Democrats push back after NY Times says the party is drifting on Israel

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears on “Meet the Press,” July 1, 2018. (William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sen. Robert Menendez hardly needs to establish his pro-Israel bona fides: He is guaranteed a standing ovation every time he appears at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and pro-Israel political donors are lining up to back him in an unexpectedly close race for re-election.

But the New Jersey Democrat joined a gaggle of colleagues last week in reaffirming one of his signature issues after The New York Times suggested that the Democrats’ support for Israel is tottering.

The story, headlined “A New Wave of Democrats Tests the Party’s Blanket Support for Israel,” may have overstated it: There have been a handful of high-profile nominees among Democrats who have indeed questioned orthodoxies about support for Israel, and there is more broadly a readiness to criticize the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arising in part from his open pro-Trump partisanship.

The Times named four candidates challenging for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives: Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Leslie Cockburn in Virginia. All four have been tough on Israel in the past, and commentary by Omar has been outright hostile. Tlaib favors ending assistance to Israel. (Others mentioned in the article have been targeted by Republicans using guilt-by-association tactics, but have conventional Israel views.)

In the piece, Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, laments the “fact that this is allowed to metastasize in the Democratic Party without any real pushback.”

Others deny that it’s a “wave” — at least not yet.

As Ronald Halber, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Washington, D.C., area says in the article, “We’re talking about a handful of people; they’re certainly not going to move Congress’s wall-to-wall support for Israel.”

Nevertheless, The Times helps shape the narrative, so Democrats are pushing back.

“Today I want to once again reaffirm that the United States Congress stands firmly behind a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” Menendez said in a statement sent Oct. 10. “As threats to Israel continue to increase, as her enemies continue to grow ever-closer, the United States will stand firm in our commitments.”

He added: “Despite partisanship interfering with so many pressing policy issues today, an overwhelming majority of members of all political parties continue to reaffirm Congressional support for this relationship.”

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., the Jewish ranking Democrat on the House Middle East subcommittee, penned an op-ed for The Times of Israel titled “A new Democratic House majority will continue our historic support for Israel.”

Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, compiled statements from 10 legislators in her weekly legislative roundup, including Jewish and black Democrats and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the Democratic whip.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, who is hoping to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, is telling constituents that “he believes Israel is critically important to the United States because it is the home of the Jewish people, because it is an exemplary democracy that shares our values, and because it is a crucial contributor to our national security objectives in the region.”

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., as solidly pro-Israel as Menendez, reminded reporters this week of her leading role in securing defense assistance for Israel.

And Chuck Schumer, the New York senator and minority leader, told Jewish Insider: “Senate Democrats are very strongly pro-Israel and will remain that way.”