The United States Senate is putting the last touches on an anti-terrorism bill that’s opened a new era in Washington’s pro-Israel politics. It’s a rare case of a pro-Israel bill that stirred intense partisan debate, at least in its initial version. Even more unusual, the fight over the bill didn’t pit Israel against its critics, nor was it between clashing Israeli and American interests. This was a fight between Israel’s political leadership and its military leadership. That’s something new in Washington. It’s probably going to alter the landscape and change the rules.
It’s so new, in fact, that AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse, took the rare step of staying neutral and sitting out the fight. AIPAC said it didn’t want to get into a partisan Democrats-vs.-Republicans fight, though that hasn’t stopped it before. Insiders said AIPAC was actually confused by “mixed messages” coming from Jerusalem, government leaders vs. military advisers.
AIPAC’s withdrawal altered the usual rules of pro-Israel lobbying, leaving the field to strongly partisan groups on the right and left. The Likud and its partners quickly mustered support for the bill from a phalanx of passionate American supporters and surrogates with good ties to the GOP. Efforts were led by the Zionist Organization of America, the Orthodox Union and Christians United For Israel (CUFI), the Christian Zionist behemoth led by Texas preacher John Hagee.
The task was more complicated for the bill’s critics. Under traditional Washington rules, opposing steps to strengthen Israel meant you were pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, or at least looked that way. As one participant said this week, “Nobody in Washington wants to be seen standing up for the Palestinians.” But this bill’s main opposition came from Israel’s own defense and intelligence agencies. The generals had concluded that the bill as written would hurt more than help Israeli security. It’s a reflection of a growing rift between Israel’s political and security establishments — or, as some generals put it, between what the right believes and what the intelligence shows.
The generals’ frustration has been mounting for about a decade, and each year has produced a crop of new retirees ready to go public. In 2014 a group was formed, now numbering close to three-fifths of all retired Israeli generals and spymasters, to say aloud what their uniformed brethren say in closed cabinet sessions. This spring the new group, Commanders for Israel’s Security, took the unprecedented step of bringing their beef to Washington to stop the new anti-terrorism bill. There they joined forces with normally controversial groups on the Jewish left, the Israel Policy Forum and J Street. That made it harder to paint the bill’s critics as anti-Israel, though some are still trying.
What emerged may be the new reconfiguration of pro-Israel Washington politics: Republicans, backed by CUFI and ZOA, backed by Israel’s Likud government, versus Democrats, backed by J Street and the Israel Policy Forum, backed by the Israeli military, represented by its retirees.
The bill that caused all the fuss is known as the Taylor Force Act, named for an American grad student killed last year in Tel Aviv by a Palestinian terrorist. Introduced in the Senate last February by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, it calls for slashing U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, with the goal of pressuring the authority to stop paying pensions to convicted terrorists and their families. Republicans, echoing the right flank of Israel’s elected government, argued that the pension payments amount to a reward for terrorism. What’s more, they said, the cash effectively encourages more terrorism by providing a financial incentive.
Democrats, echoing concerns of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, countered that the planned aid cuts would actually hurt Israeli security by defunding critical social services, which would increase popular discontent and destabilize the already-weak Palestinian Authority. What’s more, it would sap the motivation of Palestinian security forces, which the military views as an important partner in fighting terrorism, something the right questions.
Mostly left unsaid, but whispered by insiders, is that the Palestinian Authority is not going to halt the terrorists’ pensions, however repugnant they appear to Israelis. Most West Bank Palestinian families have had relatives imprisoned for security offenses. What’s more, the attackers seen by Israelis as common criminals or worse are viewed by most Palestinians as patriots. That clash of values is one reason Israel’s defense establishment is so eager to put a strong border between the two societies.
The rancor continued from February until July 11, when the bill finally came before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Once in session, the two sides agreed on amendments that answered the worst of the critics’ objections. The initial version had cut nearly all Palestinian aid, preserving only a few essential programs like the Israeli-Palestinian security coordination. The compromise restored some critical social programs, targeting the cuts mainly at funds “directly” aiding the Palestinian Authority’s own operations. That compromise enabled AIPAC to get on board, and it passed the committee August 3 on a bipartisan 17-to-4 vote. The Democrats were split, six voting for, four against.
Those four Democratic “no” votes illustrate how much harder it is to heal American Jewry’s rifts than Israel’s. The four based their objections on two main issues. One was the lack of a presidential national security waiver, a standard feature in measures like this. The other was the bill’s failure to define what constitutes “direct” aid to the Palestinian Authority, leaving it to Washington bureaucrat to decide how widely Palestinians are targeted — which means how much further to fuel Palestinian anger.
And so the tale ends with a concerted campaign directed against the four holdouts, labeling them — and sometimes Democrats in general — as “anti-Israel” and “betrayers of Jews,” which is a short step shy of “anti-Semite.” Two of the four are from Northeastern states where that sort of rhetoric can have real electoral consequences: Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. (The other two are Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.) And Murphy is up for reelection next year. Watch for a noisy campaign targeting him as an enemy of Israel. His crime: standing up for the Israeli army.
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Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).