Can Netanyahu, Biden restore bipartisanship? – opinion

What Israel needs – as do the Palestinians – is what America is getting: new leadership, a uniter, not a divider. Netanyahu has become the problem, not the solution.

THEN-US vice president Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016. (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
THEN-US vice president Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016.
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
If Benjamin Netanyahu is sincere about restoring bipartisan support for Israel, he’s going about it all wrong. After delaying nearly two weeks to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory, the prime minister bluntly warned the president-elect he better not even think about returning to the Iran nuclear agreement.
Netanyahu brusquely threatened an “uncompromising” response, apparently forgetting the lasting damage he did to bipartisanship five years earlier with his uncompromising leadership of the failed Republican campaign to block president Barack Obama’s signal foreign policy achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.
His blunt challenge of Biden on the same subject before he even takes office – knowing that the new president and his top national security team all support revising and rejoining JCPOA – suggests that at a time when the Israeli leader should be repairing fences, he seems intent on tearing them down.
At Netanyahu’s strong urging, President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA with a promise of “maximum pressure” to force Iran to accept better terms. Neither man really wanted that, as evidenced by their constant threats and failure to propose a replacement. Biden has said Trump’s policies actually brought Iran “closer” to going nuclear.
That was one of many bridges the prime minister burned with Democrats in Congress and with most American Jews.
In an America where the parties are so polarized, Netanyahu has done the unthinkable for Israel and taken sides. He hasn’t hurt the Democrats very much, and I’m not so sure he’s helped the Republicans, but he has done great damage to Israel.
In the past three presidential elections he backed the candidate (a Republican) opposed by nearly three out of four Jewish voters every time. Most Israeli and American politicians tend to wade into the shallow waters of the other’s politics, but Netanyahu has taken a deep plunge. Most egregious of all was his enthusiastic embrace of Trump, who most Jews disdain as a racist, bigot, misogynist, xenophobe, homophobe and an antisemite.
Even if Netanyahu is serious about restoring bipartisanship to the Israeli-American alliance, he will run into Republican roadblocks. The GOP will intensify attempts to use Israel as a wedge issue against the new president and his party, especially with Trump apparently running again in 2024.
An embittered and vengeful ex-president can be counted on to attack Biden’s Middle East policy. Look for him to accuse his successor of being anti-Israel, antisemitic, pro-terrorist and anti-American. And he will press Netanyahu to back him up in gratitude for all the favors done for the Israeli leader.
The GOP’s go-to wedge issue will be the “Squad,” four progressive women of color, particularly the two who are Muslims and outspoken critics of Israel. In an unprecedented move, Netanyahu barred the two sitting members of Congress, Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), from entering Israel for fear of offending Trump, who tweeted that the pair “hate Israel & all Jewish people” and admitting them would “show great weakness.”
The battle of who-loves-Israel-more will be waged with tweets, resolutions, letters and amendments that will change nothing but create fissures and blizzards of fundraising appeals. Republicans will not only be demonizing Democrats but also competing internally for the critical pro-Israel white Evangelicals, who are over a quarter all voters, with 80% of their votes going Republican. Jews are about 3% of the electorate and about 75% Democrat.
The biggest change in Israel policy is that it won’t be driven, as Trump said his has been, “for the Evangelicals,” or to please a handful of wealthy Jewish donors. Don’t look for Biden to accuse Jews of disloyalty, as Trump has, if they don’t embrace his Mideast approach.
BIDEN HAS named a foreign policy team of experienced pros he has known and worked with for many years, respected centrists who will be replacing Trump’s often inexperienced right-wing ideologues.
Biden’s team, led by Antony Blinken, who is Jewish, as secretary of state, plus Vice President-elect Kamela Harris, have strong records of support for Israel. It’s in their kishkes. Like the incoming president, they oppose linking US military aid to that Israel’s political policies. However, Biden could face strong pressure from his progressive wing if Israel is seen undermining US policy in the region.
Biden has a 47-year-long record of staunch support for Israel, which I can attest to from personal experience as AIPAC’s legislative director throughout the 1980s. “I am a Zionist,” he has said. “You don’t have to be a Jew to be Zionist.” (All three of Biden’s children married Jews – as did Veep-to-be Harris – and three of his grandchildren are Jewish.)
Republicans understood long ago that their best path to Jewish support was through Israel, but their real goal was Jewish campaign money, not votes. They knew they couldn’t compete with Democrats on the broad range of domestic and social issues, so they have sought to out-Israel the opposition party.
The major architect of that strategy was Newt Gingrich, the Republican ex-Speaker of the House. His co-conspirator was Netanyahu, as they cooperated to overthrow their nemeses, who were partners in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin.
Netanyahu’s leadership in the 2015 JCPOA congressional debate and his undisguised disdain for Obama further undercut the broad bipartisan wall of support for the Jewish state, leaving permanent scars among Democrats and a majority of Jewish voters that were exacerbated by his alliance with Trump.
Barack Obama wrote in his memoir that Netanyahu would “justify almost anything that would keep him in power.”
Trump, unlike his predecessor and successor, shares Netanyahu’s disdain for the Palestinians, disinterest in being an honest broker at the peace table, support for unrestrained settlement construction and indifference toward democratic norms.
Netanyahu may try to push through a number of settlement construction projects while Trump is still around and won’t object, but he risks damaging relations – already off to a rocky start – with Biden, who has clashed over the years with him and other right-wing Israeli leaders, over settlements policy.
Aaron David Miller, a Mideast envoy in Republican and Democratic administrations, has said Netanyahu’s partisan collaboration with Trump has “damaged the bipartisanship on which the durability of the US-Israel relationship depends,” and sat by while Trump demonized Democrats as “very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people”
The greatest damage Netanyahu done is not in the Congress, where the drift will lag because many will still hear from their big contributors and AIPAC, but the grassroots, where Jews are losing interest if not already having drifted away from an Israel they feel has abandoned them.
Jews voted 3:1 for Biden this month, white Evangelicals voted by similar margins for Trump. The two are on opposite sides of nearly every domestic issue (symbolized by the 3G’s – Guns, God and Gays) and on Israel, where a like-minded government is dominated by religious and nationalist extremists.
Netanyahu’s newfound interest in bipartisanship needs more than words. He has done enormous and potentially lasting damage to Israel’s special relationship and bipartisan support inside the Beltway and in the Jewish community. No amount of glad-handing and AIPAC speeches will erase that. What Israel needs – as do the Palestinians – is what America is getting: new leadership, a uniter, not a divider. Netanyahu has become the problem, not the solution.