The decision by the Israeli government to bar two Democratic congresswomen from Israel -- Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar -- has led to unprecedented pushback against Israel by Democratic Party politicians. Even representatives thought of as pro-Israel stalwarts are furious, and they're not making any effort to hide their ire.
Some people are attributing this change to fear, or more accurately, the removal of fear. Democrats aren't "afraid" to criticize Israel anymore. They're no longer "cowering" before the all-powerful Israel Lobby.
But this misunderstands what's happening, because it misunderstands how the Israel lobby has operated in Washington.
Contrary to popular belief, the Israel lobby does not generally rely on fear and intimidation. It secured its power through many years of relationship-building, gaining trust, and establishing channels of communication. It was very rare that AIPAC or anyone else had to play "bad cop" (and in fact, AIPAC is very ineffective when it tries to take on that role). Democrats were not "silenced" on Israel -- yearning to speak out, but cowed by threat and menace. Rather, Democrats were enmeshed in a dialogic relationship with the pro-Israel community that relied upon mutuality and reciprocity; the sense that each side would listen and by listened to in turn.
And that -- decades of hard, arduous work -- has been almost entirely torpedoed over the past few years.
“There’s concern with regard to the U.S. government official involved here for politicizing his role and using his diplomatic platform to behave in a way that for the past 2 1/2 years that has been very undiplomatic,” said Halie Soifer, the director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, who served in the Obama State Department and as a Senate foreign relations staffer.
Dermer is especially despised among Jewish Democrats and pro-Israel Democrats for what they regard as partisan disrespect for their office and their pro-Israel bona fides. Jewish Democrats in Congress, who once looked forward to attending Israeli Embassy events, now are less likely to make an appearance.
Until the 2015 Iran speech by Netanyahu, Dermer maintained civil ties with Democrats. Especially galling for Democrats was that Dermer and Netanyahu agreed to a condition of then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that the planning be kept a secret. (Planning for the speech started in late 2014, and Boehner surprised Democrats and the pro-Israel community with his announcement of Netanyahu’s speech the day after Obama delivered the State of the Union on Jan. 20, 2015.)
Once Dermer worked with Republicans to ambush Democrats, he was seen as partisan.
[Rep. Steny] Hoyer is especially infuriated because he extracted the commitment from Dermer to allow in Tlaib and Omar so that he could talk other lawmakers into joining a trip to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Hoyer got 41 Democrats to go, which is believed to be the highest number ever. Hoyer has led the trip for decades.
Hoyer took the group to Israel, talked up the alliance and declared it a success before he was blindsided by the decision on Tlaib and Omar. While conservative Jewish groups hailed the decision, saying Israel was in its rights to keep out two lawmakers who support the movement to boycott Israel, pro-Israel critics said it gave ammunition to those who accuse Israel of being anti-democratic and an unreliable ally.
Aaron Keyak, a longtime Democratic Hill staffer who is now a consultant to Jewish and liberal groups, said the anger ran deep precisely because of the trust that Jewish and pro-Israel Democrats had long placed in Israel and its governments.
“These are friends going back decades pleading with their friends in Jerusalem and at the embassy not to let this happen,” Keyak said in an interview. “What helps sustain the U.S.-Israel friendships are the person-to-person friendships between our two governments. It was not just the overall relationship that was damaged, it was those personal relationships that were also betrayed.”This is the big change. It's not newfound "courage", it's not the removal of "fear". There's nothing new now that would make Democrats less "fearful"; it's not like Mossad Hit Squads went on vacation this summer. What's new is a failure of trust; the knowledge that this relationship of mutuality and reciprocity now clearly flows entirely one way. Democrats have learned, in a very real and visceral way, that all those years of dialogue, all that time invested in building a relationship, counts for absolutely nothing. The Israeli government is happy to sell them all out for .5% boost in the Knesset poll and a pat on the back from Donald Trump.
This relationship took decades to develop. The damage that's been done just this week (to say nothing of the past few years) will take at least as long to undo -- if it ever can be.