Highlighting differences on settlements serves both Trump administration and Democrats.
That, at least, is according to former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who believes that Pompeo’s dramatic announcement last week will have more impact on the US political scene than anywhere else.
“I think Pompeo wanted this,” Oren said of the letter, signed by 46% of the 233 Democrats in the House of Representatives. He added that this letter “couldn’t be better” for the Trump administration.
“Think as if you are a member of the Trump administration,” Oren said. “You need to win in four or five battleground states to win reelection, and those four or five states have a strong Evangelical, pro-Israel presence. You need to mobilize them, and show them that if they don’t vote for Trump, they are going to get the guys who wrote this letter,” he said.
Pompeo’s statement, Oren said, serves to highlight the difference between the two parties on Israel, something the Republicans feel will work in their favor, but which is turning Israel into a wedge issue between the two parties.
“They are trying to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel, Oren said of the Trump administration strategy.
“If on the Democratic side to be pro-Israel means that Israel has a right to exist, to defend itself, to be a Jewish state, to serve as a homeland to the Jewish people, but at the same time it also means saying that the Palestinians deserve a homeland, the settlements are illegal, Jerusalem should be shared, there should be a just solution to the refugee problem, and throw in support for the Iranian nuclear deal. On the Republican side it is something else,” he said.
For Republicans being pro-Israel means – of course – supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. But it also means that it is not prohibited for Israel to build settlements, that its capital is both east and west Jerusalem, that it can defend itself actively, not only defensively, and that the US should not be a part of the Iranian deal.
The Democrats are lowering the standard for what is considered pro-Israel, while the Republicans are raising it, and the Trump administration has an interest in highlighting those differences, as it did with Pompeo’s settlement declaration.
The letter sent to Pompeo was led by Andy Levin, a Jewish congressman from Michigan, though only seven of the 23 Jews in the House (30% of the Jewish contingent) signed the letter, which expressed “strong disagreement” with the State Department’s decision.
This move, the letter charged, along with the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the closure of the Palestinian mission in Washington and the US consulate in Jerusalem, and the halting of aid appropriated to the West Bank and Gaza, has “discredited” the US as an honest broker and “severely damaged prospects for peace, and endangered the security of America, Israel and the Palestinian people.’
Oren said that those who signed probably thought they had no choice – that this was something their constituents expected– and that they were surely lobbied heavily by J Street. He pointed out that unlike AIPAC, J Street is a lobby that gives money to candidates and probably made clear that they expected those candidates whom they support to back this letter.
Jonathan Rynhold, an authority on Israel-US relations at Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Political Studies, said this letter is just another indication of how Israel has “become a part of partisan American politics in a way that it never has been before.”
Rynhold pointed to two factors leading to this: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech against the Iranian deal to the Congress in 2015, and Netanyahu’s close relationship with President Donald Trump.
“What you see among Democrats is something called negative effective partnership, which means that if the other party is in favor of something, I am – without thinking about it – automatically against it,” he said. There is an association between Netanyahu and Trump, and “since they hate Trump, anything that has to do with him goes out the window.”
Pompeo’s declaration, Rynhold said, has turned the settlements into a “red flag issue” for Democrats, and put it high on the agenda, with opposing the declaration now a way of showing whether on not you are “a good Democrat” and support the party’s basic values.
Furthermore, he said that Democratic candidates, coming under pressure from the liberal wing of the party, which is gaining strength, will likely need to take a stand on the issue and it may even become an issue in the primaries.
Since half the Democrats are liberal, and most American Jews are not supportive of the settlements, those who decided to sign the letter rightly concluded that there is unlikely to be much of a price to pay for doing so, Rynhold said.
“There is nothing to be lost, and something to be gained from the Progressives audience,” he said. “The issue has now become highlighted as a kind of defining issue where you can see where people stand.”
And that, according to Oren, is also exactly what the Trump administration wants.