In December of last year, Benjamin Netanyahu once again returned to the position of prime minister in Israel, leading a new far-right governing coalition that drew almost immediate international attention. Netanyahu’s government includes two right-wing and anti-Palestinian parties and leaders: The ultranationalist Religious Zionism Party led by settler-turned-Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and the Jewish Power Party and its vocally anti-Palestinian leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was appointed as the new National Security Minister. The government has quickly made good on its promise to expand settlements, diminish any hopes for an independent Palestinian state, and defy the Biden administration’s hopes for a two-state solution. Netanyahu himself vowed to alter Israel’s judicial system through a controversial set of reforms that would weaken the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to check the government, roll back protections for minorities, and potentially shield him personally from corruption charges.
The new Israeli government coincides with a new US Congress, a divided US government, and Republican control of the House of Representatives. While Netanyahu’s government pursues policies in defiance of the Biden administration’s declared aims, Congress has largely sat on the sidelines, watching as a country that receives billions in congressionally approved funding and security assistance each year continues to institute ill-advised and destabilizing policies. Indeed, as US Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) said, the 118th Congress has followed the Biden administration’s lead in appearing “weak” against the Netanyahu government. This is allowing it to attack the Israeli judicial system and create conditions for both violence against and the displacement of Palestinians.
Congress has followed the Biden administration’s lead in appearing “weak” against the Netanyahu government.
This is despite key partisan differences in the parties’ responses to ongoing developments in Israel. Republicans want the Biden administration to stay out of Israeli affairs, and have spent the past few months targeting funding for Palestinians and calling for increased US-Israel military cooperation. Democrats are divided, but many have raised concerns about the Israeli judicial overhaul through multiple letters calling on the Biden administration to intervene, especially during a rising tide of violence against both Israelis and Palestinians. However, they have failed to match their rhetoric with actual policy toward the Netanyahu government.
Failing to Constrain Netanyahu
Almost immediately following the Israeli elections and the formation of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Biden administration attempted to dismiss rumors that it would run into issues with the new far-right members of the government. Secretary of State Antony Blinken quickly congratulated Netanyahu on his forming a new government, telling the media that the administration would engage with the Israelis “on the basis of the policies they pursue, not the personalities that happen to form the government.” Secretary Blinken’s tepid and diplomatic response, which has been repeated by the State Department on multiple occasions, signaled the administration’s coming stance on provocative Israeli actions.
Around the same time that the Israeli government took shape, the outgoing 117th Congress was finishing its legislative agenda before lawmakers recessed for the winter holidays. And before the dust could settle on the new 118th Congress in early January, far-right members of the Israeli government quickly met expectations regarding how they would act. While the House of Representatives spent its first week dealing with intra-Republican drama, Ben-Gvir, newly installed as national security minister, made a provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, dangerously mirroring former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the site in 2000, which resulted in the outbreak of the Second Intifada. The same week, the new Israeli government legalized the Homesh settler outpost in the occupied West Bank, resulting in warnings from the State Department, but still no tangible pushback from the Biden administration.
The first few weeks of January turned out to be a clear indicator of what was to come from the Israeli government. During the first three months of the 118th Congress, Netanyahu and his far-right allies have organized deadly military raids on Palestinians that resulted in civilian deaths, encouraged a violent settler rampage in the Palestinian village of Huwwara, made remarks about “wiping out” Palestinians, overseen the expansion of settlements, and expressed a clear disregard for the Biden administration and its Palestine-Israel policy. President Biden has responded by dispatching his top officials, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary Blinken, to Israel to meet with Netanyahu; but those meetings clearly did not result in a change of policy. The administration has routinely expressed concern about these and other Israeli provocations, but it is failing to follow through on its rhetoric with any meaningful action.
The Netanyahu government has embarrassed the Biden administration, demonstrating that it does not answer to the US government at the present moment.
The Netanyahu government has effectively embarrassed the Biden administration, demonstrating that it does not answer to the US government at the present moment. In February, for example, the United States brokered a de-escalation meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, which resulted in the Aqaba Communique, a joint statement that included an agreement to temporarily freeze the development of new Israeli settlements. Israeli officials almost immediately contradicted the official statement, and key members of the Netanyahu government, including the prime minister himself, vowed that they would not stop their push for settlement expansion. Israel’s embarrassment of the US administration has since become increasingly personalized. Following pressure from President Biden himself over the abovementioned judicial overhaul, Netanyahu snubbed Biden, telling the world that, “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.” President Biden’s tense relationship with Netanyahu dates back to his days as vice president, but the disagreements have since escalated, and the United States has functionally lost influence over its closest ally in the Middle East.
Republicans’ Full-Fledged Support of Israel
Congress, for its part, has gone no further than the Biden administration has in standing up to Netanyahu and his government’s dangerous policies. Republicans have remained more unified than Democrats on the issue, maintaining strong pro-Israel positions. Unlike some of their Democratic counterparts, Republicans spent the first few months of the 118th Congress remaining silent about increased violence against Palestinians, settlement construction, and the judicial overhaul. They also took this time to find ways to strengthen the US-Israel relationship, focusing their efforts on ending US funding for Palestinian refugees and increasing US military and technological cooperation, thereby maintaining the traditional Republican stance on these issues.
When they have responded to the judicial reform issue, Republicans have chosen to simply stay out of the matter. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem in February, has suggested that the judicial overhaul is an internal Israeli matter that the United States has no business intervening in. Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), the top Foreign Affairs Committee Republican in the Senate, echoed this sentiment. And Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), who participated in the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus delegation to Israel earlier this year, directly criticized Biden’s so-called intervention, saying, “We shouldn’t be dictating to other countries what their judicial systems are.” Republicans have historically had a much better relationship with Netanyahu than Democrats, and the party’s leadership in Congress seems intent on preserving that relationship.
Democrats Must Match Their Words with Action
Unlike Republicans, Democrats are divided on how to deal with Netanyahu and his partners in the new Israeli government. Some members of the House and Senate have been rather vocal about the Netanyahu government, particularly on its attempts to corrupt the country’s judiciary. Only weeks into the 118th Congress, Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY) wrote an op-ed in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, titled, “As the Most Senior Jewish Member of Congress, I Now Fear Deeply for the US-Israel Relationship.” A few weeks later, Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) came out against the judicial overhaul. The largest statement, though, came in March, when Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) led 92 House Democrats in sending a letter to President Biden urging him to “use all diplomatic tools available” to convince Netanyahu to halt the judicial overhaul, and also expressing concerns about violence in the West Bank and the threat that annexation poses to a future Palestinian state.
In addition to the judicial overhaul, Democrats have sporadically, and largely individually, been vocal about the Netanyahu government’s other provocative actions. In February, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) condemned the Israeli government’s decision to legalize nine settler outposts in the West Bank and advance the construction of 10,000 settlement homes. Senator Murphy went further in an interview a month later, suggesting that the United States should consider conditioning US aid to Israel over the Netanyahu government’s “assault” on the two-state solution, an action that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has recently suggested as well.
Democrats are not unified on the issue. As the 92 Democrats were signing onto the DeLauro letter to President Biden, Representatives Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) expressed opposition to their fellow party members and argued that, “Congress should not publicly intervene in ongoing negotiations of a key democratic ally.” Some Democrats have mirrored the Republican approach, taking this time to press for increased US-Israel defense cooperation.
Democrats in Congress have largely remained unified behind President Biden regarding Israel.
In addition to expressing their concerns rhetorically, Democrats in Congress have largely remained unified behind President Biden. In the DeLauro Letter, House Democrats commended the administration’s “efforts to de-escalate heightened tensions in Israel and the West Bank.” Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee similarly commended the administration’s efforts at de-escalation in Aqaba and at a follow-up meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, both of which apparently failed to achieve their goals. Some Democrats, however, like Senator Van Hollen, have broken ranks with the administration and with party leadership. Last month, he pressed Secretary Blinken on the administration’s response to the Netanyahu government, telling Biden’s top diplomat that these failed efforts make the United States look “weak.”
The most radical break from mainstream Democrats comes in a yet-to-be-sent letter led by Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who are joined by progressive voices on Palestine, including Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Betty McCollum (D-MN), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). The lawmakers press the administration to “undertake a shift in US policy” toward Palestine and Israel and call on Biden to ensure that US taxpayer funds are not supporting illegal Israeli settlements. Most notably, this group of progressive Democrats is pressing the administration to determine if US weapons that have been sold to Israel are being used in violation of the Arms Export Control Act, the Foreign Assistance Act, and the Leahy Laws.
While the Bowman-Sanders letter, the DeLauro letter, and other responses from Democrats are certainly a break from the party’s staunchly pro-Israel stance, letters are not legislation. Democrats thus seem to be almost perfectly mirroring the Biden administration’s tepid response to Israeli provocations, repeatedly expressing concerns and condemning Israel’s actions, but ignoring the key fact that they themselves hold the legislative power to send a message to the Netanyahu government.
What Can Congress Do?
The United States sends at least $3.8 billion to Israel every year, and lawmakers have the power to decrease that funding. Rather than merely threatening to condition military aid to Israel, as multiple Democratic Senators have done in recent months, lawmakers should send the Netanyahu government a message through tangible legislation that actually conditions aid. This type of legislation has been introduced before. Representative McCollum introduced legislation to condition US aid to Israel during the last Congress, and her Democratic colleagues would be right to follow her lead. Congress is currently deliberating over the president’s new Fiscal Year 2024 budget, and there is plenty of room for legislation to demonstrate that at least one branch of the US government cannot be pushed around by its so-called greatest ally. While Republican lawmakers are unlikely to budge, Democratic lawmakers who are currently sitting on the sidelines as the Israeli government embarrasses their party’s administration should wake up to the changing realities of the US-Israel relationship and embrace their own party’s values, as are reflected in recent polling.
As US lawmakers sit this one out, the situation on the ground is only growing worse for Palestinians. Netanyahu paused his judicial overhaul earlier this month, but at the cost of giving Ben-Gvir power over what some fear would essentially be a private armed militia that would operate in the West Bank. And only days into the holy month of Ramadan, Israeli forces have twice attacked Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, leading to rocket fire from Gaza and southern Lebanon into Israel, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, and the all-too-familiar conditions that sparked a full-fledged war two years ago. The far-right Israeli government has made it clear that it will make good on its promises to move toward annexation and crack down on Palestinians, and it is time that Democrats in Congress and the White House address these warning signs with concrete policy.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Haim Zach/GPO