Republicans Define What It Means to Be Pro-Israel

On July 8-9, the Evangelical Christian Zionist group known as Christians United for Israel (CUFI) held its annual summit in Washington, DC. CUFI brings thousands of delegates to the city to hear American and Israeli officials speak. They also fan out across Capitol Hill to lobby their elected officials on issues pertaining to Israel.

This year, CUFI hosted some of the most recognizable Republicans in Washington—and not a single Democrat—to discuss, among other things, their views on why US support for Israel is important and to rattle off the number of victories they say they have accomplished. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman represented the Trump Administration over the two days. GOP Congressmen Mike McCaul (Texas) and Dan Crenshaw (Texas) made appearances, as did Senators Roy Blunt (Missouri), Marco Rubio (Florida), Ted Cruz (Texas), and Tim Scott (South Carolina).

These administration officials and Republican members of Congress were there to boast of their pro-Israel bona fides and to pillory Israel’s foes like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran. What was most notable, however, was that the speakers went to great lengths to narrowly define what it means to be “pro-Israel” and to try to draw contrasts between themselves and the Democratic Party.

List of Successes

One theme was common throughout the speeches of each of the Republican officials: Donald Trump is the most pro-Israel president that the country has ever had. Pence, Pompeo, Bolton, and Greenblatt elevated this point relentlessly. They recounted how President Trump moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, closed the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and cut funding for and withdrew from the UN Relief and Works Agency and the Human Rights Council, respectively. They also spoke about their efforts to combat anti-Semitism, withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and recognize the occupied Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory.

The members of Congress rattled off this same list of “victories,” as Senator Cruz called them, but he and others also highlighted their legislative accomplishments. Cruz and Scott both talked about their successful efforts to pass through the Senate a resolution and a bill combatting anti-Semitism. For his part, Rubio underlined the fact that he sponsored a part of S.1 that looks to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Defining Support for Israel

These policy decisions and legislative efforts undoubtedly benefit Israel. While anti-Semitism legislation is important for showing solidarity with Jewish communities across the globe that are being subjected to rising levels of anti-Semitic speech and violence, these Republican-led efforts to show support for Israel narrowly define what that support means. In addition, when Democrats or individuals sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians disagree with this definition, many Republicans rush to paint their detractors as hating Israel or being anti-Semitic.

To these government officials, anything other than carte blanche support to Israel is insufficiently pro-Israel. President Trump has also shown almost no interest in pushing back against Israel’s arguably most right-wing government ever. Further, even questioning what Rubio and Pence both described as “consensus support for Israel” is disqualifying by their definitions, as it is not enough. McCaul all but said that having a pro-Israel stance should be a precondition to sitting on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Pence was less veiled, asserting that “…anyone who slanders those who support this historic alliance between the US & Israel should never have a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives.” Moreover, the vice president noted that several members of Congress who are currently running for the Democratic nomination for president voted against the anti-BDS bill that Rubio introduced. Pence said that not supporting that bill is equivalent to not supporting Israel and, in his opinion, supporting Israel is a prerequisite for running for president.

Predicament for Democrats and the Pro-Palestinian Camp

This narrow definition of supporting Israel is problematic for the dozens of politicians and countless Americans who do not subscribe to this understanding of US-Israeli relations. The Republican idea of unquestioning support for Israel opens up critics to frequently unfair and unfounded charges of anti-Semitism.

During Pompeo’s speech, the secretary said very plainly that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, full stop.” Rubio also said that the BDS movement is inherently anti-Semitic. Essentially, by using these definitions of what it means to “stand with Israel,” some of Washington’s most prominent Republicans are trying to close down any avenue to criticize Israeli policies or push a fundamental change in those policies. The pro-Palestinian camp cannot even criticize what Bolton called Israel’s “thriving democracy” without being charged with delegitimizing the Jewish identity of Israelis and the democratic system of Israel.

For Democratic politicians especially, this is a trap. Many Democrats—whether out of an affinity for Israel, cultural ties to the state, or an unwillingness to look more dovish than their Republican counterparts—will agree to adopt this definition alongside the GOP. However, public polling says that a sizable part of what constitutes the Democratic Party’s base (e.g., younger voters and voters of color) are disenchanted with US policy toward Israel and are growing more sympathetic toward Palestinians. Therefore Democrats, especially those pursuing statewide or nationwide offices, must be wary of defining what it means to support Israel too narrowly. This dichotomy between Republican and Democratic definitions of supporting Israel was on clear display with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) this week. She told the liberal group “IfNotNow” that she would look to push Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Warren was immediately pilloried by the Republican Jewish Coalition for her “’Occupation’ Comment.”

Conclusion

Republicans went before the CUFI membership and, to standing ovations, painted a picture of US support for Israel that was uncritical and enduring. To be insufficiently pro-Israel, by their definition, is to be ill-qualified to hold prominent roles in Washington—or worse, it might mean that one is anti-Semitic. For those who advocate a more balanced approach to US-Israeli relations, it is crucial to avoid being tethered to this narrow definition. To be sure, anti-Semitism is unacceptable and some members of Congress very clearly need to choose their words more carefully. However, questioning what has long been “consensus support for Israel” should be fair game, particularly because Israel’s government and society continue to veer further and further to the right.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Saudi Arabia Diplomatic Review Act. On July 9, Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) introduced S. 2066 which looks to force the government to undertake a wholesale review of Washington’s policy toward Saudi Arabia. The administration would have 270 days to review the strategic relationship and to issue a separate report regarding the Saudi government’s activities in the United States. The bill would also force the president to deny visas to high-ranking Saudi officials, though he could waive that rule if he deems it necessary.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Write to Trump on Iran. After Iran notified the international community that it exceeded a key limit on stockpiling low enriched uranium set forth in the JCPOA, Republican senators, including Senators Cruz, Rubio, and Tom Cotton (Arkansas), wrote a letter to Trump urging him to end the remaining waivers on Iran’s nuclear program and to prod the United Nations to “snapback” sanctions that had been lifted under the terms of the deal.

Rep. Gottheimer Pens Op-ed on Israeli Human Rights Record. On July 4, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey), one of the more conservative Democrats in the House, penned an op-ed defending Israel’s human rights record. In a classic use of “whataboutism,” the congressman ignored Israel’s very real and persistent human rights abuses against Palestinians; instead, he compared Israel’s human rights record to that of its neighbors in the region, which is also very troubling.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner, Greenblatt Opine about “Next Steps” for Peace Plan. During an interview on July 3, White House advisor Jared Kushner told reporters that he and his team were considering unveiling the next steps in his purported peace plan in as soon as one week.

In the following days, Special Envoy for Negotiations Jason Greenblatt told the CUFI summit attendees that to him, the next steps will involve determining when and how the political portion of their plan will be presented. He said that he and Kushner will take time to receive feedback from those who attended the Bahrain workshop and then adjust their proposals accordingly. Greenblatt also said that in an effort to circumvent the Palestinian leadership, the White House is considering inviting Palestinian journalists to meet and discuss the administration’s plan so that those reporters can then “explain to the [Palestinian] people what the plan is all about.”

Qatari Emir Visits Washington. This week, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Washington to hold meetings with Trump Adminsitration officials and business leaders. During his visit, he met with President Trump, Vice President Pence, members of the State Department—including Secretary Pompeo—as well as Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Emir also attended a reception at the Treasury Department.

2) Department of State

State Department Signals Support for Sudan Agreement. On July 5, organized Sudanese protesters under the banner of “Forces for Freedom and Change” agreed to a deal with the Transitional Military Council that would see the government handed over to civilians in just over three years. The State Department called the agreement, which is being referred to as one of “power sharing,” a good step in the process and encouraged the sides to pursue further progress toward democratic civilian governance.

Hook Says Trump Administration Seeks a Treaty with Iran. During an interview this week, Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, said that if the administration can negotiate a new nuclear accord with Iran, the Trump Administration would want it to be submitted to Congress for approval and ratification as a treaty.

3) Department of Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Hezbollah. This week, the Treasury Department sanctioned three more members of Hezbollah for their roles in the group. Two of the sanctioned individuals are actually members of Lebanon’s parliament, while the other is head of Hezbollah’s security service.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here