Passing the torch

Rep. Elliot Engel’s private confession caught on an open mic sealed his fate, but his defeat shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s been coming a long time. In part it was because he’d become a gansa macher in Washington and forgot who sent him there.

At a Bronx news conference about civil unrest in city, Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. thanked Engel for attending, who was then overheard saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” That was exactly two weeks before the primary election.

At 73 and in his 16th term, Engel had finally risen to be chairman of the prestigious House Committee on Foreign Affairs. A lackluster legislation, he rose to the top less by talent than by longevity, was soundly defeated on June 23 for nomination for a 17th term by a political neophyte.  Until then he was best known as the guy with big mustache who staked out spot on aisle in the House so he could be seen on TV shaking hands with presidents and other VIPs arriving for a joint session.

Engel had the backing of the Democratic and Jewish establishments in New York and Washington, but apparently not the voters. Jamaal Bowman, 44, a Bronx middle-school principal, will likely be the next congressman from heavily Democratic district where the nomination is tantamount to election.

Engel has been one of Israel’s most loyal and important supporters and in a position to deliver as the Foreign Affairs chairman. He tried to brand his opponent as anti-Israel and make the election a referendum on support for Israel in the Democratic Party, but it backfired.

If anything, it showed the Israel’s weakness in rallying voters and the rising strength of progressives who reject automatic obedience to an increasingly rightwing pro-Israel lobby.

Bowman declared support for Israel and won votes and endorsements from some liberal Jewish groups. He said he opposes the BDS movement and supports aid to Israel.  But not unconditionally, as Engel has.

Jewish Democrats and AIPAC opposed Bowman, which is expected when the incumbent has a long record of loyalty and support, but now they have to learn to make shalom with him and the new generation he represents.

Change is taking place in the Democratic party and particularly among Jewish voters throughout the country.

Engel represents an old guard in Congress and in the Jewish establishment that shrank from all but the mildest criticism of Israeli policy and cringed before groups like AIPAC. But the times they are a changin’.  This Israeli government has gotten into bed with the wrong crowd in Washington and grown out of touch with the positions of most Jewish voters.

The close alliance between Netanyahu and Donald Trump, who is opposed by three in four Jewish voters and even more progressives, is an albatross for Israel. Add to the mix both leaders’ close ties to the evangelical movement, which is on the opposite side of nearly every domestic policy issue important to mainstream Jews and rejects every possible route to meaningful Mideast peace.

Engel’s defeat symbolizes the passing of the torch to a new generation that has been underway for several years.  Most notable perhaps was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ defeat two years ago of Rep. Joe Crowley, the number four in the House Democratic leadership, making her a de facto leader of the new progressive movement. She has been encouraging like-minded challengers to Democratic incumbents like Engel and is said to be setting her own sights on Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat who could be majority leader if his party wins back control of the Senate in November.

Israel’s plans to unilaterally annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank has taken center stage in a widening chasm between American Jewry and the Jewish state, and it is advancing the growth of the progressive movement in Congress and threats to Israel’s traditional wall-to-wall support on Capitol Hill.

Symbolic of the crisis is AIPAC’s decision to take an unprecedented neutral position on annexation.  In more than four decades working with, around and for the organization, I can’t recall anything like it. It has been in Netanyahu’s pocket since the 1980s and aligned with Likud and Republicans for much of that time.

But with the growing prospect of Joe Biden winning the presidency in November and the possibility of a Democratic takeover of the Senate, the group is hedging its bets in hopes of resurrecting its battered reputation for bipartisanship.

With AIPAC on the sidelines, Netanyahu has called on the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) take the lobbying lead in convincing the Trump administration and Republicans to support his yet-undefined version of annexation.

Pastor John Hagee, founder of CUFI, which he claims has eight million members, is enthusiastic about annexation, but not all evangelical leaders agree. The New York Times cited Robert Jeffress, an evangelical leader close to Trump, and other leaders saying they are “mostly indifferent to annexation.”

Netanyahu told CUFI’s virtual conference last month that annexation “will advance peace.” That reminds me of our Vietnam policy of “bombing for peace.” He also told CUFI he is ready for negotiations “for a realistic two-state solution.” That contradicts his repeated vows to voters there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch.

More than 200 Democratic members of the House and Senate have publicly called on Netanyahu and Israeli leaders to “reconsider plans” for “unilateral annexation of West Bank territory.”  They warned the move “would have a clear impact on Israel’s future and our vital bilateral and bipartisan relationship.”

Republicans responded with their own letter backing annexation.

Trump and Republicans will try to portray progressives like Bowman as anti-Israel in hope of driving a wedge between Democrats and Jews, but the real rift is between Israel and American Jewry. The tighter Netanyahu embraces the isolationists, xenophobes and religious extremists here the more damage he does to Israel’s long-term American alliance. If he is relying on Trump’s loyalty, ask him about the Russian bounty on GIs.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.
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