Who Want to be President Back Away from Israel
By Jonathan S. Tobin
August 7, 2017
The shift to the left by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey
and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York demonstrates the power of a party
base that is abandoning the Jewish state.
Both were once rock-solid supporters of Israel. But both
have other priorities these days — they are thinking about running for
president in 2020. Their problem is that no one who plans to compete in future
Democratic primaries can ignore the growing power of their party’s left wing,
which has grown increasingly hostile to Israel.
The influence of the far left is the only thing that might
explain why Booker and Gillibrand are presenting themselves to their party’s
base as less than fully supportive of Israel. The context for this development
is a sea change in the Democratic party that has been taking shape over the past
two decades. Where once the Democrats were the lockstep pro-Israel party and
Republicans were divided about backing Israel, the parties’ positions are now
reversed. Republicans today are nearly unanimous in their enthusiastic support
for the Jewish state, and they oppose all measures that endanger its security.
Now it is the Democrats who are split, with polls showing that those who
identify with the party are far less likely to back Israel than Republicans are.
The left-wing grass roots of the Democratic party are
increasingly hostile to Israel, something that became clear in 2012 when the
delegates at the Democratic National Convention revolted against their
leadership’s efforts to include in the party platform a recognition of
Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The delegates booed loudly and rejected the
measure in a voice vote while the convention chairman ignored the crowd and
declared that the measure had passed. The spectacle was a benchmark moment.
Congressional Democrats also demonstrated the limits of
their sympathy for Israel during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. When
President Obama declared that support for the agreement was a litmus test of
party loyalty, few Democrats bucked him. Both Gillibrand and Booker supported
the deal’s ratification by the backhanded method the administration employed
rather than by gaining the support of two-thirds of the Senate – which the
Constitution requires for treaties.
In 2016, Democrats growing split over Israel was evident in
the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. The candidates disagreed over Israel’s
right of self-defense and over support for Palestinian ambitions — one of the
few areas where they differed substantively. The Clinton forces were able to
quash any potential revolt over the issue, but the presence on the platform
committee of Sanders delegates such as Representative Keith Ellison and Cornel
West — prominent supporters of anti-Israel measures — was a harbinger of the
growing animosity toward Israel.
Loyalty to Obama might explain if not excuse why Booker and
Gillibrand abandoned their past promises to be tough on Iran, but they have no
compelling excuse about their recent departures from pro-Israel positions.
In Booker’s case, it was an astonishing vote against the
Taylor Force Act in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For Gillibrand,
it was an announcement that she will oppose the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.
Yet while both Booker and Gillibrand rationalized their positions as being
related to supposed flaws in the bills, the subtext was a not-so-subtle signal
that they are edging away from Israel in order to be more attractive to the
voters who might decide the next Democratic presidential nomination.
The Taylor Force Act is a straightforward effort to hold
the Palestinian Authority accountable for its financing of terrorism. The PA
pays salaries and pensions to the families of all those who commit acts of
violence against Israelis and Americans. The PA thereby financially rewards
terrorists, paying the most money to those who commit the bloodiest crimes.
Worse than that, most of the money to pay for this outrage comes from foreign
donations. The PA has spent more than $1.1 billion on this “pay for slay”
scheme over the past four years and has budgeted half of the foreign aid it will
get next year for the same purpose. The law, named after Taylor Force — a
non-Jewish American former member of the U.S. armed forces who was murdered by a
Palestinian terrorist — would require the PA, as a condition of future aid, to
stop rewarding terrorists’ families.
Yet Booker — considered very close to the Jewish
community before he was elevated to the Senate — was one of four committee
Democrats (out of ten) to oppose the Taylor Force Act. His explanation was that
he wanted the aid money to be held in escrow for more than a year. A more likely
reason is that he is signaling to the left that he wants to be considered as
more sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Gillibrand’s abandonment of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act
was just as telling. The measure expands existing legislation dating back to the
1970s that prohibits American companies from complying with the Arab boycott of
Israel; if expanded, the measure would apply to those taking an active part in
the boycott, divest, and sanction movement that similarly seeks to discriminate
against Israel and wage economic war on it.
Anti-Israel groups and the ACLU claim that it will restrict
free speech, but, as the bill’s lead co-sponsors (Democratic senator Ben
Cardin and Republican Rob Portman) explained in a letter to the group, its
language clearly targets only those who engage in discriminatory commercial
conduct. The courts have already ruled such laws to be constitutional and said
that they don’t infringe in any way on First Amendment rights to free speech.
But responding to pressure from the ACLU and to hostile
left-wing questioners at town-hall meetings, Gillibrand flipped from being a
sponsor to an opponent of the legislation, saying that its language needed to be
changed before she would consider backing it.
Both Booker and Gillibrand know that it was only the
heavy-handed tactics of the Democratic establishment and its super-delegate
rules that dragged the more centrist Clinton over the party’s finish line in
2016. All the energy within the party was on the left. If Clinton had faced
someone who outflanked her to the left (other than a septuagenarian socialist),
she would have never have been the Democrats’ nominee.
In 2020, no Democrat will have the advantages Clinton
possessed heading into 2016. The balance of power among Democrats is almost
certainly going to be further to the left. That’s why both Booker and
Gillibrand are acting as if they know their long-shot hopes depend on being
acceptable to anti-Israel radicals. Both have demonstrated their ability to be
chameleons in the past — Gillibrand’s transformation from a centrist pro-gun
“Blue Dog” member in the House to a left-wing senator is an especially
egregious example of how one gets ahead in today’s Democratic party.
The message Booker and Gillibrand are sending out is clear:
If abandoning Israel is part of the price of victory in 2020, they are very
willing to pay it.