Zeldin-Omar clash amplifies partisan divide over Israel


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?

Polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Americans back the Jewish state, either on its own or in questions asking whether they support Israel or Palestinians. The only disturbing thing about those polls is that the numbers are skewed along partisan lines, with 79 percent of Republicans backing Israel and only 27 percent of Democrats agreeing.

But one point that gets lost in that discussion is that most Democratic officeholders, especially the leadership of their congressional caucuses, are solidly pro-Israel. This means that despite the vitriol that is inescapable in 2019 politics, there ought to be no trouble finding common ground in support of key issues concerning the US-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, in the latest controversy concerning Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Omar apologized for a past tweet in which she used a classic anti-Semitic trope about Israel “hypnotizing” the world, but she then doubled down by comparing the Jewish state 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.

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 the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Eliot Engel of the Bronx, who could do nothing more than say he hoped Omar would “grow” in the future.

It was left to Rep. Lee Zeldin, Republican of Long Island, to publicly challenge Omar in a way that most in her party refused to do. None of the moderates in the Democratic leadership thought to back his stand, or to defend him against the libelous claim of Omar and her left-wing allies that calling her to account for her hate was “Islamophobic.”

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 will take more than that to bridge the gap between her anti-Zionism and his ardent support for Israel.

The point here goes beyond a 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. This is an abridged version of his column, “The death of bipartisanship and Israel,” which can be found at TheJewishStar.com.

See also column by Jeff Dunetz—

Zeldin-Omar feud: It’s more than BDS