The political toll of criticizing Israel in America
The controversies surrounding Israeli President Herzog’s speech at the U.S. Congress brought to light President Biden’s and some Democrats’ discomfort with the Netanyahu government. Biden had previously expressed his unease with the Netanyahu government’s proposed law to limit the powers of the Constitutional Court. He preferred the bill not to pass without broader consensus and had shown his disapproval by not inviting Netanyahu to Washington. Biden’s concern over the ongoing 28-week protests and the progressive wing of the party’s sensitivity towards Palestine seem to have influenced the Democrats’ reaction to the Netanyahu government. However, Biden’s decision to invite Netanyahu to Washington indicates that he doesn’t want to burn bridges.
Worried about the criticisms putting Democrats in a difficult position, Biden felt the need to explain his stance not only by inviting Netanyahu but also by discussing it with influential journalists. In a conversation with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Biden expressed his sincere belief that a strong Israeli democracy is crucial for the strongest bond with America. Friedman conveyed the message that Biden may be the last Israeli-friendly American President and ignoring his ‘genuine concerns’ would be wrong. Unlike previous American presidents who had major disagreements with Netanyahu on issues like the Peace Process and settlers, Biden is highlighting the importance of democracy.
Within the Democratic Party, the younger representatives seem more comfortable criticizing Israel, but it’s challenging to say they enjoy broad support within their party. Before Herzog’s address to Congress, the statement by Progressive Caucus leader Pramila Jayapal, calling Israel a ‘racist state,’ sparked significant controversy. Republicans criticized the Democrats for being anti-Israel in response to those words. A resolution introduced by Republicans in the House of Representatives stated that Israel is not a racist or apartheid state and was passed with an overwhelming majority of 412 votes to 9. This showed that the majority of Democrats did not want to appear anti-Israel. While there might be a high percentage of Democrats sympathetic to the Palestinians, they seem to be avoiding ‘political beatings’ from Republicans regarding Israel.
Jayapal attempted to clarify her statement about Israel being a racist state, but she didn’t apologize and remained insistent on criticizing the Netanyahu government’s alleged racist policies. She even skipped President Herzog’s address at the Congress, citing scheduling conflicts. While the progressive wing of the Democratic Party normalizes critical remarks towards Israel, such politicians need to be cautious due to the political balance in the American Congress, which could lead to accusations of not recognizing Israel’s right to exist or even being labeled as antisemitic. Though politicians like Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish himself, don’t shy away from criticizing Israel, their numbers are relatively small. Both parties in American politics have competed to show support for Israel, but this support has gradually become more partisan.
Over the past two decades, Israel’s right-wing leaders, like Netanyahu, have developed much closer relations with American Republicans, and they contributed to this process. During former President Trump’s time, Israel’s right-wing received more support from Republicans than they had expected. Trump prioritized the unwavering support of Evangelical Republicans and even complained at one point that Jews supported him less than Evangelicals did. Trump’s administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, took the Peace Process off the table, and tried to persuade Arab countries to recognize Israel, making it one of the most pro-Israel administrations Netanyahu could ever hope for. Although the Biden administration is critical of Trump, it has not prioritized either the Peace Process or halting settlements in Israel. Biden refrained from immediately returning to the Iran deal, considering Israel’s reaction, and he hasn’t exerted any significant pressure on the Peace Process either.
As a result, the Israel-Palestine issue has been pushed to the bottom of the American political agenda, and Biden hasn’t been forced to make new efforts in this regard. However, Netanyahu’s proposed legal reforms under the guise of judicial reform have raised concerns about Israel’s claim to democracy, putting Biden in a difficult position. Bringing the long-forgotten Israel issue back to the forefront has cornered the Democrats, pressuring them to take a stance. Although criticizing Israel is no longer taboo, it still comes with political costs. Jayapal’s attempt to correct her statement, Biden’s forced invitation to Netanyahu, and the overwhelming approval of the resolution in Congress serve as evidence of the political costs of criticizing Israel.