Trump-Netanyahu Democrats come to Israel’s aid in Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress in March 2015, a speech that accelerated the fracturing of Democratic Party support for Israel. (Heather Reed)

The Trump-Netanyahu wing of the Democratic Party took aim Thursday at the Obama administration by helping pass a House resolution condemning the recent UN vote calling on Israel to stop building settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

The measure in Congress labeled UN Security Council Resolution 2334 “an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

For this wing of the party, Palestinians are expendable.

This has long been the case for the majority of US lawmakers, but this early bipartisan initiative signals that despite alarm-ringing about Trump, many Democrats will fail to stand up for human rights once the president-elect takes office.

The overall vote for the House resolution was 342-80. A majority of Democrats (109) joined with all but a handful of Republicans to back the measure, while 76 Democrats voted against it.

Texas Republican Louie Gohmert rejected the resolution on the grounds that it wasn’t pro-Israel enough because it mentioned a two-state solution. He said it would incur the wrath of God and “bring judgment down upon our nation for trying to partition Israel.”

The 109 Democrats rejected President Barack Obama’s belated willingness to allow the UN to condemn Israel’s illegal settlements, and were in effect Trump’s willing collaborators.

The Senate is expected to hold its own vote on the UN resolution soon.

Democrats delighted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who posted a video on social media praising the bipartisan vote.

Democratic split

But the fact that 76 Democrats voted against the preferred Israeli position is noteworthy.

In March 2015, some 50 House members, plus eight senators, skipped Netanyahu’s speech to Congress that aimed to derail Obama’s ultimately successful nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Less than two years ago, that was seen as an unusually high number showing displeasure with the Israeli prime minister.

So Thursday’s vote can be taken as more evidence of the ongoing fracturing in the Democratic Party over unconditional support for Israel.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, tweeted that the vote signaled the end of the days when AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby group, “commanded near total loyalty.”

Jewish Voice for Peace noted the “significant,” though still insufficient, dissent:

In his recent speech explaining why the US abstained in the UN vote, Secretary of State John Kerry did not use the word apartheid, but used a term that is just as potent: “separate and unequal” recalls the Jim Crow era of segregation and legally mandated white supremacy in the US South.

Yet the Trump-Netanyahu wing of the party – led by House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer – would rather defend Israeli expansionism and occupation than back their own president for expressing serious, though belated, misgivings about Israel’s repeated violations of international law.

Some Democrats did not just slam the outgoing administration, but went as far as courting the president-elect.

“I think support for Israel in Congress is bipartisan and should remain bipartisan and if President Trump is working with us on Israel, I’m perfectly happy to work with the president of the United States,” said Eliot Engel, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Hoyer explained that his opposition to the UN resolution was because it “fails to pressure Palestinians to abandon a so-called ‘right of return’ or recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

He warned that the US abstention in the Security Council that allowed the resolution to pass would “fuel the insidious BDS movement and embolden Palestinian leaders who continue to drag their feet.”

The text of the House resolution claims that the UN resolution “effectively lends legitimacy to efforts by the Palestinian Authority to impose its own solution through international organizations and through unjustified boycott or divestment campaigns against Israel.”

This is only one of many distortions that turn reality on its head: the BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement is an initiative of Palestinian civil society, not the PA.

Substantial shift in opinion

The divided Democratic caucus perhaps reflects a party base that is increasingly vocal against Israel’s actions, especially as Israel’s government lurches ever further to the right.

An influential Israeli think tank noted this week that during Obama’s term “the notion that the two nations have ‘shared values,’ appears to have eroded with the perceived weakening of Israel’s democratic ethos.”

The sight of some Democrats aligning with such an Israel, as well as with a new American president who attracts white supremacists and is unguarded about his own racism, is likely to sharpen differences over Israel.

The shift among a sizable segment of Democratic voters to positions more critical of Israel is well documented by recent polling.

The polarization was visible during the primary campaign, with supporters of Hillary Clinton significantly more likely to be strongly pro-Israel than supporters of Bernie Sanders.

According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll in late December, registered Democrats backed the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements by an overwhelming 47-16 margin. Overall, 53 percent of self-identified liberals backed the UN resolution, and just 14 percent opposed it. Among conservatives, the numbers are almost reversed.

And reflecting well established trends, support for the UN resolution was higher among younger people, African Americans and Latinos – the ascendant demographic groups in the Democratic Party. The American Jewish community is clearly split, with 42 percent supporting the UN resolution and 47 percent opposing it.

Netanyahu’s vitriolic attacks on Obama – who remains highly popular among Democrats – will also do nothing to shore up support for Israel.

By openly aligning with Trump and the US far-right, Israeli leaders may simply be accelerating the divisions over Israel within the Democratic Party and between the parties.

Nevertheless, it remains shocking that for now more House Democrats are prepared to side with the Likud Party Prime Minister of Israel than with their own Democratic president.

This fact underscores the need for activists to be ready to hold Democratic officials accountable, even as they think about how to resist Trump’s policies. This is especially true as the battle takes shape for the future of the party.

The risk is that on Palestinian rights, the Trump-Netanyahu wing of the Democratic Party might prevail.

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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.