Much of the talk this election season about a new crop of Democrats who hold views on Israel that run the gamut from skeptical to hostile focused on politicians who are about to become newly minted House members. And so Democratic control of the House will undoubtedly spark angst in some quarters. For a variety of reasons, this angst will be misplaced. A Democratic-controlled House is not going to mean a raft of anti-Israel legislation or even a spate of anti-Israel invective; the fact is that the Democratic Party remains strongly pro-Israel despite some new discordant notes along the edges. If anything, the greatest impact on Israel as a result of the shift in control in the House is going to come not from Congressional Democrats, but from President Trump.
There is no question that Israel is now a partisan issue in a way that it was not in the past. It has become an election issue largely because Republicans believe it to be politically advantageous to them to portray Democrats as anti-Israel BDS supporters, whether the charges are warranted – which in some cases they are – or not. The Democratic response to these charges, however, has not been to launch a debate over Israel’s benefit as an ally or to defend alleged anti-Israel positions, but to argue that Democratic candidates are just as supportive of Israel as their Republican opponents. Two of the most high-profile races this cycle involving dynamic progressive Democrats in which Israel became a campaign issue – the gubernatorial race in Florida and the Senate race in Texas – saw Democrats Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke rejecting the anti-Israel charge entirely rather than leaning into it. The anti-Israel charge also did not stick across the board with the constituency it was targeted toward, as 79 percent of Jewish voters cast their Congressional ballots for Democrats. There is a predictive lesson here for how Democrats want to talk about Israel, and it is not that Democrats view Israel-bashing as a winning campaign strategy.
This is even more so the case when looking at House Democrats and how they want to govern. The leadership of the party has as strong pro-Israel bonafides as anyone; not even Sheldon Adelson would accuse once and future Majority Leader Steny Hoyer or incoming Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of wavering on their support for Israel. House Democrats do not want to run against Israel and do not want to pick high-profile fights on Israel-related issues. They do not support BDS, are not looking to cut military aid to Israel, and are not going to put themselves in the position of having to take controversial votes on Israel-related issues that are going to come back and bite them down the road. The few Democrats for whom this is not the case are all backbenchers whose focus is on local issues. No matter how galling Ilhan Omar’s tweets and comments about Israel are, Israel is nowhere near the top of her list of priorities, and the greatest possible extent of her influence on Israel issues in this Congress would be as the most junior majority member on a relevant committee. Now that they have the power to set the legislative agenda, expect House Democratic leaders to bundle votes on Israel issues with other broadly popular items and to try and create an environment in which Israel is minimized as a campaign issue in 2020 for the party writ large.
The one area where a Democratic House may be more vocal on pushing back against the Republican agenda on Israel is with the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians. Nearly all Democrats support a two-state solution and realize that forcing the Palestinian Authority’s collapse is a recipe for disaster not only on the two-state front but also for Israel’s security. The White House has demonstrated over the past year that it has the power to do what it wants on funding issues in the West Bank and Gaza irrespective of the money that has been appropriated by Congress. But I expect Democrats to use their committee perches to revisit these issues and point out the dangers of the Trump administration’s approach more forcefully. Democrats are in a position to do this in a smart way, by making the distinction between measures that are intended to lead to reform like the Taylor Force Act, and measures that are intended to make Palestinians suffer and risk causing a backlash like ending funding for East Jerusalem hospitals or shutting down USAID in the West Bank and Gaza entirely. If House Democrats are also able to shine a spotlight on these issues in a way that demonstrates why the Trump approach is hurting Israel, they can be effective in crafting a pro-Israel message that takes Israeli security seriously while preserving American leverage with the Palestinians and maintaining long-standing U.S. goals in the region.
With all the speculation about what a Democratic House will do with regard to Israel, people are in some ways missing the real story. Trump’s ability to execute domestic policies with effectively zero oversight or pushback is now over. Much as previous presidents have focused on foreign policy because it is the area where they constitutionally and structurally have the most freedom and power to operate unencumbered, Trump is soon going to realize the same thing. As the House squeezes what should have been four years of investigations into two and Trump becomes more boxed in, he is likely to start paying more attention to what is going on around the globe. As it is, he has already placed a high priority on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and because it is such a shiny brass ring, I expect that he is going to make an even bigger push to secure his ultimate deal as he is hemmed in on his domestic priorities. The fact is that aside from appropriations, Congress does not have much of an impactful role on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on Israel issues more broadly, and the way House Democrats deal with Israel is going to be impacted more by the next campaign than it is by the issues themselves. But the fact that they are in power and will be grinding Trump’s agenda to a halt means that the White House’s attention to Israel is about to go way up, and if Trump’s track record so far is indicative of what is to come, expect some more upheaval on the road ahead.
To listen to my far more extensive thoughts on this topic, tune into the Israel Policy Pod, where I spoke with my colleague Evan Gottesman about the future of U.S.-Israel relations under both Democrats and Republicans