Can Israel Lobbying Still Remain Bipartisan?

Despite seemingly unbridgeable chasm between some Democrats and Israel, ZOA isn't throwing in the towel.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Netanyahu and Obama in the White House
Netanyahu and Obama in the White House

Talk of strain between Israel and the Democratic Party is getting increasingly common. Last week, Newsweek published an article which accused Binyamin Netanyahu of “burning bridges” with the Congressional Black Caucus. For more conservative lobbyists, there can be a balancing act when advocating for Israel (which generally speaking still enjoys bipartisan support).

Jeff Daube, the Director of the Zionist Organization of America’s (ZOA) Israel Office, hesitates to call his relationship with Congressional Democrats “strained.”

“My approach and style, on behalf of ZOA and speaking for myself, leans toward the bipartisan. Still, over the course of more than two decades of working the Hill, I've noticed a steady slippage in Democratic support for Israel, while Republican support has increased in almost direct proportion to the Democratic decline.”

Daube is not the first to see it. Many analyses and surveys are noticing the trend. Jewish leaders (on both sides of the political aisle) are also noticing it. Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, told Arutz Sheva that this negative trend was also pervasive among young American Jews, not just Democrats generally.

“This is most apparent in the voting records. While maybe one Republican member of Congress (MOC) is voting nay on a particular pro-Israel bill, 29 Dems could be voting nay or 'present.'The J-Street letters to Congress almost always are signed entirely by Democrats — like the infamous one calling upon Israel to lift the Gaza blockade signed by 54 — with the occasional single Republican addition.”

J-Street, Daube notes, almost exclusively endorses Democrats. Others have noted that J-Street’s formation and work have coincided with the Obama White House, which is generally considered to be from the furthest-left-reaching wings of the Democratic Party. There is a decline of “avid” pro-Israel Democrats in high positions of the House of Representatives or the Senate, like “Hubert Humphrey and Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson.”

It might go without saying that Republicans are far more receptive to the ZOA message than would be Democrats. The ZOA advocates for Israel's rights in Judea and Samaria including building Jewish communities and the need for a strong Israeli security presence in the region, among other issues often, though not always fairly, associated as more "right-wing" causes. (The ZOA, says Daube, actually sees these as thoroughly "centrist" issues.)

“Republican leaders, especially those from the Bible Belt, tend to be more viscerally connected to Israel. They are far more willing to back our initiatives on purely ideological, principled and values oriented grounds. I have much anecdotal evidence to back up that assertion, but it's not hard to figure out why this might be so.”

There have been chances in the past though to have the Democrats’ collective ear, even after the Oslo Accords. There is always a chance the opposition party will want to find something to attack the White House on, as happened from time to time with Democrats toward President George W. Bush. Yet, both parties will have their limits, mindful that being too strong on an issue that a future President will not support could be bad for the party.

“When Bush was President, centrist Republican MOCs were somewhat reluctant to make their president uncomfortable. The Dems, though slightly more willing in the days of a Republican administration to take a contrary position, held back out of concern the tables could be turned on them with a Democratic administration following. “

Republicans are likely aware of those caveats today also, but with such a sharp partisan divide and with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s outward challenge to the viability of a Palestinian state, there might be more room for the ZOA to maneuver.

“Republican MOCs now, especially gung ho on Israel/ZOA issues, have no qualms about opposing President Obama with the utmost of frankness.”

There is hope that in the future, there might be any sort of changing of the guard. If a Republican occupies the White House next, there is the off chance some Democrats might feel the President is relying too much on an old paradigm – assuming Netanyahu’s public doubt about two states starts to resonate.

But Daube is focusing on the immediate future, seeing plenty of initiatives on the docket that would be of mutual benefit to both countries regardless of the current tensions between the President and the Prime Minister.

"All that said, the polls indicate that support for Israel, both among the American public and its leaders, across the board, remains solid — among other reasons because of obvious mutual concerns and interests," Daube says.

"I try to contextualize my lobbying within that framework. If I can successfully demonstrate to an MOC how a new initiative would serve the US national interest directly while also serving Israel's interests, it will stand the best chance of garnering bipartisan good will."