The death of bipartisanship and Israel

When extremes dominate and both despise the center, preserving a bipartisan consensus on the Jewish state gets that much harder.


One of the constant refrains of pro-Israel activists is the need to keep support for the Jewish state a bipartisan concern, rather than something the major parties battle over. They’re right about that. But what happens when bipartisanship fails? More to the point, how is bipartisanship possible in a political environment where the center has collapsed?

That’s the question the pro-Israel community should be pondering as the 2020 presidential race gets under way.

The collapse of the center is illustrated by the reaction to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s plans to run for president as an independent. Schultz is a lifelong Democrat, and his positions on most topics are predictably liberal—from divisive social issues to foreign policy. Yet he feels that in a Democratic Party that is lurching to the left, there’s no room for a pro-business candidate in next year’s presidential primaries.

Another Jewish billionaire, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, disagrees. While he has as many millions to squander on an independent candidacy as Schultz, Bloomberg has looked at history and the way the American political system works, and not unreasonably came to the conclusion that a third party run was an exercise in futility.

Bloomberg is almost certainly right that only the nominee of the Democrats or the Republicans can be elected president, yet it’s just as hard to argue with Schultz’s conclusions about the state of the Democrats these days. Even some of the contenders who want to be thought of as less left-wing than the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren are embracing some radical schemes about an expansion of entitlements that both Bloomberg and Schultz are pointing out cannot be paid for by merely soaking the rich.

Indeed, the conceit of the scenario for Schultz’s candidacy is that in a contest between a left-wing Democrat and U.S. President Donald Trump, there would be plenty of room for a candidate who sought to occupy the center of the spectrum. Yet even if that was how the 2020 race campaign out, it’s far more likely that a centrist who was running as more of a Democrat from a previous generation would ensure Trump’s re-election than to steal the race for him or herself.

In other words, even if candidates who might be perceived as not even trying to capture the middle of the political spectrum dominated the presidential race, there is still probably no room for a centrist.

While we’ll have to wait more than a year to find out who will win the Democratic nomination and how electable he or she might be, there’s one thing we do know for sure about the current state of American politics: The collapse of the center is bad for Israel.

To state that there is a problem is not to claim that support for Israel is declining in the United States. To the contrary, polls consistently show that backing for the Jewish state either on its own or in questions asking whether Americans support Israel or the Palestinians, the overwhelming majority say the former. The only disturbing thing about those polls is that the numbers are so skewed on along partisan lines with 79 percent of Republicans backing Israel and only 27 percent of Democrats agreeing.

But the one point that gets lost in that discussion is the fact that most Democratic officeholders, and especially the leadership of their congressional caucuses, are solidly pro-Israel. This means that despite the vitriol that is an inescapable part of the politics in 2019, there ought to be no trouble in finding common ground between the parts in support of key issues concerning the U.S.-Israel alliance.

The trouble is that in a political environment in which the center really has collapsed, the space for Democrats and Republicans to come together is shrinking.

That’s what happened in the last week as the latest controversy concerning Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) broke out. She disingenuously apologized for a past tweet in which she used a classic anti-Semitic trope about Israel “hypnotizing” the world. But then she doubled down on her hate for the Jewish state by comparing it to Iran, mischaracterizing the nation-state law it passed last year and reiterating her support for BDS and anti-Zionism, which is by definition an expression of anti-Semitism. And rather than being punished by her party, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave her a coveted spot on the House Foreign Relations Committee.

While some Democrats—like the new Democratic Majority for Israel group—took issue with Omar, most were either silent (like Pelosi) or forgiving, such as House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who could do nothing more than say he hoped she would “grow” in the future.

It was left to Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) to publicly challenge her in a way that most in her party refused to do. This is to Zeldin’s credit, though the interesting aspect was that none of the moderates in the Democratic leadership thought to back his stand or defend him against the libelous claim of Omar and her left-wing allies that calling her to account for her hate was “Islamophobic” because he is identified as a strong supporter of Trump.

After Zeldin prompted Omar to denounce an anti-Semitic voicemail he had received, the congresswoman invited him to Somali tea in her office. But it would take more than that to bridge the gap between her anti-Semitism and his ardent support for Israel.

The point here goes beyond the kerfuffle involving two junior members of Congress. It is that as much as some in both parties would wish it otherwise, this incident proves that the center is disappearing. Under those circumstances, the lesson goes beyond the need to back Zeldin and resist Omar. It’s that when the loudest voices in both parties are not moderates who are capable of working across party lines, then the notion of a bipartisan consensus on any issue—let alone Israel—becomes a dubious theory rather than a reality.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate.