Don't sacrifice US-Israeli relations to DC's political games

Don't sacrifice US-Israeli relations to DC's political games
© Getty/Stefani Reynolds

Tweets and statements by a first-term member of Congress, Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarOcasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field Krystal Ball: Billionaires panicking over Sanders candidacy Omar renews claim Stephen Miller is a 'white nationalist' amid calls for him to step down MORE (D-Minn.), regarding U.S. support for Israel invoke troubling anti-Semitic tropes. House Democrats quarrel over how best to respond. President Trump and congressional Republicans fan the flames of controversy by expressing righteous indignation. 

Welcome to the new normal, with U.S. support for Israel the latest issue to be sucked into the vortex of partisan polarization in American politics.

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It has not always been this way. U.S. support for Israel was once a matter of bipartisan consensus, as was the case when I served in the White House as President Obama’s liaison to the American Jewish community. 

This consensus rested on the special bond between the U.S. and Israel, a sense of shared democratic values. And it was grounded in a vision of achieving a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ends Israel’s military occupation and creates two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security.

Views in Washington typically line up along a generally pro-Israel spectrum, ranging from AIPAC to J Street. However, I have been acutely aware of the winds blowing from points beyond these poles. 

On the left — on college campuses and in certain grassroots progressive movements — there is growing frustration with the status quo and, increasingly, calls to isolate Israel through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

On the right, there is a concerted effort to transform support for Israel from a bipartisan consensus into a wedge issue that benefits Republicans. These wedge-drivers aim to depict neo-conservatives and evangelical Christians as “the true defenders” of Israel, and have taken the form of relentless attacks on anyone who criticizes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, including former President Obama. At every instance of variance of approach between Israel and the United States, President Obama was accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-Israelthe worst president ever for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

This of course was a wild mischaracterization of the president I served. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Krystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren Deval Patrick: Biden 'misses the moment' in 2020 campaign MORE repeatedly stated that it would be a “fundamental moral failing” on his part if he didn’t do everything in his power to protect the security of Israel. He led an administration that achieved levels of security operation with Israel that were “unprecedented” — even according to the prime minister.

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This record did not deter the wedge-drivers. In their zeal to demonize President Obama, they doubled-down. Sadly, these attacks were enabled by the inexplicable and disappointing reticence of key American Jewish community leaders to defend President Obama or recognize him as a credible and compelling bridge to progressives. These leaders passed up an opportunity to stop this downward spiral of polarization.

What is clear today is that President Obama was the most effective ally friends of Israel had in making a persuasive and progressive case for Israel. Allowing his efforts to be mischaracterized was a big mistake. Now, new voices have moved into the national spotlight.

President Trump unapologetically has embraced an approach on Israel dictated by the furthest right fringe of American politics, allying his administration with the Israeli activist right and unambiguously embracing the divisive politics of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The 116th Congress counts among its ranks new progressive members who have been critical of Israel and supportive of BDS, including Rep. Omar. She crossed a line by, inadvertently or otherwise, playing into anti-Semitic tropes. After apologizing, she reopened the wound, suggesting that support for Israel reflects loyalty to a foreign country before the United States, triggering longstanding Jewish sensitivities to the anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty. Now, House Democrats have been forced to proceed with a resolution designed as an indirect rebuke of one of their own members.

Condemning anti-Semitism is essential. But Democrats risk doing the work of the wedge-drivers on the other side (who, it must be said, live in a glass house the size of the Trump Tower. The same Republicans who have expressed righteous indignation over Rep. Omar’s comments, who have demanded she be stripped of her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have invoked anti-Semitic tropes and ignored the blatantly Islamophobic attacks against her.).

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE himself has cravenly employed anti-Semitic tropes to further his own divisive political aims, invoking the specter of Jewish billionaire George Soros and his support for progressive causes, appointing individuals who maintain strong alliances to the alt-right, and acting as apologist-in-chief for the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville shouting anti-Semitic epithets. And he is not alone.

The wedge-drivers’ real agenda is a fundamental realignment that transforms support for Israel into a preserve of the political right — and turns the Democratic Party into a circular firing squad. Allowing this dynamic to continue spells disaster for progressive political causes in which American Jews play significant leadership roles.

Israel has benefited from bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship, which has included ensuring a constructive U.S. role in efforts to advance the peace process. Supporters of Israel must refuse to cede ground to the wedge-drivers. 

New progressive voices in the Democratic Party reflect an increasing diversity of opinions on Israel in the U.S. electorate, views that can be expressed without invoking prejudicial tropes. American Jews and other pro-Israel Democrats must clear a pathway so they have the political space to support Israel in a way that leaves room for criticism when policies of the Israeli government do not align with U.S. policy interests. The wedge-drivers’ reflexive endorsement of the policies of the current Israeli government, combined with their holier-than-thou condemnations, produce a combustible brew that serves no one.

Matt Nosanchuk is an attorney who served in senior roles in the Obama administration from 2009-17, including as liaison to the American Jewish community and as director of outreach on the National Security Council staff. He is currently senior adviser at Quadrant Strategies. Follow him on Twitter @MattNosanchuk.