In her extraordinary book “The Upside of Down,” Bloomberg View economics and business columnist Megan McArdle writes that failure is a key to success—in business and life—so long as we recognize and learn from it. In politics, as in business, inertia and comfort are powerful forces for unwise continuity despite changing reality.
Like Blockbuster or Kodak, the American pro-Israel community has had a great run. But the Barack Obama years have broken the community’s old model and, barring correct diagnoses and corrective action, risk driving it into catastrophic irrelevance. Any solution will require reassessing the political model that has defined the efforts of pro-Israel organizations. Unfortunately, most of these groups continue to adhere to a strategy of strict bipartisanship that the Left is telling us—if we bothered listening—is no longer operative.
Democrats’ Support for Israel Is Over
For a few decades now, Israel has enjoyed an unprecedented window of broad bipartisan support. Bolstered by a confluence of backing from, first, the still-powerful (and disproportionately Jewish) old Left that remembers Israel as the country from a Leon Uris novel and, second, the rising pro-Israel religious movement among evangelical Christians, this phenomenon was already well underway when the 9/11 attacks catapulted pro-Israel sentiment to its apogee.
This window was always going to close, as all windows do. Now, with apologies to David Bowie, it’s beyond time to turn and face the strange.
Last Friday, the Brookings Institution released the results of recent polling that measures differences in American attitudes on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The data bring into stark relief the massive divide between Democrats and Republicans. Only 17 percent of Democrats believe the incoming Donald Trump administration should favor Israel.
Democrats overwhelmingly support (70 percent) U.S. acquiescence to or leadership of unilateral anti-Israel action at the United Nations. They support (60 percent) the radical approach of sanctioning Israel for Jewish housing construction in disputed areas. A majority (55 percent) of Democrats say Israel has too much influence on U.S. policy. The same majority of respondents call Israel “a burden.”
This polling is broadly consistent with Gallup and Pew surveys from earlier this year that showed a huge gap in support for Israel between the parties. While overall support for Israel remains strong among Americans, the Left’s support is collapsing. The further Left one goes, the worse it gets.
An Anti-Semite Wants to Run the Democratic Party
Anecdotally, the trend is equally unmistakable. Earlier this year, the Democratic Party’s platform committee included stridently anti-Israel voices such as Cornel West, James Zogby, and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). The latter is now a leading candidate to head the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Ellison has such a toxic record on Israel that Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban, a major funder of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, called him “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel.” To deflect such criticism, the Left has even created its own organizations—J Street being a prime example—to provide politicians cover for anti-Israel votes and statements.
Despite the Left’s repeated attempts to communicate that they’re just not that into us, the pro-Israel community hasn’t gotten the message—and congressional Democrats know it. In 2013 to 2014, 59 senators had signed on to new Iran sanctions despite opposition from the Obama administration. After the administration leaned on Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), he backed off and, despite a near veto-proof majority of sponsors, the pro-Israel community also backed down because the sanctions were no longer a bipartisan effort.
The same thing happened in the House of Representatives, with then-DNC Chair and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) and House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) backing off new Iran sanctions. Again, pro-Israel groups let them get away with it in the name of bipartisanship.
This pattern repeated itself several times, ultimately leading to the failed attempt to block the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the Iran nuclear deal the Obama administration brokered. At every turn over the course of two years, congressional Democrats would begin negotiating with Republicans, only to back off at the last minute because they and the Obama administration knew that, without Democrats on board, the pro-Israel community wasn’t going to fight for anything.
Insisting on Bipartisanship Now Hurts Israel’s Interests
Why, when the evidence of partisan drift and corresponding congressional subterfuge is so clear and overwhelming, do pro-Israel organizations continue to act as though a bipartisan consensus on the Jewish state exists? They would answer that the issue is too important to allow it to become “partisan.”
What happens, they ask, the next time a Democrat comes into office with partisan inclinations on the U.S.-Israel relationship? The mutually beneficial alliance between our two countries would be at risk, the pro-Israel groups argue. But anyone who reads the polling data would understand that the alliance is already at risk because support for Israel is cratering on the Left. Isn’t it wiser to take preventive action now?
Despite often-heroic efforts from Jews and non-Jews, professionals and volunteers, and liberals and conservatives, the window of a broad bipartisan consensus on Israel has closed. Congressional Democrats are using its memory to thwart key strategic goals of the pro-Israel community. If failure is a key to success, the pro-Israel community—many of whose leaders are themselves committed and active Democrats—must accept that a new reality is upon us.
Once we accept this fact—and it is a fact—the only responsible course of action is to undertake dramatic changes in strategy and tactics. These will be difficult and uncomfortable steps. There will be more failures. But failure is a key to success—if you learn from it.