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Republicans using Israel to exploit divisions

among their Democratic rivals


Debate around Democratic Party's pro-Israel policies pits its old guard against
emerging progressive base

Ilhan Omar was rebuked by her own Democratic Party for tweet about Israeli
lobbying efforts in Washington (Reuters)
By Sheren Khalel- 12 February 2019

Democrats rebuked one of their own this week, during a time of deep political
polarisation in Washington.
The party's top lawmakers accused Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of using anti-
Semitic tropes following her "Benjamins" tweet, in which she said that support for
Israel is driven by political donors.
The biggest winners in the controversy, analysts say, are Republicans, who are
trying to use Israel to create and exploit divisions among their Democratic rivals.
Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib have faced
allegations of anti-Semitism from the moment they took the oath of office last
month.
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When Omar made the remark that sparked the latest outcry, she was responding
to a tweet noting that Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was
threatening to punish her and Tlaib for their criticism of Israel.
Targeting Omar and Tlaib works for Republicans, experts told MEE, because it pits
the traditionally pro-Israel leadership of the Democratic Party against the its
emerging progressive base, which is increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians.
Public opinion polls show that Democrats are almost evenly split on their views of
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the overwhelming majority of Republicans
sympathise more with Israel.
This shift within the Democratic Party has now reached the centres of power in
Washington.
The party's leaders seek to minimise the growing divide, which is not what the
Republican Party wants, said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American
Institute.
"I would argue that beyond benefiting from the divide, they’re creating it," Berry
told MEE.
She said Republicans have a vested interest in forcing Democrats to fall out with
each other over the issue.
"No objective observer can say there’s no shift in the Democratic Party with
regards to Israel and Palestine. The question is where will political elites and
policy go from here?" Berry said.
Twitter controversy
US President Donald Trump, who is criticised for comments and policies often
perceived as bigoted, quickly pounced on the controversy, calling on Omar to step
down from Congress.
"Anti-Semitism has no place in the United States Congress," Trump said at a
cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
"And I think she should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign
from the House Foreign Affairs Committee."
The response from the Democratic leadership was less dramatic, but still
condemning.
In a statement issued by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the US House of
Representatives, and signed by top Democrats, the party heads demanded an
immediate apology, accusing Omar of using "anti-Semitic tropes" and calling her
remarks "deeply offensive".
Within a few hours, Omar issued an apology for the language she used.
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Still, Omar doubled down on what she called the "problematic role of lobbyists in
our politics", calling out the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for
a second time.
Foreign-policy schisms
Berry says it's clear that Democrats must have a real discussion on how to handle
the shift in the party going forward.
"There is no question that this will be an issue in 2020," she said, referring to the
forthcoming US presidential elections and the Democratic primaries before that.
Will [Democrats] continue to be reactive with these very public instances on
social media that we've seen recently or will they have a real discussion?
- Maya Berry, Arab American Institute
"Republicans will make sure it is central to the debate, but the question is, and
what I am worried about, is how the Democrats will respond," she said.
"Will they continue to be reactive with these very public instances on social media
that we've seen recently or will they have a real discussion?"
Indeed, foreign policy schisms in the Democratic Party are becoming apparent
ahead of the 2020 elections.
While Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, supported an AIPAC-backed
anti-BDS bill last week, top 2020 primary runners, including Bernie Sanders,
Kamala Harris and Cory Booker voted against it.
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings
Institution in Washington DC, said the debate around the party's historical pro-
Israel policies is set to be a major wedge issue in the primaries, pitting members
of the Democratic Party's old guard against some newly elected progressives.
"The bedrock of support for Israel is starting to crack," Elgindy told MEE.
"Democrats are having to answer for policies that they didn’t used to have to
answer for and the leadership is being called out."
Republicans in step with Netanyahu
Israel has been moving rightward on the political spectrum, Elgindy said, making it
more difficult for Democrats to maintain their commitment to the government of
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when pitted against their domestic
political interests.
The growing divide between some Democrats and Netanyahu has been evident
for some time.
In defiance of then-US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, Netanyahu
delivered a speech in Congress against the Iran deal in 2015.
Israel's cozying up to Republicans has become even more apparent since Trump
took office, putting pro-Israel Democrats in an uneasy position as they attempt to
defend Israel without appearing to back Trump.
Case in point are the larger-than-life Netanyahu campaign ads that appeared in
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this month, featuring the Israeli prime minister with
Trump.
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"As the Republican Party has kind of shifted the American discourse more and
more to where the Israeli right is, that has created this rift that was already
growing in the left wing of the Democratic Party," Elgindy told MEE.
"But now it is also making moderates and centrists in the Democratic camp very
uncomfortable, because they can’t align themselves with the policies of
Netanyahu that are pro-settlement, anti-two-state solution and pro-occupation."
Whether the shift in the Democratic Party is in response to Republican policy or
because of it, the Republicans seem to have everything to gain from the shaky
ground the Democrats find themselves navigating, Elgindy said.

Ilhan Omar's 'Benjamins' tweet storm: 'Criticising AIPAC is not anti-Semitic'


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"Either the Democrats will cave and adopt the Republican definition of what it
means to be pro-Israel or Democrats will have the draw a line and say no, but
open themselves up to being criticised as being insufficiently pro-Israel."
Omar and Tlaib have become easy targets of such criticism because of their
support for Palestinian rights - and Muslim faith, activists say.
The two Muslim congresswomen are the first to ever openly support the Boycott,
Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent campaign that seeks to
pressure Israel politically and economically to stop its abuses against Palestinians.
Last month, three House Republicans introduced a symbolic resolution to
condemn the "anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate infiltrating American politics and
the halls of Congress", calling out Omar and Tlaib by name.
The two have continuously denounced accusations of anti-Semitism, insisting
their views are against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, not Judaism or Jewish
people.
Following the resolution, House Republicans moved beyond singling out Omar
and Tlaib, blaming the entire Democratic Party for what they called "bigoted
rhetoric toward Israel".
"This is the mainstream position of today’s Democratic Party and their leadership
is enabling it," a statement by the Republican House leadership said late last
week.
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