Juan Williams: The GOP's cynical Israel ploy

Juan Williams: The GOP's cynical Israel ploy
© Greg Nash

Here is the real story behind last week’s House vote to condemn anti-Semitism and all bigotry.

It begins with Christian evangelicals’ frustration at their failure to divide Jewish voters from Democrats and bring them to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE.

After all, the president moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem against the advice of his own national security team.

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The president also pulled the U.S. out of the Iran deal, at the urging of hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He did so despite the deal’s success at keeping Iran, Israel’s enemy, from developing nuclear weapons.

And don’t forget, Trump abandoned the longstanding, bipartisan U.S. policy calling for a two-state solution to bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The problem for American evangelicals is that, having pushed Trump to make those political moves, they see no jump in Jewish support for Trump.

At best, the president’s policies have helped him maintain support among white evangelical voters — 80 percent of whom voted for him in 2016 — despite credible allegations of extramarital affairs and pay-offs to a porn star and a Playboy model.

Evangelical leaders, from Pastor Robert Jeffress to Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., seem less concerned with finding an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan than in asserting Jewish control of the region as a necessary precondition for their vision of the second coming of Jesus.

And they have no problem leaving a distorted impression that the only Americans supporting Israel are Trump Republicans.

On Friday, Trump put it succinctly: “The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They’ve become an anti-Jewish party, and that’s too bad.”

But as Paul Waldman, who is Jewish, wrote in the Washington Post last week: “In the U.S. today a ‘supporter of Israel’ is much more likely to be an evangelical Christian Republican than a Jew.”

That sounds crazy but Waldman is exactly right.

Seventy-five percent of American Jews disapprove of Trump, according to a poll done late last year by The Mellman Group. The low level of support is startling when polls also show 51 percent of Jews approve of his policies towards Israel.

In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE won the support of American Jews by 71 percent to Trump’s 23 percent, according to exit polls.

And last week the distance between American Jews and Trump was evident in a statement from a liberal Jewish group, J Street.

It said the “far greater threat to the Jewish community — to its security and its values — come from the surge of ethno-nationalism and racism that forces on the right, including President Trump, have unleashed here and across the globe.”

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Health Care: Top health official defends contract payments to Trump allies | Vaping advocates confident Trump will turn from flavor ban | Sanders gets endorsement from nurses union Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (I-Vt.), who is Jewish, said in a statement he is not buying the GOP effort to “equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.”

The GOP strategy is clearly to highlight Israel’s critics inside the Democratic Party in order to pull Jewish voters away from Democrats.

Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSanders 'very concerned about what appears to be a coup' in Bolivia Overnight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Ilhan Omar blasts Pete King as an 'Islamophobe' after he announces retirement: 'Good riddance' MORE (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim women newly elected to Congress, created a perfect opening for the GOP with a series of offensive statements, such as when she said that as a new member of Congress she is being told “it is O.K. to push for allegiance to a foreign country” — a reference to Israel.

The suggestion that American Jews are primarily loyal to Israel even as they live as U.S. citizens left her vulnerable to charges of anti-Semitism. That slur of dual allegiance has a long history among anti-Semites.

Congressional Republicans were quick to pounce, calling her comments “vile” and demanding she be censured and ejected from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

That led House Democrats to consider a resolution condemning Omar and anti-Semitism. But after Omar apologized, her name did not appear in the final version of the resolution, which condemned all bigotry.

“Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse,” said Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (D-Mass.), a 2020 presidential candidate.

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“We should be having a sound, respectful discussion about policy,” said another 2020 contender, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOutsider candidates outpoll insider candidates Poll: Buttigieg leads Democratic field in Iowa Press: Another billionaire need not apply MORE (D-Calif.). “You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country. I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism.”

The resolution passed 407-23, with only Republicans voting against it. The Republicans wanted to signal their opposition to the failure to name Omar.

The Democrats’ success in holding a unified front in the face of the GOP attack does not alleviate the party’s need to offer its own ideas for peace in the Middle East.

That will be particularly important since many of the 2020 Democratic candidates lack a serious track record on foreign policy.

At the same time, it is important to see the Republican charges of anti-Semitism for what they are: a cynical ploy, aimed at reaping political advantage. 

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.