Liberals Aren't Alone in Growing Anger at Bibi — and Distrust of Israel

Unease Over Policy Spreads Toward Political Center

Tim Kane at the Western Wall in January 2015
Courtesy of Tim Kaine
Tim Kane at the Western Wall in January 2015

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 12, 2015.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine is a longtime centrist Democrat from a purple state who has little in common with his party’s liberal wing. But Kaine found himself joining forces with progressives March 3 in boycotting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress.

Initially it was Netanyahu’s timing, just two weeks before elections in Israel, that angered Kaine, along with the way Israel’s Washington ambassador arranged the speech secretly with Republican congressional leaders — excluding the president and his fellow Democrats.

Kaine, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, saw Netanyahu’s congressional jeremiad against a potential deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program under these circumstances as a political stunt.

After the speech, Kaine, who in fact agreed with some of Netanyahu’s points, felt even more incensed.

“It was just an exercise to paint a straw man and knock it down,” he told the Forward in a March 10 interview. “My concern about the real purpose of the speech was sort of demonstrated by the speech itself.”

Kaine’s views on Netanyahu’s speech and on some of his policies illustrate how the sense of malaise pro-Israel Democrats are experiencing has spread from the liberal wing of the party toward the center, even among some who share the Israeli leader’s concerns about a potential nuclear deal with Iran.

Kaine is hardly an Israel scolder; even his dissatisfaction with recent events is couched in nuanced and cautious ways. That’s a far cry from some progressives in his own party who have increasingly pulled no punches in their criticism of the Israeli leader. One of them, Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, who is Jewish, went as far as calling on Israeli voters to oust Netanyahu.

Kaine, a former governor of Virginia who was considered by Barack Obama as a possible running mate in 2008, talked about a sense of sadness at the way Israel and the Republicans had treated pro-Israel Democrats like himself. “I think the behaviors we’ve seen in the last weeks make those of us who are pro-Israel Democrats feel like they are trying to push us away,” he said. He cited by name House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Israeli envoy Ron Dermer — and Netanyahu himself. Democrats, he added, “don’t like feeling like we’re being pushed aside when we’ve been strong supporters of Israel for a very long time.”

As the Netanyahu speech recedes in Washington’s rearview mirror, the longer-term damage the episode wreaked on the bipartisanship that had long characterized Congress on Israel remains unclear. The lingering feelings expressed by centrists like Kaine may not augur well. And the efforts by some liberal activists to, at the very least, pry support for Israel from its long-standing mandatory place on the liberal agenda may have gotten a boost.

Under different circumstances, Kaine, a member of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Near East and South and Central Asian Affairs, would have been an important ally for Netanyahu in Congress. He agrees with the Israeli leader’s concerns over Iran’s belligerence toward its neighbors, and agrees, too, on the safeguards necessary to ensure that Iran doesn’t cheat its way around the nuclear deal now being negotiated between itself and six other countries, including the United States. Kaine has also co-sponsored a bill requiring congressional involvement in any deal ultimately reached with Iran.

“The president cannot negotiate over the congressional sanctions regime and have an expectation that Congress will just stand back and not do anything on this issue,” Kaine said, defying a threat by President Obama to veto the bill. But the spat over Netanyahu’s speech has now clouded his view of the Israeli prime minister.

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