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Israeli president walks congressional tightrope as support frays

Maintaining bipartisan support for Israel

Israeli President Isaac Herzog delivers a speech at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on Jan. 26.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog delivers a speech at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on Jan. 26. (John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli President Isaac Herzog will have his work cut out for him when he addresses Congress on Wednesday in a speech seen as an attempt at salvaging the decadeslong bipartisan tradition of staunch support for Israel that in recent years has shown signs of weakening.

Dismayed by the policies of successive governments led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Democrats are increasingly venting frustrations with what they see as antidemocratic and discriminatory actions, including an effort to weaken the country’s judiciary and to dramatically expand settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Republicans, meanwhile, are on alert for moves by the Biden administration to reverse the Trump administration policies that favored normalizing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“A lot of us who are steadfast supporters of Israel, from the far right to the far left to everything in between, have to acknowledge that the current Israeli government is allowing things that make [peace] more and more difficult to achieve,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting last week, commenting on the recent violence in the West Bank, which includes a recent two-day Israeli military raid on the Jenin refugee camp.

Herzog’s appearance is itself a sign of the changing mood. Congressional leaders wanted to demonstrate bipartisan support to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding, but Netanyahu has seen his standing with Democrats diminish since he last spoke to Congress in 2015. Even then, dozens of Democrats boycotted the speech because Netanyahu had allied himself with Republicans to try to block a multinational nuclear agreement with Iran being negotiated by the Obama administration.

“President Herzog has been such a force for good in Israeli society, as has his family,” said House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., at a news conference last week. “I look forward to welcoming him with open arms when he comes to speak before Congress next Wednesday.”

Critics have more grievances about Netanyahu and the government in 2023 than in 2015. 

During a panel discussion at the progressive Netroots Nation conference on Saturday, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called Israel a “racist state” due to its treatment of the Palestinians. She retracted her comment in a statement the next day but also said Netanyahu’s “extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies.”

In May, 48 House Democrats signed a letter supporting Israeli protesters who took to the streets for months this year to oppose a plan by Netanyahu and several of his ultra-nationalist ministers to overhaul the judiciary and give more power to the Knesset, where narrow majorities in recent years have sought to push through sweeping new laws.

The disapproval by some Democrats isn’t seen jeopardizing the U.S.’s annual $3.8 billion in military assistance. But Democrats are pushing back against Netanyahu’s preferred policies in smaller ways, including in their opposition to Israel’s longtime desire to be admitted to America’s exclusive visa waiver program. A handful of progressive Democrats have announced they will boycott Herzog’s address in protest. 

Responding to Jayapal’s weekend comments, the joint House Democratic leadership — including Jeffries and Democratic Whip Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass. — released a statement saying that “government officials come and go. The special relationship between the United States and Israel will endure. We are determined to make sure support for Israel in the Congress remains strongly bipartisan.”

Some Republicans, including ones from swing districts, sought to highlight their own support for Israel amid the Democratic party contretemps.

“Israel is one of our closest allies and its leaders are always welcome here,” said Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., a freshman lawmaker, in a statement criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., for announcing she would boycott Herzog’s speech. “I look forward to attending President Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress next week to commemorate Israel’s 75th anniversary,” Lawler said.

The White House hadn’t invited Netanyahu, who has led Israel since 2009 except for a recent 19-month break, to a meeting, as is customary, since he assumed office late last year. Netanyahu is currently on trial in three related corruption cases. In a call on Monday, the two leaders discussed a meeting in the U.S. this year but didn’t say where it would take place.

“The Israeli political system has shifted way to the right, and it is following down a path of countries like Hungary and [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan in Turkey and what is starting to happen in Poland: a non-democratic path they are starting to embark down with this judicial reform and with the ongoing behavior in the West Bank,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street.

“I think President Herzog’s message will be to say that Israel remains — despite what you may think about this government — Israel remains part of [the] democratic camp and shares those democratic values,” Ben-Ami added.

A shifting Democratic Party

Even with their modulated criticisms of Israel, Democratic lawmakers are still to the right of their base. For the first time in its annual survey on attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was released in March, Gallup reported that Democratic sympathies were more in favor of the Palestinians (49 percent) than with Israelis (38 percent).

In 2014, 58 percent of Democrats said they sympathized more with Israelis and 23 percent said they sympathized with the Palestinians.

Republican support for the Israelis has remained robust and largely unchanged in recent years, standing at 78 percent in the most recent Gallup poll.

“As a Jewish American, member of the United States Congress, I need space and place to criticize any country, at any time, for any reason if I see [injustice], and I think we have to maintain space and place to criticize Israel sometimes too,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee.

The Minnesota Democrat was speaking at a House Foreign Affairs Global Human Rights subcommittee hearing in June on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias. Acknowledging that some criticisms of Israel are antisemitic in nature, Phillips said efforts in the U.S. to police broader criticism of Israeli policies shouldn’t “limit that space though to a point where it becomes antidemocratic.” 

Lawmakers have also put more and more scrutiny on the administration, allowing less and less flexibility to the executive branch to decide on and administer policy toward Israel.

Last week, 15 GOP senators wrote to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to say they would block unanimous consent confirmation of diplomatic nominees until the administration allows U.S. scientific aid and technical cooperation to go to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The Trump administration decided late in 2020 to allow such aid, but the Biden administration reversed the policy.

The group emphasized that if the administration chooses to have different policies for scientific aid to Israel and to those territories Israel has militarily controlled since the June 1967 war, then it “would risk a full rupture in my/our ability to engage the Department of State on these issues.”

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas led the letter, and signatories included Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch of Idaho, Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations ranking member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott of South Carolina.

The decision to return to the pre-2020 scientific aid policy “is simply reflective of the long-standing U.S. position, reaffirmed by this administration, that the ultimate disposition of the geographic areas which came under the administration of Israel after 1967 is a final status matter,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said at a news conference last week.

“We are just reverting U.S. policy to where it was before 2020,” Miller said, adding that the vast majority of the more than two dozen diplomatic nominees waiting for Senate floor votes are career U.S. diplomats slotted for posts “essential to our national security.”

The Republican senators accused the administration of mounting an “antisemitic boycott of Israel.” That language increasingly infuriates Democrats, especially Jewish lawmakers, who say some GOP members who make the accusation have little understanding of Judaism or the history of Israel and, in the most egregious cases, perpetuate or wink at antisemitic conspiracy theories.

“Often though, when we express concern about the actions of the Israeli government, we are labeled — and especially and ironically by some of our colleagues across the aisle, our Republican members, and others in the fervent pro-Israel community — sometimes as antisemites,” said Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., at the June hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Global Human Rights subcommittee, where she is the ranking member. “I find this label — especially when it’s thrown out by members of Congress who have very little understanding of Judaism and Israel, including some who are QAnon followers — to be a very offensive statement.”

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