Until a few weeks ago America’s unqualified support for Israel was solidly bipartisan. Aided by media bias and reporter reluctance to address on-the-ground realities, AIPAC and its affiliates had the public relations space virtually to themselves. Reinforced by mainstream media, the “Exodus” narrative captured and retained popular sympathy, while U.S. policymakers began to regard Israel as a democratic bulwark against terrorism and a reliable ally in the Middle East.
Even in the wake of Israel’s near sinking of the intelligence ship USS Liberty in June 1967, at a cost of 34 American lives, U.S. economic and military assistance to Israel spiked and has continued to unprecedented levels.
For decades Democrats were Israel’s most steadfast advocates, blind to its continuing occupation, illegal settlement expansion and blatant human rights abuses. During the brutal 2014 Gaza war, an otherwise progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren, oblivious to rising Palestinian casualties, could propose more arms aid for the IDF—on top of the $38 billion military package promised by President Obama.
The Democratic Party saw its pro-Israel stance as a way of retaining the political loyalty of its Jewish members. At the same time, both Democrats and Republicans fell under the sway of AIPAC and its subordinate organizations that offered often outsize campaign contributions to bolster its lobbying efforts. Members of Congress not only valued money from the Israel lobby, but feared political retaliation if refused. Added to that influence were the lobbying and money gifts from U.S. weapons companies that profit from the arms deals.
Suddenly, the Netanyahu travel ban against two American Congresswomen, both people of color, has pulled the blindfold from Democrats in Congress. Here is what it revealed:
1. Israel is less than a democratic state. Regularly touted as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” Israel can now be seen as a democracy only for its Jewish population. The Government’s refusal to open its border to American critics, shows a country afraid to expose its cruel treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.
2. Israel is not a reliable ally. It is willing to insult the United States, its main supporter and financial backer. The ban against Omar and ban with conditions against Tlaib provoked outrage among those (even some Republicans) who saw Israel’s action as a collective insult, not only to the Congress but also to the taxpaying public.
3. Israeli-financed travel junkets are a potential embarrassment. Lawmakers (both federal and state) who accept travel gifts from an organization (through its grantmaking affiliate) that lobbies special interest bills are subject to criticism on both ethical and conflict of interest grounds. Voters in many states found fault with the 41House Democrats who accepted lobby funds for Israel travel instead of using recess time to meet with their constituents. More importantly, it prompted some observers to condemn the August junket as violating the “spirit as well as the letter” of existing conflict of interest law.
4. Israel will do everything possible toblock the peaceful BDS movement. Wrongfully claiming that economic boycotts (constitutionally protected in the U.S.) “delegitimize Israel” and aim to destroy it, the Israel lobby has successfully promoted anti-BDS bills in both state and federal governments. Indeed, one reason for denying Omar/Tlaib visits was to prevent their possible promotion of BDS.
5. “Pro-Israel” has become synonymous with “Pro-Trump.” When Trump urged Netanyahu to bar the two members of Congress, he highlighted their common priorities and identified the Republican Party with a regime that defies international law and abuses human rights.
As outlined above, the Netanyahu travel ban had huge unintended consequences for Israel. And it has served as a wake-up call for Congressional Democrats. Those members who had long refused to acknowledge the reality of America’s complicity with an apartheid state, can no longer plead ignorance. As journalist Peter Beinart recently observed: “When it comes to Israel, Democrats don’t need more bipartisanship. They need more courage.”