He highlighted the importance of international trade and relationships during his 16-minute speech, reiterating his apprehension about ongoing tariff tensions with China, which he called a “rogue” nation.
However, given the topic of the event, the conversation ultimately came back to a much different nation: Israel.
After extolling the significant bipartisan merits of fostering economic development partnerships between the U.S. and Israel, as well as Alabama and Israel, Jones concluded his remarks by addressing “the elephant in the room” — the ongoing, heavily publicized controversy involving Israel, U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and President Donald Trump.
Tlaib and Omar last week were barred from entering Israel on a congressional trip after the Israeli government learned of the freshmen Democratic lawmakers’ specific plans in the country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended this decision, explaining that a 2017 law denies entry to supporters of the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement.
The situation with Tlaib has gained extra attention, as she said she wanted to visit her 90-year-old grandmother in the West Bank, but, after being granted permission by the Israeli government to do so on humanitarian grounds, Tlaib refused to travel to the country.
This led Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to state that Tlaib’s “hatred of Israel is stronger than her love of her grandmother.”
Trump has been active on social media and in comments to the press attacking Tlaib and Omar over the fiasco.
On Tuesday, he broadened his comments, saying, “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
The president further said Omar “is a disaster for Jewish people” and lamented what the two have said in the past about Israel.
Jones on Tuesday expressed his hope that the situation can de-escalate on both sides of the aisle.
“[T]he relationship with Israel, I think is so, so important,” Jones said, saying how proud he was that Alabama in 1943 was the first state to call for the nation of Israel to be established.
“The commitment between the United States and Israel is as strong as it’s ever been,” Alabama’s junior senator advised. “And that is important. Israel has been such a strategic partner for the United States. And it has been good for us and it’s been good for Israel.”
“There’s been probably no better ally in the world in the last 40, 50 years than Israel. And we need to keep it that way,” he emphasized. “I want to make sure that we talk about that relationship.”
The senator outlined that there are strategic benefits for the U.S. in this relationship, spanning economic, military and humanitarian categories.
Jones also said the timing of the Birmingham event was “fortuitous” given the national controversy currently unfolding.
He called what was happening “a strain … with our relationship with Israel.”
“And I am concerned,” Jones stressed. “I will be very candid about this. I’m concerned that the relationship with Israel is beginning to see some cracks for political reasons. And that should not be the case. We need to do everything that we can in our respective countries to speak out against that. Because what I see and what I’m fearful of is that the relationship with Israel is now being used as a political weapon to try to divide people and try to drive political wedges for political gain. And it’s happening here, it’s happening in Israel. And we can’t, we can’t allow that to happen. Our alliance is too important to allow that to happen.”
He added that he was happy to witness firsthand Alabama and Israeli business leaders coming together to partner.
“[W]hat you’re doing, what you’re doing here is to demonstrate to so many people, whether they’re senators, whether they’re members of Congress, whether they’re members of the Israeli government or the President of the United States, that the foundations of the United States/Israeli relationship is strong, it’s bipartisan and it’s going to remain strong,” he told the crowd at Alabama Power Company’s headquarters building.
‘Not a whole lot of profiles in courage to stand up to your own party’
Lenny Roth, who co-chairs a PAC that supports positive relations between Israel and the U.S., then asked Jones if he is feeling pressure from his fellow Democrats, especially ones currently running for president in the 2020 cycle, to adopt an anti-Israel position.
“I think I’m the only one in the [Democratic] Caucus not running for president,” Jones joked.
Roth also asked whether supporting the country or not would become a litmus test for candidates, something he said would be unfortunate if it was to happen.
“I agree with you,” Jones responded. “There is a litmus test on the left, there is a litmus test on the right. And that’s unfortunate, and it goes way beyond just the Israeli thing right now.”
“I don’t feel any pressure in my caucus,” he added, getting back to the first question. “Where the pressure — it’s not pressure. Where the conflict comes is when you have certain members of the Democratic Caucus who say things that I don’t agree with and that so many of our caucus does not agree with and speaks out against — but yet when they get attacked on a personal level, when they get attacked as members of Congress, not because of just their beliefs but [they’re] because members of Congress and they get denied the right to go to visit [Israel] with other members of Congress, they’re — you have to defend those people as members of Congress. And therein lies the challenge, because people — there are those on the other side of the political aisle that want to kind of pull those together. And that’s going to be the challenge, I think, for people like me who absolutely have condemned comments that I found to be anti-Semitic by members of my party. Just like there are members in the Republican Party who have made comments that I believe are absolutely, unequivocally racist comments.”
He continued, “And people in the Republican Party need to condemn those remarks just as much. We don’t do enough of that. There’s not a whole lot of profiles in courage to stand up to your own party these days. I think you’re going to start seeing that more. I don’t feel any pressure, and I’m not going to feel any pressure. They know better than that. But I think the overwhelming numbers of people of goodwill of both Republican and Democratic Parties hopefully are not going to let this happen. They’re going to let this die down, and they’re not going to let this happen.”
Jones said the American-Israeli relationship will “take nurturing” moving forward to ensure longterm strength. He explained that “challenging members” of his own party “is the best” he can do right now to safeguard the relationship between the two nations.
From there, Jones was directly asked minutes later in a media gaggle about Trump’s statement made hours earlier, when the president said, “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
“I think it’s absurd,” Jones said of Trump’s statement. “It’s imbecilic almost, I mean — that’s exactly what I was talking about.”
He said whether it is the president or anyone else, any action “trying to drive a wedge” regarding the United States’ relationship with Israel is “shameful.”
Jones said Trump made the statement because the majority of Jewish voters voted Democratic in the last presidential cycle, according to Pew Research, and that the president is trying to “peel away” these voters.
“Look — if the president can’t win on his own policies and his own economic policies — the economy’s good even though we’re teetering right now — if he can’t win on his own policies, he apparently feels like he has to drive a wedge and use just language like that that is just absurd. And it is really unfortunate. It is unnecessary. And it really puts the United States at a real disadvantage on the world stage. And that’s what I think he doesn’t fully understand.”
The junior senator from nearby Mountain Brook was then asked about Omar and Tlaib, by name, being barred from entry into Israel on the congressional trip.
“Well, I don’t think it was appropriate. They [are] members of Congress. They [are] representatives of the United States who were going over there as part of a larger delegation. They should have been allowed to go just like the other members of the delegation,” Jones said, ignoring that the other members were not admittedly planning on breaking Israeli law. “Having said that, I don’t agree with a lot of their views about Israel. But they’re entitled to those views when we’re a country of diverse opinions and diverse political opinions.”
Still not invoking their names, he said Omar’s and Tlaib’s views about Israel “are not consistent with the historical relationship” between the two nations.
“What I will caution them to do is to not use such incendiary language, that they’ve often done, that confuses the relationship with Israel as being anti-Semitic,” Jones added. “And that has happened, and it’s unfortunate and should not happen.”
He stressed his belief that Israel and the United States “will get past this.”
Before leaving the venue, Jones seemed to stray from his anti-wedge stance, coming back to the “Russian collusion” narrative that Democrats have tried to use as a political weapon in referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as “Moscow Mitch.”
Jones has been consistent in stating his desire for the Democrats to retake the U.S. Senate, which would presumably make Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) the majority leader.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn