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DC Report: America’s changing politics and Israel

DC Report
By Douglas Bloomfield
It’s been coming a long time, but it took on a new clarity in the Bronx two weeks ago.

Rep. Eliot Engel, 73, a lackluster Democratic House member who rose to the top less by talent than by longevity, was soundly defeated for nomination for a 17th term by a relative unknown. Until then Engel was best known as the guy with big mustache who staked out spot on aisle in the House so he could be seen on TV shaking hands with presidents arriving for a joint session.

The official final vote tally is incomplete but there’s little doubt political newcomer Jamaal Bowman, 44, a Bronx middle-school principal, will be the next congressman from heavily Democratic district where the nomination is tantamount to election.

Democratic Party Changing
Engel has been one of Israel’s most loyal and important supporters and in a position to deliver as the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He tried to brand his opponent as anti-Israel and make the election a referendum on support for Israel in the Democratic Party, but it backfired.

If anything, it showed the Israel’s weakness in rallying voters and the rising strength of progressives who reject automatic obedience to an increasingly rightwing pro-Israel lobby.

Bowman declared support for Israel and won votes and endorsements from some liberal Jewish groups. He said he opposes the BDS movement and supports aid to Israel. But not unconditionally, as Engel has.

Jewish Democrats and AIPAC opposed Bowman, which is expected when the incumbent has a long record of loyalty and support, but now they have to learn to make shalom with him and the new generation he represents.

Change is taking place in the Democratic Party and particularly among Jewish voters throughout the country.

Jamaal Bowman, left and Rep. Eliot Engel, right.

Engel represents an old guard in Congress and in the Jewish establishment that shrank from all but the mildest criticism of Israeli policy and cringed before groups like AIPAC follow any Israeli government. But the times they are a changin’.

This Israeli government has gotten into bed with the wrong crowd in Washington and grown out of touch with the positions of most Jewish voters.

The close alliance between Netanyahu and Donald Trump, who is opposed by three in four Jewish voters, is an albatross for Israel. Add to the mix both leaders’ close ties to the evangelical movement, which is on the opposite side of nearly every domestic policy issue important to mainstream Jews and rejects every possible route to meaningful Mideast peace.

Bowman, unlike Engel, supports the Iran nuclear deal that AIPAC, the Israeli government and the GOP so adamantly opposed. He also supports the two-state process and has criticized the Netanyahu government’s “aggressive policies” toward Palestinians, telling Jewish Insider he is open to linking Israel’s aid to its human rights record.

AIPAC Considerations
In that respect he is closer to Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who endorsed him, than to AIPAC. The lobby group knows it would be a mistake to treat him as hostile and risks alienating him and other progressives if they let the rightwing tie him to anti-Israel members like Reps. Betty McCollum, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

Pushing from the far left also is Linda Sarsour, a strident anti-Israel activist, who is demanding Bowman follow the lead of those three plus Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley with “no questions asked,” Jewish Insider reported.

Engel’s defeat symbolizes the passing of the torch to a new generation that has been underway for several years. Most notable perhaps was AOC’s defeat two years ago of Rep. Joe Crowley, the number four in the House Democratic leadership, making her the de facto leader of the new progressive movement. She has been encouraging like-minded challengers to Democratic incumbents like Engel and is said to be setting her own sights on Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat who could be majority leader if his party wins back control of the Senate next year.

AIPAC Seeks Neutrality
Israel’s plans to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank has taken center stage in a widening chasm between American Jewry and the Jewish state, and it is advancing the growth of the progressive movement in Congress and threats to Israel’s traditional wall-to-wall support on Capitol Hill.

Symbolic of the crisis is AIPAC’s decision to take an unprecedented neutral position on annexation.  In more than four decades working with, around and for the organization, I can’t recall anything like it. It has been in Netanyahu’s pocket since the 1980s and aligned with Likud and Republicans for much of that time.

But with the growing prospect of Joe Biden winning the presidency in November and the possibility of a Democratic takeover of the Senate, the group is hedging its bets in hopes of resurrecting its battered reputation for bipartisanship.

CUFI Support?
With AIPAC on the sidelines, Netanyahu has called on the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) for help convincing the Trump administration and Republicans to support his yet-undefined version of annexation.

Pastor John Hagee, founder of CUFI, which he claims has eight million members, is enthusiastic about annexation, but not all evangelical leaders share that. The New York Times cited Robert Jeffress, an evangelical leader close to Trump, and other leaders saying they are “mostly indifferent to annexation.”

Speaking to the group’s recent virtual conference, Netanyahu tried to convince his audience that the matter should not be put off. Hagee agreed, saying Israel already “owns” the land anyway. But the prime minister’s real reason is he wants to get it done before Joe Biden is elected and blocks it.

Netanyahu told CUFI that annexation “will advance peace.” He also told CUFI he is ready for negotiations “for a realistic two-state solution.” That contradicts his repeated vows to voters there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch.

More than 190 of the 233 House Democrats signed a letter — initiated by three Jewish members, Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Ted Deutsch and Brad Schneider, plus Rep. David Price — urging Netanyahu and Israeli leaders to “reconsider plans” for “unilateral annexation of West Bank territory.” They warned the move “would have a clear impact on Israel’s future and our vital bilateral and bipartisan relationship.” About 20 Democratic senators sent a similar message.

Betting On Wrong Horse?
Republicans responded with their own letter backing annexation.

Trump and Republicans will try to portray progressives like Bowman as anti-Israel in hope of driving a wedge between Democrats and Jews, but the real rift is between Israel and American Jewry. The tighter Netanyahu embraces the isolationists, xenophobes and religious extremists here the more damage he does to Israel’s long-term American alliance. If he is relying on Trump’s loyalty, ask him about the Russian bounty on GIs.

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