The Jerusalem Post
Can Bennett restore bipartisan support?
One of the most important challenges facing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new government is restoring bipartisan American support for Israel. His predecessor left office – with all the savoir-faire of Donald Trump – by hurling a spiteful attack on President Joe Biden intended to poison the well between the Jewish state’s new leaders and the nation’s most important ally.
Biden must have been glad to see Benjamin Netanyahu go. After waiting weeks to call the then-prime minister after the inauguration, he phoned to congratulate Bennett only hours after he was sworn in on Sunday.
Bennett takes office with some great advantages. For starters, he’s not the abrasive, deceptive Netanyahu. He comes to office with the most diverse cabinet in Israeli history, including an Arab party for the first time instead of Netanyahu’s collection of ultra-Orthodox parties: the racist Religious Zionist Party, the extremist Kahanists and convicted felons.
Yair Lapid, the alternate prime minister in a two-year rotation deal and head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, is the new foreign minister. He immediately pledged to mend Israel’s long-torn fences with the Democrats and mainstream American Jews. He excoriated Netanyahu for taking “a terrible gamble, reckless and dangerous” by focusing “exclusively” on the Republican Party.
He can demonstrate his seriousness by quickly appointing envoys to Washington and the United Nations who share that goal, replacing Gilad Erdan, the Netanyahu loyalist and Likud politician now holding both jobs.
A petulant, petty and bitter Netanyahu left the country deeply divided, not only internally but from the American Jewish Diaspora and long-time American supporters in the Democratic Party.
No foreign power, Arab or otherwise, has done as much damage to US-Israel relations.
Netanyahu abandoned Jews and Democrats years ago – although about 70% of Jews identify as and vote Democrat, according to the Pew Research Center – to make alliances with Republicans and Evangelicals. Along the way he made no secret of his animosity toward Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and particularly Barack Obama. Now he’s added Biden to his list.
Ron Dermer, the former ambassador known as “Bibi’s Brain,” said publicly what had been his boss’s longtime approach. Evangelical Christians outnumber Jews more than 12-to-1, by his estimation, and Israel “should be spending a lot more time doing outreach to Evangelical Christians than you would do to Jews.” His boss was happier with “passionate” American evangelicals – whatever their “end time” theological motives – than with Jewish “critics.”
Former Israeli diplomat Barukh Binah wrote in his blog, “The Evangelicals may be friendly all the way to Armageddon, but they are not family.
Shimrit Meir, a Middle Eastern studies scholar, has written that “Israel cannot continue to be the Republican Party Middle East branch as it was for the last few years.” She called for “structural change in the way we work with Washington”
Under Netanyahu there has been an erosion of Israeli democracy, as he became increasingly autocratic, corrupt and divisive. Indicted for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, he not only refused to step aside but sought to change laws to shield himself from all charges past, present and future.
THERE WILL BE disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington, but tone can be as important as substance, and the new leaders say they intend to disagree without being disagreeable. An early test may be Biden’s intention to return to the Iran nuclear pact, which Bennett opposes but won’t be declaring war on the American president as his successor did.
You can be sure he won’t use Netanyahu’s analogy, comparing Biden’s policy with US failure to bomb Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. The former PM conveniently overlooked the fact that as a result of Trump’s leaving the agreement, under Netanyahu’s intense pressure, Iran today is closer to the nuclear breakout than it was four years ago.
Netanyahu has pledged to direct his energies to bringing down the new government (he’ll also be focused on his criminal trial and, like Trump, staying out of prison). For that he has a Fifth Column in America.
Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, assorted Evangelical leaders like John Hagee and Mike Evans and, of course, Trump himself will try to portray themselves as the true defenders of Zion against Biden, and cast the Democrats as the mortal enemies, each in their own demagogic pursuit of their 2024 presidential ambitions.
They can count on Netanyahu’s full backing as they push resolutions, amendments and laws through Congress designed to show that Democrats – especially with their Muslim members and progressive critics – don’t love Israel as much as they do. They will try to undermine and delegitimize Biden just as Netanyahu is trying to do to his Israeli successors. Bennett might be to the Right of Netanyahu, but that doesn’t deter the former PM from calling him a “dangerous... leftist.”
In contrast to the GOP and more like the Democrats, the new Israeli government, known as the “change coalition,” is the most inclusive in that nation’s history, including one-hird women ministers (whose faces were blacked-out in haredi – ultra-Orthodox – newspapers) and an Arab party for the first time.
This government may be a case of who is inside being less important than who’s outside. Absent are the corrupt and parochial ultra-Orthodox parties that have been Netanyahu’s most reliable and over-indulged base. They have abused that power at the expense of the rest of the nation, both in democracy and in treasure.
Haredi leaders have called the new government “wicked,” “dangerous” and a “despicable sacrilege.” Many are anti-Zionist. They reject pluralism and do not consider Reform and Conservative Jews – the overwhelming majority of American Jews – to be real Jews.
Under Netanyahu’s government they tightened their iron grip on religious and family law, blocked egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, decided who is a Jew and set rules for marriage, divorce and conversion.
American Jewish leaders who have long privately complained of the damage Netanyahu did to the bipartisan consensus in support of Israel must work to help with a badly needed reset. That will take more than pious statements congratulating the new leaders, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land for photo ops. One of the heaviest burdens falls on AIPAC, which must demonstrate that it can return to its bipartisan roots.