As Israel Reaches a Boiling Point, Washington’s Concern Grows

By | Jul 24, 2023

Jewish politics and power

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1. Crafting a Careful Message on Israel

Tensions in Israel reached a peak Monday as the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, approved the first slice of the judicial overhaul by Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. The 64-0 vote, reached after hours of deliberations, marked a breaking point. It is the first real-world move to turn the conservative coalition’s vision of Israel’s judiciary into a reality and a blow to hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have packed the streets for 29 weeks in opposition.

In Washington, President Biden and his foreign policy team are watching these developments with a growing sense of concern. The administration’s initial reaction to Monday’s vote—which opposition leaders in Israel’s parliament boycotted by walking out—noted the “unfortunate” passage of part of the judicial reform involving the so-called reasonableness standard that allows the Supreme Court to overrule the government. The Biden administration also repeated its calls for the Israeli government to “work toward a consensus-based approach through political dialogue.”

In a frenzy of activity over the last week, Biden has tried to signal to Israel in every possible way that it’s time to stop. After telling Fareed Zakaria on CNN that Netanyahu’s government has some of the “most extreme” members he’d ever seen, Biden picked up the phone and called Netanyahu last Monday. It was the first phone conversation between the two since March, and while stressing the need for a broad consensus on any judicial reform, Biden also extended an invitation to Netanyahu for a meeting sometime in the fall. It was a half-hearted invite, but one that grabbed the headlines in Israel. Briefing reporters, a member of Netanyahu’s staff spoke of a formal invitation to visit the White House, an honor that has been denied the Israeli PM since he formed his latest government. But Biden’s team spoke about no more than a “meeting” somewhere in the United States, at some future time this year.

“Not uncommon, not unusual,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby later explained in an interview with Israel’s KAN-11 TV. “It doesn’t mean that our natural and very friendly concerns over what’s going on in Israel have abated.”

Throughout the week, Biden’s White House continued to toggle between open criticism of the Israeli government and a warm embrace of the country and its people. When the invite to meet with Netanyahu was spun in Israel as a sign of Netanyahu’s success in winning over or at least wearing out Biden, the White House made sure columnist Thomas Friedman got a long sit-down with the president and conveyed to his readers, and to the Israeli leadership, Biden’s real concerns and his call to stop the legislative overhaul. And after administration officials made clear that Biden would not intervene directly in Israel’s legislative process, the president made a statement to Barak Ravid of Axios, stressing that he thinks “it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this.”

It was a calculated set of signals that, if successful, could have helped Netanyahu use Biden as an excuse to walk back his legislative moves. Netanyahu ignored the signals coming from Washington and chose not to use this option. Still, this should not necessarily be seen as a loss for the Biden administration; they succeeded in sending a nuanced message of concern and support, overcoming instincts that may have pushed for a harsher response and leaving the door open for further dialogue.

2. Biden’s Red Line: No Direct Intervention

Does the president of the United States have the power to force Netanyahu and his government to change course?

One could argue that as the only superpower in the world, as the guardian of Israel’s security and existence in a hostile area, as a provider of nearly $4 billion a year in aid, and as Israel’s top defender in the international arena, Biden clearly has the levers of power needed to force Israel to drop the judicial overhaul.

But Biden, like every other president before him, knows that these tools can only be used carefully. The United States will never make a move that threatens Israel’s security or well-being. At most, it can send friendly hints of disapproval, give the leader a cold shoulder or, as was the case with President George H. W. Bush and Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir, deny Israel nondefense financial assistance.

Biden has no interest in going down that path. His challenge now is to sway Netanyahu without creating a crisis in the relationship, and—just as important—without getting dragged into the nitty gritty of Israel’s legislative details. The White House made clear it will not wade into specific questions relating to Israel’s reasonableness clause, to the makeup of its judicial nomination committee or to its court’s ability to override legislation. What they care about is not allowing Israel to go on a path of narrow-majority decisions on crucial legislative changes. The details should be left to Israelis themselves.

3. Herzog Markets Israel to Dems

Herzog’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday was a celebratory event by all standards. Most members of both chambers showed up (only six, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, boycotted the session,) and during the speech and the following reception, one may have gotten the impression that, just for a moment, bipartisanship surrounding Israel was once again alive in Washington. Herzog received 29 standing ovations, almost all from both sides of the aisle.

But at its heart, the well-written speech was crafted for Democratic ears.
Time and again, the Israeli president emphasized messages meant to assuage Democrats who have been growing impatient with Israel and are weary of its government’s current direction. “Israel has democracy in its DNA,” Herzog promised. He painted the ongoing protests in Israel as proof of the nation’s vibrant democracy, and argued that Israel maintains religious tolerance, depicting a Friday afternoon scene from Israel, in which, “the sound of the Muezzin calling to prayer blends with the siren announcing the Sabbath in Jerusalem.” And just to add another layer of tolerance to Israel’s liberal portfolio, Herzog mentioned that at the same time, on this imaginary Friday afternoon, “the largest and most impressive LGBTQ Pride parade in the world is going on in Tel Aviv.”

As corny as this scene may sound, it can go a long way to providing mainstream Democrats with ammunition in their battle to maintain a pro-Israel posture in a party gradually shifting away from blind support for the Jewish state.

4. Political Pile-on #1: Pramila Jayapal Edition

What led Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to declare Israel a “racist state” on July 15 is still a mystery. As is her decision, a day later, to take it back. What is obvious, however, is that Washington—being Washington—pounced on the opportunity to play party politics.

A quick recap: After being heckled by pro-Palestinian protestors during a progressive event, Jayapal responded on stage: “I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible.”

The backlash was swift and powerful. Jayapal got slammed by fellow Democrats, rival Republicans and practically every pro-Israel advocacy organization. On July 16, she issued a detailed statement, trying to explain, offering her apologies, and clearly stating: “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist.”

This could have been the end to a short yet unfortunate affair. But it was too good to let go.

By Tuesday, House Republicans were ready for a floor vote on a resolution declaring that Israel is not a racist state. The resolution passed by a majority of 412 to 9 and was a huge success. Not for the State of Israel, which doesn’t really need a declarative House resolution stating that it is not racist, but rather for GOP members who won easy political points by bringing it to a vote, and then more points for singling out the nine Democrats who voted against it. Jayapal was not one of them; she voted yes.

5. Political Pile-on #2: RFK Jr. Edition

Republicans have Pramila Jayapal, and Democrats have Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The facts: RFK Jr., who is running in the Democratic presidential primary even though his positions are anything but representative of the party, made a troubling comment at a private political event in New York City on July 13. Kennedy, who is an anti-vaxxer, stated that COVID-19 is “ethnically targeted.” He explained that COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately” and that it is “targeted to attack Caucasians and black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
Democrats immediately shot back, accusing him of antisemitism and racism. A letter, organized by two Jewish-American members of Congress and one Chinese-American and signed by 102 Democrats, demanded that RFK Jr. be disinvited from the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, before which he was set to testify on his experience as a critic of government COVID policies.

It didn’t help much. The letter went unanswered.

Kennedy showed up to the hearing, was greeted warmly by the committee’s Republican leadership, and got into a heated exchange with Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Kennedy did not apologize nor did he take back his comment. He used the opportunity to claim that he is not an antisemite or a bigot and to argue that those making that claim were doing so in order to silence him. And since the topic of the hearing was “government’s role in censoring Americans, the Missouri v. Biden case and Big Tech’s collusion with out-of-control government agencies to silence speech,” RFK Jr’s claim fit in perfectly with the general theme of the hearing.

Image credit: Beny Shlevich (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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