The shift to the left by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York demonstrates the power of a party base that is abandoning the Jewish state.
Both were once rock-solid supporters of Israel. But both have other priorities these days — they are thinking about running for president in 2020. Their problem is that no one who plans to compete in future Democratic primaries can ignore the growing power of their party’s left wing, which has grown increasingly hostile to Israel.
The influence of the far left is the only thing that might explain why Booker and Gillibrand are presenting themselves to their party’s base as less than fully supportive of Israel. The context for this development is a sea change in the Democratic party that has been taking shape over the past two decades. Where once the Democrats were the lockstep pro-Israel party and Republicans were divided about backing Israel, the parties’ positions are now reversed. Republicans today are nearly unanimous in their enthusiastic support for the Jewish state, and they oppose all measures that endanger its security. Now it is the Democrats who are split, with polls showing that those who identify with the party are far less likely to back Israel than Republicans are.
The left-wing grass roots of the Democratic party are increasingly hostile to Israel, something that became clear in 2012 when the delegates at the Democratic National Convention revolted against their leadership’s efforts to include in the party platform a recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The delegates booed loudly and rejected the measure in a voice vote while the convention chairman ignored the crowd and declared that the measure had passed. The spectacle was a benchmark moment.
Congressional Democrats also demonstrated the limits of their sympathy for Israel during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. When President Obama declared that support for the agreement was a litmus test of party loyalty, few Democrats bucked him. Both Gillibrand and Booker supported the deal’s ratification by the backhanded method the administration employed rather than by gaining the support of two-thirds of the Senate – which the Constitution requires for treaties.
In 2016, Democrats growing split over Israel was evident in the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. The candidates disagreed over Israel’s right of self-defense and over support for Palestinian ambitions — one of the few areas where they differed substantively. The Clinton forces were able to quash any potential revolt over the issue, but the presence on the platform committee of Sanders delegates such as Representative Keith Ellison and Cornel West — prominent supporters of anti-Israel measures — was a harbinger of the growing animosity toward Israel.
Loyalty to Obama might explain if not excuse why Booker and Gillibrand abandoned their past promises to be tough on Iran, but they have no compelling excuse about their recent departures from pro-Israel positions.
The platform committee of Sanders delegates such as Keith Ellison and Cornel West — prominent supporters of anti-Israel measures — was a harbinger of the growing animosity toward Israel.
In Booker’s case, it was an astonishing vote against the Taylor Force Act in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For Gillibrand, it was an announcement that she will oppose the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Yet while both Booker and Gillibrand rationalized their positions as being related to supposed flaws in the bills, the subtext was a not-so-subtle signal that they are edging away from Israel in order to be more attractive to the voters who might decide the next Democratic presidential nomination.
The Taylor Force Act is a straightforward effort to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its financing of terrorism. The PA pays salaries and pensions to the families of all those who commit acts of violence against Israelis and Americans. The PA thereby financially rewards terrorists, paying the most money to those who commit the bloodiest crimes. Worse than that, most of the money to pay for this outrage comes from foreign donations. The PA has spent more than $1.1 billion on this “pay for slay” scheme over the past four years and has budgeted half of the foreign aid it will get next year for the same purpose. The law, named after Taylor Force — a non-Jewish American former member of the U.S. armed forces who was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist — would require the PA, as a condition of future aid, to stop rewarding terrorists’ families.
Yet Booker — considered very close to the Jewish community before he was elevated to the Senate — was one of four committee Democrats (out of ten) to oppose the Taylor Force Act. His explanation was that he wanted the aid money to be held in escrow for more than a year. A more likely reason is that he is signaling to the left that he wants to be considered as more sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Gillibrand’s abandonment of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act was just as telling. The measure expands existing legislation dating back to the 1970s that prohibits American companies from complying with the Arab boycott of Israel; if expanded, the measure would apply to those taking an active part in the boycott, divest, and sanction movement that similarly seeks to discriminate against Israel and wage economic war on it.
Anti-Israel groups and the ACLU claim that it will restrict free speech, but, as the bill’s lead co-sponsors (Democratic senator Ben Cardin and Republican Rob Portman) explained in a letter to the group, its language clearly targets only those who engage in discriminatory commercial conduct. The courts have already ruled such laws to be constitutional and said that they don’t infringe in any way on First Amendment rights to free speech.
But responding to pressure from the ACLU and to hostile left-wing questioners at town-hall meetings, Gillibrand flipped from being a sponsor to an opponent of the legislation, saying that its language needed to be changed before she would consider backing it.
Both Booker and Gillibrand know that it was only the heavy-handed tactics of the Democratic establishment and its super-delegate rules that dragged the more centrist Clinton over the party’s finish line in 2016. All the energy within the party was on the left. If Clinton had faced someone who outflanked her to the left (other than a septuagenarian socialist), she would have never have been the Democrats’ nominee.
The balance of power among Democrats is almost certainly going to be further to the left.
In 2020, no Democrat will have the advantages Clinton possessed heading into 2016. The balance of power among Democrats is almost certainly going to be further to the left. That’s why both Booker and Gillibrand are acting as if they know their long-shot hopes depend on being acceptable to anti-Israel radicals. Both have demonstrated their ability to be chameleons in the past — Gillibrand’s transformation from a centrist pro-gun “Blue Dog” member in the House to a left-wing senator is an especially egregious example of how one gets ahead in today’s Democratic party.
The message Booker and Gillibrand are sending out is clear: If abandoning Israel is part of the price of victory in 2020, they are very willing to pay it.