Hoyer’s AIPAC Speech Illustrates Israel Predicament
Coming just weeks after the Omar controversy, the conference allowed Democrats to reaffirm their support for Israel but also provided Republicans with an opportunity to needle them over the divisions that burst into public view in its aftermath. Omar, along with Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, represents a new generation of liberal House Democrats who won competitive primaries and challenged the party’s history of staunch support for Israel. Omar and Tlaib are the first two Muslim women to win election to the House, and both have criticized Israel for human-rights abuses toward Palestinians in their campaigns and since taking office. Both also back the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that Democratic and Republican leaders assailed repeatedly during speeches at AIPAC. Ocasio-Cortez has not been quite as hostile in her public comments toward Israel since her election, but last May she accused its military of “a massacre” of Palestinians in Gaza, and she referred to Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank during an interview later in the year. Broader criticism from liberals of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, including from more senior Democrats, has further complicated U.S.-Israel relations.
House Democrats spent days internally debating the wording of a resolution condemning Omar’s comments, eventually settling on a version that did not name her and that rejected not only anti-Semitism but all forms of bigotry. Vice President Mike Pence, while extolling the Trump administration’s support for Israel in his speech at AIPAC, lamented that “the party of Harry Truman”—who first recognized Israel as the Jewish state in 1948—“has been co-opted by rank anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
President Donald Trump, who did not attend AIPAC, has gone further, calling Democrats “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish.” The administration is clearly trying to drive a wedge between Jewish voters and Democrats ahead of the 2020 election, but despite the recent controversies, it seems a questionable ploy: Nearly 80 percent of American Jews voted Democratic in 2018, and 32 of 34 Jewish members of Congress are Democrats.
Hoyer’s unambiguous defense of Israel at AIPAC was aimed, at least in part, at blunting the GOP’s attempt to undermine Jewish support for Democrats and create the perception of a deep intra-party divide on the issue.
“I stand with Israel, proudly and unapologetically,” Hoyer said at another point.
By the next afternoon, however, the Maryland Democrat had issued a written statement clarifying a portion of his remarks, saying that they were “unfortunately misinterpreted.” It read almost like, well, an apology.
He was referring to an ad-libbed line late in his speech that alluded to Omar, along with her like-minded freshman colleagues, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib. He was boasting of the 15 official trips to Israel he’s taken over nearly four decades in Congress, during which he’s brought more than 150 fellow Democrats to visit the Jewish state. “This August, I will travel with what I expect will be our largest delegation ever—probably more than 30 Democratic members of Congress, including many freshmen,” he said. Then, departing from his prepared remarks, he added: “By the way, there are 62 freshman Democrats. You hear me? 62. Not three.” The line drew knowing laughs and applause from the audience.