The Jerusalem Post

How to lose bipartisan support for Israel - opinion

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset plenum on Monday, as US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana look on.  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset plenum on Monday, as US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana look on.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)

How can we open the way for a more centrist government and the rescue of Israeli democracy?

This week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that if President Joe Biden doesn’t invite him to the White House, he’ll invite him to meet with Congress. Have they forgotten the damage done the last time that happened? McCarthy may not care, but Netanyahu should.

That speech exacerbated a crisis in US-Israel relations that still reverberates to the detriment of Israel. Netanyahu doesn’t need to drive another political wedge between Israel and American Jews and the party they overwhelmingly support.

Then-speaker John Boehner blindsided the White House in 2015 by inviting Netanyahu to lead the Republican campaign, along with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), against the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by President Barack Obama.

Actually, it didn’t create a new crisis so much as worsen the one concocted by Netanyahu and another Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich, in the 1980s. The pair, then working their way up their respective leadership ladders, worked hard to make support for Israel a partisan wedge issue, taking advantage of the fact that Democrats – like most American Jews – were more likely to favor the policies of the Israeli Left.


Difference in priorities between groups

For the Republicans, it was really about getting Jewish money. Jewish votes were always out of reach, but that never mattered. Despite the millions spent by the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Adelsons and others, 70% of American Jews continue to vote for the Democratic Party.

As former Ambassador Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s close adviser known as “Bibi’s Brain” and longtime pre-aliyah Republican operative, pointed out, his boss has cast his lot with evangelical Christians, a large and influential GOP constituency because they are more passionate about Israel and more supportive of its far-right policies than Jews, who are disproportionately among our critics, he said.

Netanyahu basked in the enthusiastic welcome of Republicans who saw him as their spear carrier in the war on Obama. It was an unprecedented violation of protocol, and Netanyahu, who has been called an Israeli Republican, paid little attention to the man sitting next to Boehner behind him: then-vice president Joe Biden.

Netanyahu’s credibility problem has only worsened. Neither he nor AIPAC has recovered, and their relations with the Democrats and Jews continues to be strained. McCarthy drove another wedge just before going to Israel, last week. He pushed a resolution celebrating Israel’s 75th birthday through the House, with AIPAC’s blessing, so he could present the document when he spoke to Knesset this week.

Sounds routine but it was really just another piece of partisan gamesmanship. It intentionally omitted any reference to longstanding US support for the two-state approach to peace. It was a blunt stab to force Democrats to go along or be branded anti-Israel.


No one has done more to undermine bipartisan support for Israel than its longest-serving prime minister despite his recent round of appearances on American television touting the relationship and Israel’s democracy at a time when he is driving his nation in another direction.

Netanyahu is unwelcome at the White House because Biden thinks he is leading Israel away from democracy and to an autocracy, with disturbing doses of theocracy and apartheid. No president ever came to the White House with a better record of support for Israel and knowledge of the issues and the region than Biden.

THE TWO leaders have known each other for many years. Biden once inscribed on a photograph to Netanyahu, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”

Biden has said his views on the judicial overhaul were also “the American Jewish position.” He’s right. More Jews here – and apparently in Israel, as well – agree with the Catholic president than with the Jewish prime minister about the danger of what has been called Netanyahu’s judicial coup.

Biden has been waging war against anti-democracy forces in the US – it was a major issue in the 2022 election and will be again next year – and he can’t turn a blind eye to what is going on in Israel.

The assault on Israel’s judicial system by Netanyahu’s government, the most extreme in Israeli history, has deeply divided the country to the point that President Isaac Herzog fears it could lead to civil war. For the past 17 weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting the effort to end judicial independence and the separation of powers.

Israel’s Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the driving force behind the overhaul, has accused the Biden administration of cooperating with the protesters, according to Israel’s Walla news site. Bibi’s incendiary son, Yair Netanyahu, also falsely accused the US State Department of funding the protesters, who he called terrorists with the aim of overthrowing Netanyahu, and which Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) blindly repeated.

McCarthy said the judiciary overhaul is an internal Israeli issue and the US should stay out. If he disapproves of Israel’s move away from an independent judiciary and towards a more autocratic government, he failed to say so. Instead, he focused on taking potshots at Biden, who really does care about such things.

It is rather disingenuous for McCarthy to start accusing Biden of meddling in Israeli politics. Not simply because his predecessors, like Gingrich and Boehneer, have done their own dabbling, but because there is no more notorious meddler than Netanyahu himself.

The Israeli leader told an interviewer “I speak Republican,” and it shows. Most notably, he gave his virtual endorsement to Obama’s 2012 GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, and Dermer helped organize the candidate’s campaign trip to Israel that year, which included several fundraisers with wealthy Republican friends of Netanyahu, according to The Atlantic. He implicitly endorsed Donald Trump twice with their shared mega-donor, Sheldon Adelson, and John McCain in 2008.

It should be pointed out that as strained as bilateral relations may be at the political and personal level, they remain strong in the defense, intelligence and security realms.

The best thing that can come out of this debate over the judiciary is for it to bring down this disastrous five-month-old government and force new elections. Some of the hardliners who demand passage of the so-called “reform” are threatening to quit if their demands are not met, while some of the more moderate members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party appear to be having second thoughts.

The latest polls show Netanyahu’s extremist coalition would drop from 64 to 50 seats (61 are needed to form a government), opening the way for a more centrist government and the rescue of Israeli democracy and a critical first step in restoring bipartisan support for Israel.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, a consultant, a lobbyist and a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.