Democrats Grapple With Party Tensions Over How The U.S. Should Treat Israel

Mar 26, 2019
Originally published on March 26, 2019 4:02 pm
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The pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC is meeting in Washington this week. Both Democrats and Republicans are speaking at the conference like they do every year. But Democrats are grappling with tensions within the party over how the U.S. should treat Israel. The party's presidential candidates skipped the conference, though other Democratic leaders went and addressed the controversy. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the stage at AIPAC this morning, she unequivocally asserted her party's support for Israel and its security. And she stressed repeatedly that such support in Congress is bipartisan.

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NANCY PELOSI: Israel and America are connected now and forever. We will never allow anyone to make Israel a web - wedge issue.

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GONYEA: That last part was clearly aimed at President Trump, who has labeled Democrats anti-Israel. And he's stepped up such attacks since comments last month by Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who criticized those who support Israel as having an allegiance to a foreign country. Representative Omar later apologized, but the president isn't letting go. Take this as he talked to reporters Friday.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know what's happened to them, but they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they're anti-Jewish.

GONYEA: Overwhelmingly American Jewish voters think otherwise. A solid majority are Democrats. Exit polls show that 4 in 5 voted for a Democrat for Congress in 2018. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the Jewish vote by nearly 3 to 1 over Trump. But at AIPAC this week, Vice President Mike Pence kept it coming.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: It's astonishing to think that the party of Harry Truman, which did so much to help create the state of Israel, has been co-opted by people who promote rank, anti-Semitic rhetoric.

GONYEA: Congresswoman Omar responded to the focus on her at AIPAC with a series of tweets, one of which said she has criticized AIPAC not because of its membership or the country it advocates for but, quote, "because it has repeatedly opposed efforts to guarantee peace and human rights in the region," end quote.

AIPAC has long cited the bipartisan support it receives from elected officials. Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer spoke and addressed the controversy ignited by Representative Omar without mentioning her by name.

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STENY HOYER: When someone accuses American supporters of dual loyalty, I say, accuse me.

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GONYEA: Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University says he doesn't see any of this having much impact on the Jewish vote. And he notes that Trump has his own problems with Jewish voters.

ALAN ABRAMOWITZ: You know, his reluctance in criticizing white nationalists and white supremacists and even neo-Nazis is something that doesn't sit very well with Jewish voters.

GONYEA: Abramowitz says the president's rhetoric may be more about energizing his own base, especially white, evangelical Christian voters. Democrat Andy Levin, like Representative Omar, is new to Congress this year. Levin has this to say when I ask him about the divide among Democrats on Israel.

ANDY LEVIN: It's funny. When you think about it, we have more unanimity on that issue than on many, many other issues.

GONYEA: Levin adds...

LEVIN: I sit on two committees with Ilhan Omar. I intend on building a strong relationship with her. We're learning a lot from each other.

GONYEA: The AIPAC Conference wraps up today. The issue and the debate will remain. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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