Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky is far from alone in her anger at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following his recent speech to a joint meeting of Congress warning against a deal with Iran being negotiated by the Obama administration and six other governments.
But Schakowsky, an eight-term Jewish veteran of Congress and member of the party’s House leadership, is the first to openly urge regime change in Jerusalem.
Asked in a March 10 phone interview about steps that can be taken to mend fences between Israel and congressional Democrats, the Illinois eight-term congresswoman told the Forward that the most positive measure would be for Israeli voters to oust Netanyahu.
“Obviously one thing that would help…if the prime minister were to lose the elections and a different government would be set up, that would change the dynamic between the United States and Israel.” Schakowsky said that this new dynamic would “without a doubt” be a positive change for Democrats.
Another step suggested by Schakowsky was for Israel to replace its ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who planned Netanyahu’s invitation with Republican House Speaker John Boehner to occur two weeks before elections in Israel and did not inform the administration or Democratic congressional leaders about it beforehand. Dermer, a Miami native who worked for Republican political consultants before immigrating to Israel, “is perceived to be a Republican operative,” said Schakowsky. “His collaboration with John Boehner on this speech has in many ways made him toxic to a lot of Democrats.” Replacing Dermer, she said, “would be a good thing.”
Israel will hold elections on March 17, and according to public opinion polls the race is tight with a slight advantage to Netanyahu’s chief rival, Isaac Herzog and his Zionist Union party. While criticism of the Israeli prime minister is widespread within the Obama administration and among Democrats, all have made sure, until now, to avoid any appearance of choosing sides in Israel’s democratic process. In that context, Schakowsky’s remarks about Netanyahu stand out as unusually bold.
Schakowsky, who has been rated as one of Congress’ most liberal members, has sought throughout her career to combine a pro-Israel approach with a progressive worldview. “As a Jewish Congresswoman,” boasts her on-line biography on the House’s website, “Jan has a deep personal connection to the State of Israel and has consistently voted for measures to assure Israel’s security and to promote efforts toward a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace.”
In 2014, Schakowsky co-sponsored a resolution defending Israel’s conduct during its military campaign that summer in Gaza against critics who held the country responsible for the many civilians killed. In 2010, she voted to condemn the United Nations’ Goldstone report, which found that Israel had committed war crimes during its 2008 Gaza military campaign.
“As a Jew, support for Israel is in my DNA,” Schakowsky said in a February 25 statement. ”I strongly agree with both the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the United States that Iran can never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon.” But she stressed to reporters on Capitol Hill, “The House of Representatives is the most prestigious venue in the world, and to use it for political purposes was something that I did not want to be part of.”
Born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Schakowsky grew up in Chicago, where she started her political career. Her congressional district includes much of the city’s heavily middle class north and far northwest sides, where many Jews live, and affluent northern suburbs, such as Evanston, Skokie and Willmette, which are also heavily Jewish. She is viewed as a leader among congressional liberals.
Despite her open criticism of Israel’s policies of expanding Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank, Schakowsky has forged a good relationship with Israeli representatives. She was also among the first House members to accept endorsements from the political action committee of J Street, the dovish Israel lobby, but also maintained a good working relationship for many years with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the much larger establishment lobby group.
Nevertheless, she was challenged in 2010 by Joel Pollak, an Orthodox Jew, who argued that she was insufficiently supportive of Israel. According to The New Yorker magazine, a small but vocal contingent of AIPAC members were behind Pollak.
Her harsh reaction to Netanyahu’s speech may further complicate her relations with AIPAC.
Schakowsky described the Israeli prime minister’s speech as a call for military action against Iran. “What I heard was a drumbeat for war,” she said, explaining that the only alternative he left for resolving the nuclear issue is “another war in the Middle East.”
But despite the recent spat, Schakowsky does not see a long-term impact on how Democrats view Israel. “I don’t think this will influence the amount of unwavering support,” she said, noting that when speaking to Jewish friends and constituents she senses only concern about Netanyahu, not about their relationship with Israel. This appears to reflect her own approach.
“I’ve been asked to make a choice between Boehner and Bibi, and Barack Obama, and I support Barack Obama,” she said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.