WASHINGTON — Several prominent veteran Democrats, alarmed by the party’s drift from its long-standing alignment with Israel, are starting a new political group that will try to counter the rising skepticism on the left toward the Jewish state by supporting lawmakers and candidates in 2020 who stand unwaveringly with the country.
With polls showing that liberals and younger voters are increasingly less sympathetic to Israel, and a handful of vocal supporters of Palestinian rights arriving in Congress, the new group — the Democratic Majority for Israel — is planning to wage a campaign to remind elected officials about what they call the party’s shared values and interests with one of the United States’ strongest allies.
“Most Democrats are strongly pro-Israel, and we want to keep it that way,” said Mark Mellman, the group’s president and a longtime Democratic pollster. “There are a few discordant voices, but we want to make sure that what’s a very small problem doesn’t metastasize into a bigger problem.”
The group, whose board includes former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and a former Clinton administration housing secretary, Henry Cisernos, will create a political action committee later this year and may engage in Democratic primaries, Mellman said.
They also are planning an “early states project” with the goal of organizing pro-Israel Democrats in the first nominating states to lobby the party’s presidential hopefuls.
For many traditional Democratic supporters of Israel, there is a deepening concern that voters in the United States’ two major political parties appear to be moving apart in how they view the country.
As Republican backing for Israel surges thanks to the rise of evangelicals in their coalition and President Trump’s close alignment with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an increasingly liberal Democratic Party is growing more uneasy with a country they see as an oppressor of a marginalized group, the Palestinians.
The shift on Israel reflects the larger Democratic tilt toward a brand of leftist politics that is creating tensions between the party’s old guard and an ascendant progressive wing that has been emboldened by Trump’s inflammatory politics, and the perceived compromises and failures of an earlier generation of moderates.
While the overwhelming majority of congressional Democrats are strong supporters of Israel, the party’s pro-Israel wing has been jolted by election of a pair of high-profile freshman, Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against the country.
But they are hardly alone among the newer Democratic lawmakers in taking, at least, a more nuanced view of Israel. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has called the “occupation of Palestine” a humanitarian crisis, and other progressives like Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington have not hesitated to criticize Israel’s use of force against Palestinian protesters.
Attempting to confront this new generation of Israel skeptics in Congress, the Democratic Majority for Israel is firing back with statements of support from other, young Democratic lawmakers who support the party’s traditional ties to the Jewish state.
“The relationship between the United States and Israel is a special one that is rooted in shared values, an important strategic partnership in the Middle East, perhaps the world’s toughest neighborhood, and a mutual commitment to a lasting two state solution,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the fourth-ranking Democrat and a potential future speaker.