Will Democrats boycott Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on March 3? Why didn’t Republican National Committee members boycott a trip to Israel hosted by the American Renewal Project and paid for by the American Family Association?
Let’s recap: two left-leaning watchdog groups called on members of the Republican National Committee to forego the trip to Israel. Not surprisingly, RNC members did not much care what People for the American Way or the Southern Poverty Law Center think of the AFA, the American Renewal Project, or their Holy Land trip. Even the Anti-Defamation League calling the trip “inappropriate” failed to move these Republican Party leaders to reconsider their decision.
No matter that David Lane, organizer of the trip, champions Christian nationalism here at home, or that the AFA and in particular, its egregious non-spokesman, Bryan Fischer, promote Islamophobia, xenophobia, and homophobia, and link homosexuality to Nazism. The AFA’s removal of Fischer from his role as a policy analyst did little to cut ties, as he retains his radio program and his visibility on the AFA’s website, penning articles like one from earlier this week charging that Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God.
It’s not surprising that the RNC members didn’t care what PFAW or the SPLC think of their trip—or even what the ADL has to say. The trip, organized by Christian Zionists, isn’t intended to make either left-leaning watchdogs or leading American Jewish organizations happy. It’s intended to continue to build a movement of Christians who uncritically support Israel—a movement from which, in the end, right-leaning pro-Israel American Jewish groups have a hard time disassociating themselves.
Here at home, there are noises that House Democrats might (emphasis on the word might) boycott Netanyahu’s speech. Politico reported this morning that Democrats have privately (emphasis on the word privately) hinted that they might skip the speech. Politico also reported that Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, had a “spirited” meeting with seven pro-Israel House Democrats. The AP reports that Rep. Steve Israel, the Democrat who arranged the Dermer meeting, said that “one thing we all agreed on emphatically is that Israel should never be used as a political football.”
Although Vice President Joe Biden has not committed to attending the speech, this seems like pressure, not a full-on boycott. After all, the most J Street has called for is a delay of the speech until after Israel’s March 17 elections (on the grounds that the March 3 speech damages U.S.-Israel relations), and even that has moved only a small number of Democrats. As Greg Sargent observes:
Among them are Reps. Steve Cohen, Keith Ellison, Maxine Waters, Earl Blumenauer, Jared Huffman, and Senator Chris Coons. Others have criticized the “protocol” of the speech — which isn’t that hard, given that this criticism is mostly directed at Republicans — but have stopped short of calling for a delay, which could have actual consequences. Meanwhile, there is a letter circulating among Democrats that calls for a postponement, but it is unclear how many of them have signed it.
Why so timid? It’s facile to blame it all on AIPAC (which, incidentally, despite not having been in on the invite, has encouraged all members of Congress to attend the speech). Christian Zionist activism plays a huge role here as well—and this incident demonstrates precisely why Lane’s Israel trip is undertaken in the first place: to give party officials the material with which to counter any deviation from the “pro-Israel” line, to link supporting Israel with Lane’s agenda of “restoring America to her Judeo-Christian heritage,” and to establish Republican bona fides on being Israel’s staunchest ally.
The “pro-Israel” camp has capitalized on Democrats’ timidity by portraying anything remotely critical of Israel as anti-Israel (and, by extension, un-American) and anything questioning Netanyahu’s position on Iran as Chamberlain-esque appeasement. The “pro-Israel” camp vociferously opposes nuclear talks with Iran, and just as adamantly supports sanctions legislation. Therefore Netanyahu’s speech isn’t portrayed as a political ploy, but as a national security imperative, both for Israel and the U.S.
Some Democrats have apparently had it, but what will that add up to? Peter Beinart writes that Dermer and his mentor Netanyahu routinely enrage official Washington—but continually get away with it:
Why do Netanyahu and Dermer act this way? Because they can. Because they pay no real political price. Look at Netanyahu’s own career. In 1989, as deputy Israeli foreign minister, he so angered the George H. W. Bush administration that James Baker banned him from the State Department. After Bibi’s first meeting with Bill Clinton, Clinton reportedly screamed, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” In 2011, after Netanyahu flew to the White House to publicly rebuke Obama for having proposed a settlement with the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines plus land swaps, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden privately reprimanded Bibi for his insulting tone.
Yet despite all this, Netanyahu has not paid a serious price. Never during his two stints as prime minister has the United States threatened aid or withdrawn diplomatic support at the United Nations. The Obama administration has made no serious effort to boost his political rivals at home. No wonder Dermer thinks he can get away with insulting the White House. He’s watched his mentor do it successfully his entire career.
Of course there’s still a way out for Netanyahu (and Dermer): Netanyahu himself could cancel or postpone the speech, claiming pressing issues at home demand his attention. That might look like a victory for the Democrats, that their pressure forced Netanyahu to back off. But even if it did, it could be written off as a small, partisan, outlier chapter in a much bigger story of friendship cemented by Republican Party officials traveling to Israel with the American Family Association and the American Renewal Project.