisan selection (although many more Republicans) of elected officials and candidates. Rep. Steve Israel is the latest Democrat to weigh in, declaring: “Israel is a close friend and ally and our relationship is based on mutual interests and benefits. We need to reaffirm the American-Israeli relationship as Vice President Biden did at Tel Aviv University last week. The Administration, to the extent that it has disagreements with Israel on policy matters, should find way to do so in private and do what they can to defuse this situation.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand issued a more mild statement, but one expressing concern nevertheless: “The close bond between the United States and Israel remains unbreakable, and America will continue to show unyielding support for Israel’s security. While the timing of the East Jerusalem housing announcement was regrettable, it must not cloud the most critical foreign policy issue facing both counties — Iran’s nuclear threat. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I am focused on strengthening international pressure on Iran’s regime to derail its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Republican Tom Price also issued a stern statement imploring Obama to stop “condemning our allies and started aggressively cracking down on those who sponsor terrorist groups and are ruthlessly pursuing nuclear weapons.”

So maybe someone in the administration took all that in and decided that allowing David Axelrod to play Chicago bully on the Sunday talk shows was not a good idea. As this report explains:

The Obama administration pledged Monday that Israel remained a US ally as congressional rivals rallied behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a feud over the construction of settlements. …

“Israel is a strategic ally of the US and will continue to be so,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters. “Our commitment to Israel’s security remains unshakeable.”

He also declined to comment on Netanyahu’s remarks to his Likud Party that construction would go ahead, saying that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was waiting for a “formal” reply to a tense telephone call on Friday.

“When she outlined what she thought appropriate actions would be to the prime minister, she asked for a response by the Israeli government. We wait for the response,” Crowley said.

Without prompting from reporters, Crowley criticized unnamed Palestinians for their remarks on Israel’s reopening of a landmark synagogue in Jerusalem’s walled Old City that had been destroyed in fighting 62 years ago.

Message received? Well, if so, then who’s running our Middle East policy and how did things escalate to this level? Certainly, a climb-down is preferable to continued escalation, but after a week of this, the Obami amateur hour leaves Israel, the Palestinians, Obama’s domestic supporters, the American Jewish community, and every nation looking on (some with horror, others with delight) baffled. If there is a game plan here or a set of permanent concerns and interests at play, it’s hard to discern. In the feckless and reckless Obama foreign policy, uncertainty is the order of the day. Allies should be forewarned: they may be on thin ice at any time. And our foes? Well, they must marvel that the U.S. is so cavalier with its friends and so willing to adopt the rhetoric and positions of its enemies. And for those nations on the fence, why would they have confidence in the U.S. administration? Being a “friend” of the U.S. is a dicey business these days.

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