Will the midterms spell the end of US ‘red lines’ on Israel?


Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman speaks to +972 about a dangerous new phase in American pro-Israel politics.

On Nov. 1, Israeli citizens voted in what looks set to be to be the most openly far-right government in the country’s history. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Americans will also head to the polls, with a slate of far-right candidates poised to win their races across the country. How are these two countries’ elections connected? How have American candidates and lobbying groups used Israel to sink their opponents’ campaigns? And will the different potential outcomes of Tuesday’s elections alter U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine?

To answer these questions, +972 Magazine spoke with Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (full disclosure: the Foundation for Middle East Peace is a funder of +972 Magazine). Friedman is an expert on the relationship between American and Israeli politics, and has spent years tracking the ways in which Israel impacts U.S. campaigns and policy — from the hugely influential role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to efforts by 42 states to pass anti-BDS legislation.

Throughout our conversation, Friedman repeatedly stressed her surprise at the refusal of mainstream Jewish groups in the United States to draw any “red lines,” despite Israel’s increasingly brazen anti-democratic policies. Legacy Jewish-American organizations like AIPAC, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), as well as the U.S. government, have all continued to vociferously defend Israel at all costs while invoking “shared values,” she said. In Friedman’s view, even the entrance of the Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir and other far-right lawmakers into Israel’s new government seems unlikely to change this unwavering support.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the possible impacts of Tuesday’s midterm elections on U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine? What’s at stake on a federal level?

Lara Friedman. (Courtesy)

As far as federal policy goes, it’s pretty clear. There has been lots of legislation introduced over the years that shows us where we are headed: everything from building on the Taylor Force Act to ban all aid of any kind to Palestinians, calling all of it support for terror, all the way to delegitimizing and trying to defund UNRWA [the Palestinian refugee support agency]. There has been legislation introduced over and over that seeks to make it U.S. policy that the only Palestinian refugees are the people who were literally thrown out of their homes and not their descendants. There are efforts to go after the commission of inquiry [on Israeli occupation and human rights violations] and the United Nations in general, making the case that literally anything the UN does is by definition anti-Israel and antisemitic.

I don’t want to sound too glib about this, but really it ends up being a question of how brazen people want to be. If you had told someone that under the Obama administration you would find bipartisan support for language in two major trade bills that effectively erases any distinction between settlements and Israel [inside its pre-1967 borders], back then people would have said, “well, that’s silly, this is the Obama administration, that’s not going to happen.” And yet it did.

So the answer to your question of “what is possible” is only limited by people’s creativity. I analyzed a defense bill that was passed a few years ago and pulled out every piece of it that was related to Israel. Effectively, Congress had built into that law linkages to pretty much every single cabinet department, every single agency, which essentially gives Israel a seat at the table at some of the most sensitive strategic discussions we have internally. Anything can happen, frankly.

Then it comes down to whether we have a strong enough cohort in opposition that will say “this is unconstitutional” or “this is bad for the U.S.” and that is willing to stand up there and take the hit and be called anti-Israel and antisemitic. Unless people end up showing more courage than one might expect, it’s hard to see where the brakes are.

If Republicans sweep Congress on Tuesday, do you foresee an effort to codify criticism of Israel as antisemitism by adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism into law?

I think legislation codifying the IHRA definition is probably in play regardless of whether Democrats hold onto either chamber or not. As we go into presidential election season, the IHRA definition is just too powerful of a weapon to not be used.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking before the U.S. Congress, March 3, 2015. (Official Photo for Speaker John Boehner by Heather Reed/Flickr)

What has, I think, prevented things like that from moving forward for the past two years isn’t that there are no Democrats who support it, but rather that there are enough Democrats who don’t support it. Maybe Democrats take a small hit for not bringing the issue to a vote. But that’s totally different from what would happen if they brought it to the floor.

There is strong grassroots opposition on the left, and it’s loud and organized and principled. [Activists] would come out and say to Democrats, “What the hell are you doing?” On top of that, as we’ve seen when Iron Dome or Palestinian rights are discussed on the floor, the entire Republican caucus seizes the opportunity and says, “Look! Democrats have an antisemitism problem! Ignore the Nazis in our caucus. [Democrats] are the ones with the antisemitism problem.”

Then you see a good part of the Democratic caucus, led by people like Ted Deutch [who recently left Congress and now heads the AJC], joining the pile on and saying, “Republicans have an urgent antisemitism problem, but so do we, and we’ll be the first out the gate to shit on our own colleagues.” I think Republicans would be more than happy to set up situations in which Democrats disagree among themselves. I’ve said for years that as long as Democrats are unwilling to leave space for a spectrum of views on Israel within the caucus, they are handing a weapon to Republicans. And the Republicans don’t even have to use it. They just lob that weapon over and let Democrats use it against each other. They’ve done it over and over and over.

Speaking of partisan differences, or maybe more accurately, partisan overlaps, can you talk about the partisan breakdown of the different Israel lobbying groups and their influence this cycle?

AIPAC really heavily leans Republican. Its leadership comes from Republicans, a lot of its big money comes from Republicans, and it has been much more comfortable with Republican politicians and policies on Capitol Hill for years. It’s kind of a problem for them because they want to say that they are bipartisan. So when a new group called the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) suddenly appeared on the scene, it was understood by most people to be AIPAC’s Democratic arm that would speak in progressive language to keep Democrats on the pro-Israel side of the line.

The bottom line is that these groups have demonstrated that if you have enough money, you can own the public narrative enough to tip a race in your favor. Take the case of Andy Levin [a Democrat from Michigan first elected in 2018]. It’s not clear that he would have survived his primary even without AIPAC’s intervention against him. But the fact is that millions of dollars were spent to prevent him from winning by framing him as anti-Israel. This is a Jewish-American politician who is solidly pro-Israel but leans a little bit in the J Street direction and whose cardinal sin is defending Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s right to have her views. That was enough to get AIPAC involved in his race. He lost his primary.

The question we have to ask is not “Can AIPAC do this again?” The question is, “Do they even need to do it again?” This may have enough of a chilling effect that progressives walk around knowing that there’s a knife hanging over their heads if they sign a letter on Masafer Yatta against ethnic cleansing, or they co-sponsor another version of Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill on the rights of Palestinian children, or if they speak out on Israel in any remotely critical way. They are afraid of finding themselves in a race where their challenger suddenly has $6 million in funding in the last two weeks. That’s a pretty sharp knife to be hanging over your head.

How much has anti-BDS legislation progressed at the state level, and how might different outcomes in elections for governor and state legislatures affect state-level policy on Israel?

I’m not sure how much Tuesday affects that. State-level Israel policy has a momentum of its own. It comes in bursts. But it hasn’t been the focus recently. The focus has been on anti-ESG legislation, or what I call “metastasizing anti-BDS legislation,” where laws that punish people for boycotting Israel or settlements are taken and used as a template [for other forms of repressive legislation, such as laws banning boycotts of the firearms industry or fossil fuel companies]. But there isn’t a ton of energy [on state-level BDS bans] right now. I don’t know why. Maybe just people feel like for now, it’s been achieved.

The goal of this legislation is to create a U.S. bulwark against any economic activity that challenges Israel’s policies — and it’s worked! Ben and Jerry’s: success. Airbnb: success. So do you need to have a law in every single state that requires the state pension fund to divest from a company that boycotts settlements or Israel? Or do you see similar laws in enough states that the chilling effect is there, and the companies say, “I better not do this because we saw what happened with Ben and Jerry’s?”

Former Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked tours the Ben and Jerry’s factory near Kiryat Malakhi, with the CEO of the company’s Israel distributor Avi Zinger (r), July 21, 2021. (Flash90)

If you would have asked me 10 years ago if this anti-BDS legislation would actually take off, I would have said that AIPAC had overreached, that even the most ardent supporters of Israel will not tolerate seeing fundamental rights of Americans undermined for the sake of protecting Israel. I was wrong.

In late October, the wife of Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, defended her husband’s history of antisemitism by claiming they love Israel “more than most Jews.” Donald Trump made similar remarks earlier in the month. What is going on here?

I don’t think it’s new. We saw this across the whole of Trump’s time in office when he made comments about Israel as “your country” when talking to Jews, and Bibi being “your prime minister.” I would call this philosemitism, and philosemitism is a form of antisemitism. It is a fetishization of Jews, the Jewish people, and Israel, which exists side by side with a devout rejection and often hatred for the Jews who don’t fit into a box. It is the most classic form of antisemitism: you’re hating Jews simply because they are Jews.

Part of it comes from people who dream that all Jews “returning” to Israel will bring about the Second Coming. This is an extremely dangerous and worrying trend. And there are some Jewish community leaders and legacy Jewish-American organizations that embrace it because it agrees on Israel policy while literally standing by and endangering the majority of Jewish Americans who are not right wing and do not find themselves comfortably making common cause with dispensationalist evangelicals. This is not new, but the fact that it is so mainstream is new.

As of last Tuesday’s election, Netanyahu is poised to return to power and form a coalition with far-right Kahanists. This has ruffled some feathers in the U.S.: Sen. Bob Menendez warned Netanyahu that forming a coalition with the far right could erode American support. Then last week, a State Department spokesperson said that regardless of the election outcome, the U.S. hopes and expects Israel to maintain our “shared values,” such as protecting minorities. Do you think there is any possibility that the likely entrance of Ben Gvir into the coalition will be kind of a breaking point or a fork in the road for mainstream U.S. politics?

No. I saw Menendez’s comment at the time and remember thinking, “I wonder how far out he’ll go on a limb considering that this time around major legacy Jewish-American organizations have not said anything [about Ben Gvir].” [In the past], when there were hints that something like this might happen, you had major Jewish-American organizations and leaders make clear that there were red lines. That did not happen this time.

The fact is that lots of analysts saw this coming and warned us. The legacy Jewish-American organizations did nothing to frame a red line in advance. And by “in advance” I mean doing anything over the years to make this less likely to happen. The way that the Jewish-American community dealt with Bibi is an indication that there really are no lines.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party’s campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I do think it is worth noting that the Biden administration, during its two years in office, has lived with Israel taking actions that one would have expected to create some real tension. This administration did not take any steps to demand real accountability for the killing of a [Palestinian] journalist who is an American citizen, nor the killing of an elderly [Palestinian] man who is also an American, both at the hands of the Israeli army. Even if you want to say it’s more complicated, it doesn’t matter. We’re talking about American citizens being killed and the administration acting at best like slightly concerned bystanders.

The lack of engagement in any serious way to try to roll back Israel’s new entry requirements for the West Bank, which are draconian in the extreme, was pretty much met with silence. Settlement related developments? Silence. Masafer Yatta ethnic cleansing? Silence. Designation of the most important Palestinian human rights groups as terror organizations, including organizations that the U.S. has worked with for years? Literal silence. This administration’s approach to Israel has been clear and simple: “We’re not going to make a big deal out of pretty much anything you do.”

So I don’t think anything will change. The major Jewish-American organizations, as far as I can tell, are saying, “Our shared values remain the same. We continue to stand with Israel, whoever is in the government, our relationship is stronger than any one government. We applaud Israel’s vibrant democracy.” What they’re basically saying is there is no line. There is nothing that Israel could do that would shake this relationship. If someone said, “Well, what if they elect the Ku Klux Klan?” “Nope, still good!”

There’s a little bit of irony in this discussion of “shared values”: J Street released a list of over 100 candidates that AIPAC is backing who are election deniers. So when these organizations talk about shared values…

But they’re pro-Israel! Pro-Israel election deniers! The only thing that matters is whether or not they’re “pro-Israel.” That’s it. That’s all that matters. American Jews born after ‘67 were raised to say, “Okay, Israel is not perfect, but it is a democratic state. It shares our values of democracy, pluralism, tolerance, and coexistence.” But because of the occupation, which has seemingly become permanent, it’s impossible to come up with good arguments to defend Israel. So you have to come up with a different plan. Now the pro-Israel position is, “yes, democracy, pluralism, and tolerance are important. We care about them. But if we have to chuck all of those things overboard and stand shoulder to shoulder with the most illiberal forces in the world in order to defend Israel, then we will.” I’m not saying Jewish Americans bear full responsibility, but they certainly bear a piece of the responsibility.

You said that there seem to be no red lines on Israel for the U.S. government or legacy Jewish-American institutions. Do you think that there is some red line for American Jews? Imagine the confluence of a Netanyahu government with Ben Gvir as a minister and Trump or Ron DeSantis as president with a full Republican Congress. Do you think that there is some policy that the majority of Jews — who are self-identified progressive Democrats — would consider a red line?

Then-Representative Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, March 5, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I don’t know. Again, if you’d asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I would have told you that eroding the First Amendment in order to prevent criticism of Israel is a red line. I was wrong. If you had told me that in order to prevent criticism and activism on Israel, you would see Jewish progressives jumping on board with cheapening the concept of antisemitism, I would have said there is no way.

We have literal, surging antisemitism around the world — dangerous, lethal hatred of Jews — and it is not being addressed. Instead, there is further delegitimizing of Jews and non-Jews who disagree with [legacy Jewish-American organizations] on Israel. This is where we are. I would not have foreseen this, just like I didn’t foresee the attack on free speech. It is difficult for me, given where we are today, to imagine what the line that would be crossed is. I’m not super optimistic. People can pat themselves on the back and say, “Listen, I do have a line. I refuse to meet with Ben Gvir.” That makes zero difference. That’s performative garbage. Engaging in performative acts in order to congratulate yourself on having a red line — that isn’t the same as actually having a line.

Nate Orbach is a writer from Boston who is currently based in Jerusalem. Twitter: @NateOrbach