Five Things to Know This Week: Omar Fallout, Israeli Elections & Trump’s Peace Plan
1. More Ilhan Omar fallout
Tired of hearing about the Ilhan Omar-AIPAC-Benjamins controversy? You should be. Ten days into the firestorm following a pair of unfortunate tweets, it seems that everybody who is anybody, and many who aren’t, have voiced their strongly-held opinions and, more than anything else, spun the debate to serve their own political agenda. For Republicans it was a gift from heaven, landing just in time to deflect any criticism directed at Trump, his allies and supporters for allowing anti-Semitism to fester in the margins of their camp. For Democrats, the Omar case served as an opportunity to rid the base of extremists by competing with each other on who denounced Omar louder and more forcibly. And for progressives, it was, in many cases, further proof that everyone (mainstream media/ Trump Republicans/Pelosi Democrats) are out to get them.
The good news is that with the political shock cycle being as short as it is, the Omar controversy will soon be kicked aside to make room for the next scandal. But before that happens, here are a couple of potential longer-term impacts that might linger on:
AIPAC out of the shadows: Former AIPAC top lobbyist Steve Rosen famously once said that “a lobby is like a night flower. It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.” For AIPAC, these have been words to live by. The lobby, which doesn’t even have a sign on its massive DC headquarters building, has always been a shy player in the world of major interest groups. Its work is done primarily in quiet Capitol Hill meetings, expert policy papers and the occasional phone call from a local major donor to a lawmaker in need of a friendly nudge. Apart from its carefully orchestrated annual policy conference, the lobby thrives on behind-the-scenes work. Now, with one tweet and the exclamation point added by Omar, AIPAC has been dragged into daylight and outside of its comfort zone. Supporters of the lobby are working overtime to explain that AIPAC, despite its name, is not a PAC and does not raise any Benjamins for politicians. They are also out there reminding Americans that support for Israel is, in fact, a reflection of an overwhelming public sentiment. All this, however, will do little to change the public perception that might take root following Omar’s comments, that AIPAC is somehow a controversial player in American politics, or at least in some circles. And if there’s one thing politicians try to avoid, it’s controversies that don’t advance their cause. So, life just became a tad more difficult for the lobby that would like nothing more than for someone to turn off the spotlight.
A test for Bernie: Bernie Sanders just announced his presidential bid, which is even more reason to closely watch Bernie’s reaction to the Omar controversy. During the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders struggled to communicate his message on Israel, and it was only after the elections that he elaborated in speeches and interviews his worldview which incorporates harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, with a measure of support, and even some sympathy, to the state of Israel. With that, Sanders offered a roadmap for progressives seeking to find their voice on Israel in a political environment that tends, more often than not, to stifle criticism of the Netanyahu government. The latest controversy found Sanders publicly silent, saving his only comment in an off-record phone call in which he seemed to provide Omar his full support. “I talked to Ilhan last night to give her my personal support. We will stand by our Muslim brothers and sisters,” Sanders said, according to Jewish Insider which first reported on the call. The brief comment doesn’t seem to provide much clarity on where Sanders stands regarding the substance of her comments on the pro-Israel lobby, and has so far failed to give progressives useful guidance for dealing with the situation.
Few Jews, many opinions: Mapping the pro-Israel lobby used to be easy. There was AIPAC, and that was about it. And although the group had always struggled to define a fluid consensus on Israel, debates were kept in house. Then came J Street, which offered an alternative approach for pro-Israel advocacy by introducing the possibility of disagreeing with the government of Israel while maintaining strong overall support. So there are two voices in the pro-Israel community, right? Not so fast. Recent years have seen a surge in activity of right-wing pro-Israel groups, lobbying for the Jewish state to the right of AIPAC. They include groups like ZOA, RJC and the evangelical CUFI, all sharing the position that supporting Israel, and certain Israeli policies, is more important than bipartisanship. And now, with the Omar controversy taking center stage, a fourth wing is becoming more visible: the ultra-left wing of the Jewish community. And while it would be a stretch to include them in the “pro-Israel” crowd, progressive groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace have aligned themselves with Omar and against the rest of the Jewish establishment. These groups are not newcomers to the scene, but the attention they’ve been receiving since Omar’s comments on AIPAC could further strengthen their standing among younger Jewish progressives, who view Omar as a heroine and much of the pro-Israel establishment as villains.
2. Is anti-BDS law coming to the House?
After all that talk about Democrats and Israel, another test waits around the corner. The House of Representatives is now in line to take on its own version of the Combating BDS Act. The Senate passed the bill, authored by Marco Rubio, with nearly all Republicans voting in favor and with Democrats split pretty evenly. The legislation empowers states to adopt laws that would deny public contracts from companies (and in many cases individuals too) that participate in boycotts against Israel. The House, however, is not the Senate, and with Democrats in control, it’s up to Speaker Pelosi and the leadership to decide whether to advance the legislation. Refusing to do so would indicate that Democrats feel uneasy about the First Amendment ramifications of the bill, which is seen by some as curtailing free speech. On the other hand, advancing the bill could help the party deal with the Omar fallout and prove once again that they’re more pro-Israel than some people think. The worst case scenario for Pelosi: advancing the bill only to find a large majority of Dems voting against it, thus helping Republicans score some easy points.
3. Keep an eye on Israeli politics this week
While there’s still some time before Israel’s April 9 general elections, this week will be critical. According to Israeli law, all parties planning to run for the Knesset must submit their candidate lists by Thursday, after which it will not be possible to make changes. Why does this matter? Because in the upcoming elections, it will be all about joining forces. In the center, talks between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid on creating a joint list have hit a snag. If the two largest centrist parties can find a way of joining forces, they will potentially be able to form a bloc that will threaten Netanyahu. On the right, work is under way to unite several of the smaller settler and right-wing parties in order to ensure that votes don’t get lost and that Netanyahu has an easier job trying to form a new coalition after the elections. Arab parties are also scrambling to create a joint list, after the previous united framework fell apart.
4. Obama starring in Bibi’s campaign ads?
After enlisting Donald Trump to his reelection campaign, with huge banners showing the American president alongside the Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu is now drawing on another American president to make his case. A new ad released Monday features a black-and-white photo of Barack Obama, standing next to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The narration talks about how “Obama applied pressure to build a Palestinian state” and to have Israel withdraw to the 1967 lines, “including a dangerous withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Jordan Valley.” The ad isn’t about Obama, it’s about Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, who is accused of “preparing with Obama’s people” a plan to withdraw from the West Bank. So, in Likud political shorthand, Trump equals support for Israel and Obama is synonymous with danger to Israel. And by the same token, a desired Israeli leader should stand alongside Trump, and stand up to Obama.
5. Peace plan watch: Are we any smarter?
No. Jared Kushner, with Jason Greenblatt at his side, made a presentation to foreign leaders participating in the Warsaw conference last week. What was in it? Apparently not much. Recordings from the meeting, published by Gili Cohen on Israeli Public TV, provide a peek into Kushner’s presentation, which was full of peace process cliches: Both sides will have to compromise, we will come up with creative ideas, and no explicit mention of a Palestinian state. In other words, there’s a plan out there, but we still won’t tell you what it is.