It was a day for Israelis to cheer the unprecedented degree of closeness between their nation and its sole superpower ally. Using his favorite form of communication, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted a clear intention to discard yet another longstanding U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Trump’s declaration that he was going recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights is correctly interpreted as a blatant interference in the upcoming Israeli elections on behalf of his friend and ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the same way his predecessors opposed the Likud Party leader.
But while Netanyahu called Trump’s statement “a Purim miracle,” his election opponents were no less enthusiastic. Yair Lapid, the No. 2 leader of the Blue and White Party, called it “a dream come true.” Moshe Ya’alon, the man likely to become defense minister if Blue and White forms the next government, called it “truly good news.”
Netanyahu’s opponents have good reason to resent the timing of Trump’s announcement. But only the far-left parties like the Communists of Hadash opposed it. Support for remaining on the Golan is a consensus issue in Israel, as virtually no one can envision a retreat from the strategic plateau that would allow it to become part of the chaos that is contemporary Syria. With Iranian and Hezbollah forces having occupied Syria as part of a successful intervention in the civil war that has torn that nation apart in the last eight years, Trump’s Golan message also sends a strong signal to Tehran about his support for Israeli efforts to thwart the creation of a new northern confrontation front.
But the lack of support for Trump’s stand on the Golan from Democrats further illustrated the growing divide on the Middle East.
Democrats have been vocal in condemning any effort to make Israel a partisan wedge issue on the part of Republicans. But we’re seeing that their idea of preserving bipartisan consensus in support of the Jewish state not only consists of opposition to positions backed by a broad consensus of Israelis, but a willingness on the part of many of their leading presidential contenders to follow the lead of radicals like Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to oppose the embodiment of the mainstream pro-Israel consensus: the AIPAC lobby.
While Republicans responded to Trump’s Golan declaration with enthusiasm that matched Israel’s, most Democrats dismissed it, with some claiming that recognizing Israeli sovereignty undermines the virtually nonexistent chances for a comprehensive peace agreement.
But anyone with a grasp of Middle East reality knows that these complaints are disingenuous.
Politics is a zero sum game, and just as Republicans were always reluctant to back President Barack Obama on anything, the same is true for Democrats, who sometimes act as if the flawed president is the font of all evil. Their distaste explains their refusal to support his move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the same dynamic is at play here.
But there’s more going on than the usual knee-jerk reaction in which anything that Trump does or says must be blasted. And the best indication of that is the behavior of those Democrats who are seeking the votes of their party’s base.
The contrast to Trump’s statement on the Golan was the news, reported the same day, that leading Democratic presidential candidates were avoiding the annual AIPAC conference being held the next week in Washington. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke all made it clear that they wanted no part of the gathering at which thousands of pro-Israel activists — non-Jews as well as Jews — come together to cheer as representatives of both parties voice their support for the Jewish state.
It’s true that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will address the conference as they normally do. But the absence of those seeking the presidential nomination — both major candidates, and lesser-known ones such as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who one might think would benefit from showing up there — sends a strong message that the party is no longer comfortable being seen cozying up to the pro-Israel community.
The problem is that many Democrats are listening more to left-wing anti-Israel groups. That’s why the House wouldn’t pass a resolution focusing specifically on Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism. That Democratic candidates are, in essence, validating the vicious attacks on AIPAC from Omar and Tlaib, and far-left groups like Moveon.org, by staying away, is telling.
That’s not to say that all Democrats agree. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, was the sole leading Democrat to endorse Trump’s stand. And other House Democrats have put forward a bipartisan anti-BDS resolution. But even that effort illustrates the divide in their party. They know that the same members who blocked their effort to censure Omar for anti-Semitism will not vote to condemn the BDS movement.
Just as Democrats backed President Barack Obama on the Iran nuclear deal for partisan reasons, they are doing the same thing by opposing Trump on Jerusalem and now the Golan Heights. For all of their criticisms of Republicans, neither stand is consistent with preserving bipartisan support for Israel.
Democrats don’t need to embrace a president they hate in order to acknowledge that Trump’s positions on Jerusalem and now the Golan are worthy of support.
But as their party shifts further to the left, many of their leaders are not only unable to bring themselves to endorse mainstream pro-Israel positions, but are also following the lead of anti-Israel and arguably anti-Semitic radicals in treating AIPAC as if it were radioactive. That’s bad news for those who care about Israel, no matter where their partisan loyalties lie.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.