The Jerusalem Post
Updating the special relationship
The US-Israel special relationship is changing. New leaders in Washington and Jerusalem are trying to repair it while their polarizing predecessors are determined to sabotage it.
This comes as President Joe Biden is continuing the pivot of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Far East, while at home he is facing growing pressure from progressives in his Democratic Party to put new restrictions on aid to Israel.
Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have pledged to restore bipartisanship, tone down the rhetoric, keep disagreements private, avoid surprises and return to acting like allies instead of adversaries. The change is essential to healing strains, but it won’t bring a return to the halcyon days of yesteryear and wall-to-wall support among Democrats.
Steven Simon, who handled Middle East Policy in the Obama White House, told The New York Times, “Fundamental differences that have emerged in the relationship... will be difficult to reverse,” particularly in an era of increasingly polarized politics.
Republicans, with the help and encouragement of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, successfully transformed Israel into a partisan wedge issue, focusing on the right wing’s agenda of building settlements instead of peace with the Palestinians.
Bennett and his coalition partner, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, appear serious about repairing relations not only with Democrats – once the broad, reliable base of Israel’s support – but also with the growing number of American Jews alienated by Netanyahu’s right-wing policies and his deep plunge into partisan US politics.
They face growing pressure from the American Left. Demands for change in the relationship, particularly restricting the use of American military assistance, were spurred by the images of extensive damage by Israeli bombs in the most recent Gaza war and the loss of life, particularly among children.
Once a barely noticed fringe voice in foreign policy, progressives are getting growing attention. The change of governments in both countries may have cooled the ardor for some critics, but it will not silence them as demands for change move into the Democratic mainstream.
Seventy-three House Democrats wrote to Biden calling for fundamental changes, starting with a return to pre-Trump policies on settlements and relations with the Palestinians.
Signers were not just the usual anti-Israel fringe but main-streamers like Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which must annually approve Israel’s $3.8 billion grant aid; and John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky), who is Jewish, and chair of the Budget Committee. Seven Jewish Democrats signed the letter, including Jan Schakowsky, who initiated it.
“Make clear that the United States considers settlements to be inconsistent with international law,” they told Biden, and “once again” refer to the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied.”
Biden will move cautiously, wary of undermining the new government in Jerusalem and hoping the pressure from the Left will ease enough to give Bennett time to show results. But it won’t end. The question is how much it will grow in numbers and influence.
AS LONG AS it is led by outspoken anti-Israel figures like Reps. Betty McCollum, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, it will have little more decibels than disciples. McCollum (D-Minnesota) has been the leading anti-Israel voice in Congress for many years. She has again introduced legislation to put restrictions on Israel using
US military aid in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, annexation of occupied lands, the demolition of Palestinian homes and to “violate the human rights of Palestinian children.”
Her latest effort is gaining traction thanks to graphic television coverage of the most recent Gaza war. A poll by the progressive Data for Progress said 55% of Americans would favor restrictions called for in McCollum’s bill, Israel Hayom reported.
Twenty-seven Democratic colleagues have sponsored her measure, which has been endorsed by several liberal Jewish organizations, most notably Americans for Peace Now (which has called for conditioning military aid to Israel) and J Street. AIPAC has announced opposition, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a prominent Reform Judaism leader, called it “19 pages of pure demonization” of Israel.
The bill will most likely die in the Foreign Affairs Committee, but that won’t end the nascent campaign or the debate.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent and longtime critic of Israel’s occupation and human-rights behavior toward Palestinians, has called for “an even-handed policy” in the Middle East and wants Congress to take a “hard look” at how aid to Israel is spent Being Jewish adds credibility to his criticism and gives some traction among the small but growing progressive wing.
Look for Republicans to exploit these voices by waging an all-out battle to portray Biden and Democrats as anti-Israel by sponsoring a blizzard of anti-Palestinian resolutions, letters and amendments that will change nothing but create fissures, attack points and sound bites for future political campaigns.
They will try to ban resumption of US aid for Palestinians halted by the previous administration, block reconstruction assistance for Gaza, prevent reopening of the PLO Washington office and fight restoring the US consulate in east Jerusalem to deal with the Palestinians and endorse old Trump policies.
Predictably, the Palestinians will also do their share to sabotage relations.
Any change in the US-Israel “special relationship” will require more than new leadership, as welcome and as important as it is.
Pressure is growing on Capitol Hill to update the alliance to reflect changing realities facing the Palestinians and for Israel, no longer weak and isolated but a regional military and economic superpower with expanding relationships throughout the Arab world.
It is time for the real friends of Israel, those who genuinely embrace the relationship, to address concerns about Iran, peace, Palestinian human rights, religious pluralism in Israel, settlements and other critical issues with an open mind.
The angry approach of McCollum and many of her supporters is counter-productive.
Reducing aid is unlikely to produce any change in Israeli policy, but defining responsibilities and terms of the $3.8 billion annual grant can help avoid problems in the future without weakening the fragile new Right-to-Left government.
The changes at the top will not be a kumbaya moment, but if Biden, Bennett and Lapid are successful in waging political peace, support for Israel can be put back on a bipartisan track.