Last week, over 40 freshmen Democratic members of Congress visited Israel. It was the largest-ever group of freshman Democrats to come to Israel, and they came under the auspices of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, AIPAC. By organizing the largest Democratic Party mission to Israel at a time of growing Jewish concern over anti-Israel voices within the party, the Democratic leadership was making a statement: Don’t let the fringes mislead you; we remain passionately committed to the Israeli-American relationship.
But with the Israeli government’s decision to deny entry into Israel to two anti-Israel Democratic members of Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (the latter ban partially walked back, to allow the Palestinian American congresswoman to visit her grandmother), one wonders how many of those members of Congress who came here last week would have come if the trip had been scheduled for next week.
I met with the group on its first night in Israel. Participants were exhausted but alert — politicians, after all, are used to being sleep deprived. For most, it was their first time in Israel, and they spoke of their excitement in being here, a place somehow central to their identity as Americans. One young member of Congress told me that two of his friends from college had “made aliyah” — he used the Hebrew expression — and he hoped to reconnect with them. There were African Americans and Jewish Americans and one Native American. Many were young. When they went around the room introducing themselves, there was warm applause over the group’s diversity. They were proud to be representing that America — an America where support for Israel is an expression not only of shared interests but of shared values.
House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, who led the delegation, opened the evening by sharing his love for Israel and for the Israeli people — their courage and resilience and creativity in the face of relentless threat. He spoke with the passion one expects on a Jewish Federation mission to Israel — not from a leader of a party many Israelis and Jews believe is increasingly inimical to the Jewish state. I felt privileged to eavesdrop on that intimate conversation of a Democratic Party leader with members of his faction.
I spoke to the group about how the world looks from Jerusalem — about the consequences on the Israeli psyche of the endless wars and siege, about the Israeli feeling of pathological claustrophobia when we see terror entities embedded on our borders. And I asked the members of Congress to understand that many Israelis like me are torn between two nightmares: maintaining the occupation of the Palestinians and withdrawing from the West Bank, risking a Hamas or Iranian takeover of our most sensitive border.
It was the kind of candid conversation one can only have among friends. I sensed among them a deep empathy for Israelis caught in an impossible dilemma. What can we do to help Americans understand Israel’s predicament? several asked.
There were also pointed questions — about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alliance with far-right leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, about our ties with Saudi Arabia. I agreed with their concerns about Orban, but disagreed about the Saudis. Does anyone really believe that the Jewish state can afford to spurn overtures from the custodian of Islam’s holy places? The world looks very different from Jerusalem than it does from Washington, I said. We’ve had our disagreements before — and everyone understood the reference to the Iran deal — and we will continue to disagree. But as friends.
I came away from that evening deeply reassured. The fears of the “Corbynization” of the Democratic Party — that what happened to the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn could happen in America — seemed to me highly exaggerated. True, the anti-Israel voices within the Democratic Party are growing; but those voices remain marginal.
Yet now the government of Israel has empowered those voices.
By encouraging the perception that the Israeli government is controlled by President Trump, Netanyahu has boosted the identification of the Jewish state with the most divisive American president in modern memory — emboldening those trying to Corbynize the Democratic Party. And by ignoring the personal pleas of a furious Steny Hoyer, Netanyahu weakened those who are working to preserve Democratic Party support for Israel.
Finally, Netanyahu’s repeated reversals — from initially agreeing to admit the two Congresswomen, to banning both, to partly admitting Tlaib — have weakened Israeli credibility.
No prime minister has done greater damage to bi-partisan support for Israel, a precondition for a thriving American-Israeli relationship. In barring a minor politician from entering Israel, Netanyahu did not weaken our enemies; he humiliated our friends. Next time, how many freshman Democrats will risk the political fallout of coming to Israel?