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With new Israeli government, Democrats may seek ‘reset’

Splits among Democrats over policy toward Israel and Palestine remain deep, but new government without Netanyahu could ease them

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Corrected June 8 | Intra-Democratic Party tensions over U.S. relations with Israel and the Palestinian people, already high after last month’s war between Israel and Hamas, are likely to remain roiled as progressives and centrists grapple with how to respond to the formation of a new Israeli coalition government.

Democrats are looking at the expected new Israeli government, which involves an awkward alignment of far-right, centrist and left-wing parties, just as they begin the process of writing an annual foreign aid bill that delivers billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in military support to Israel and hundreds of millions of dollars in development and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.

More immediately, lawmakers may be asked to consider an emergency funding request from Israel, which reportedly could be as much as $1 billion, to replenish the country’s Iron Dome missile defense stockpile. The system was heavily relied on during the recent 11-day war with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Domestically, the formation of a new Israeli government has the potential to put on pause, perhaps temporarily, the growing divide between Israel and the Democratic Party. The extent of that rift was thrown into sharp relief last month when many prominent progressive Democrats and even some centrist party members — well-known for their previously staunch support for Israel — issued statements and made speeches that criticized the Israeli government’s conduct in the recent war, which killed more than 250 Palestinians and 10 Israelis.

“After years of incendiary behavior, the U.S.-Israel relationship — or more accurately the Israel-Democratic Party relationship — has a chance to turn the page,” said Carmiel Arbit, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council who studies Israel’s politics and diplomacy..

The coalition government, which still needs to be ratified by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, would be led until 2023 by Naftali Bennett, a hard-right politician, tech entrepreneur and former defense minister. He opposes a two-state solution and wants to see much of the occupied West Bank annexed by Israel.

But it is an open question how long the new coalition government might last, as it is composed of political parties with massive policy differences between them that are united mainly by their desire to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led the country for the past 12 years. Even now, Netanyahu, who overtly aligned himself with the Republican Party and former President Donald Trump, is working to sink the new government in the remaining week before it is to be formalized.

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Democratic groups optimistic

The Biden administration and prominent elected Democrats have yet to release statements about the new government. On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to comment on the new government until it had been formalized.

“Obviously, we’re not going to speak to government formations while it’s in process,” Price told reporters. “Our stalwart support, our ironclad support, for Israel will remain.”

However, different groups on the pro-Israel spectrum aligned with the Democratic Party issued statements that were generally optimistic about the new government’s potential to “reset” relations with Democrats.

“We note with pride that this government is not only expansive, including parties representing the right, left, and center of Israeli politics, it is also inclusive, with Arabs, women, and Jews of color holding key positions,” said Ann Lewis and Todd Richman, the board co-chairs of the Democratic Majority for Israel, a centrist advocacy group for Democrats. “With President Biden and Democrats leading America, and a new government in Israel, this is a moment of hope and opportunity.”

J Street, the more liberal and larger pro-Israel advocacy group increasingly favored by Democrats, was more cautious about what the leadership of Bennett, whose positions on the Palestinians place him to the right of Netanyahu, would foreshadow.

“While we have good reason to hope that [the new government] would be far more moderate and reasonable than its predecessor in many areas, we also cannot expect that it will act to end the intolerable, unjust, and deteriorating status quo of endless occupation and recurring violence,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street.

Few Democrats will mourn Netanyahu’s likely loss of power. But some advocates of Palestinian rights are worried it will put a halt to what they saw as positive momentum toward Democrats being more willing to question the United States’ long-standing unconditional support for Israel and Washington’s grudging tolerance of Israel’s creeping annexation of the Palestinian territories.

Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American and fellow at the think tank Arab Center Washington DC, told CQ Roll Call he sees elected Democrats as largely falling into two groups, one of which includes the generally younger, more progressive lawmakers “for whom this confrontation with Israel is about a clash of values” and for whom “a shift from Netanyahu to Bennett is certainly not going to make things better when it comes to that confrontation and is only going to accelerate it for those Democrats.”

The other group consists of generally older, establishment Democrats, many of them in leadership. This group includes Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

“I do think that others at the top have come to grow quite resentful of Netanyahu, not because of the values issue, but because of the way he has deliberately politicized this issue [of support for Israel],” said Munayyer, noting that Netanyahu’s moves to align his government with Republicans go beyond his close political alliance with Trump but also include his efforts to undercut the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as former President Barack Obama was trying to ensure its survival before Congress.

Munayyer predicted these Democrats in leadership are likely for political reasons to conclude that Bennett is preferable to Netanyahu despite his harsh anti-Palestinian positions and will likely calculate that he lacks the political mandate to do much in the way of formal annexation.

“I think that there are some that might say, ‘Well, look, you know, whatever Bennett’s views on the Palestinians are, you know this is an Israeli issue, it’s not our place to sort of dictate Israeli policy for the Israelis, but if he stays out of domestic American politics than that is a refreshing change from Netanyahu,’” he said.

“I think that there are going to be some who are interested in resetting a bipartisan pro-Israel consensus for purely political reasons, and I think those voices are at the top. They’re older voices in the party; they’re legacy voices in the party. And I don’t think they represent the future.”

Foreign aid fallout

Any political fallout from last month’s war in the Gaza Strip and the formation of a new Israeli government will be on display this summer as lawmakers mark up annual spending bills that typically provide $3.8 billion in annual military grants for Israel and hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and development assistance for U.N. agencies and private nonprofit organizations that provide services to the Palestinians.

A new wrinkle in the debate this summer is an expected emergency funding request from Israel for roughly $1 billion to replenish its stock of missile interceptors, which were significantly reduced after shooting down thousands of rockets launched by Hamas. A bilateral memorandum of understanding that governs how much military aid Israel receives yearly from the United States allows for Jerusalem to request supplemental funding in an emergency.

The last time Israel fought a war with Hamas in 2014, the country subsequently received $225 million in supplemental appropriations from Congress to replenish its interceptor stockpile. The United Nations estimated that Hamas fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel in 2014 during the seven-week war. Israel has said that this year Hamas fired 4,300 rockets in just 11 days. 

But Israel is now reportedly going to request more than four times the 2014 money even though last month’s Gaza War lasted roughly one-fifth the amount of time of the 2014 war, which lasted 50 days. Progressive Democrats who are already inclined to question military assistance to Israel may question why the amount of emergency funding is so much higher this time.

There is also a chance that Democratic appropriators will seek to increase funding to the Palestinians or look to ease the considerable constraints imposed over the years by Congress on how foreign aid can be spent in the Palestinian territories.

Foreign aid is legally prohibited from directly benefiting Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip even as it remains under an Israeli naval and land blockade, or the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank.

“Many of us care greatly about the families, the Palestinian families. I worry about all the restraints,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., at a State-Foreign Operations subcommittee hearing last month. “If we don’t improve the lives of the Palestinian people, what we’ve seen in the past few weeks will just continue to grow. Hopelessness will be there. And everybody will be in danger.”

Leahy asked Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to work with the committee to see “how we might get back to where we can start working with the Palestinians.”

The Biden administration has pledged more than $110 million in new humanitarian and development assistance to the Palestinians to try to recover from the latest war.

Administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Power, held meetings in Washington on Thursday with senior Israeli officials. According to U.S. readouts of the meetings, ensuring that humanitarian aid can be delivered to Gaza as well as broader longer-term development assistance to the Palestinians were discussed.

This report was corrected to accurately attribute comments by Atlantic Council fellow Carmiel Arbit.