Will Biden reset the bipartisan partnership between Washington and Jerusalem?

The White House announced yesterday that President Biden will travel to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia from July 13-16 to “reinforce the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity…”

That’s important, and connects to a largely unnoticed reset of the bipartisan partnership between Washington and Jerusalem. Biden has led the effort in the U.S. In Israel, the driving force has been Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, supported by his coalition of government partners.

When Lapid became foreign minister, a year ago this week, I wondered whether he could revitalize Israel’s bipartisan standing in America. That dynamic, long considered essential to Israel, unraveled at various points under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The low point was Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation to address Congress in 2015 without notifying the Obama White House, an unparalleled snub to a sitting president.

Suddenly, the profound and fundamental bonds between both political parties and Israel were hijacked and reduced to silliness. I remember lists being circulated on social media of members of Congress who were planning to attend the speech and those who would not. Voting to fund Israel’s vital defense needs took a back seat to whether you took a seat on the House floor when Netanyahu spoke.

Many Republicans saw it as an opportunity to drive a wedge in American Jewish support for Democrats. (The strategy was uninformed. Poll after poll confirms that a sizable majority of American Jews aren’t single-issue voters. They support Democratic candidates for their views on women’s choice, education, economic priorities and, to a lesser extent, Israel.)

It all came to a head in May 2021, when the Netanyahu government imploded and Lapid was entrusted to form a new government. For five days and four nights, he negotiated with each of eight political movements. (There’s an old joke that with two Israelis, you get four opinions. Imagine the fun of navigating eight Israeli political parties.) 

Later, Lapid recalled the sense that “Israel was on a path of self-destruction,” that political pressures had put it in “a tailspin it can’t get out of.” He asked each party whether they had the capacity to “work with people who think differently from you[.]” Then he formed a coalition government which, to this point, has been more stable than many predicted. (We’re talking about a coalition government in Israel, so check back soon.)

Lapid immediately focused on both bipartisan and bilateral relationships. In his remarks upon taking office as foreign minister, he stated bluntly: “The management of the relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States was careless and dangerous. I’ve warned against it more than once, but the outgoing government took a terrible gamble, reckless and dangerous, to focus exclusively on the Republican Party and abandon Israel’s bipartisan standing. The Republicans are important to us, their friendship is important to us, but not only the friendship of the Republican Party.”

He met with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and multiple congressional delegations. He forged relationships with key congressional progressives. He worked on a bipartisan basis with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Republicans to build a bipartisan majority in favor of funding the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Only the cheapest partisans would view this as a negative, and if they do, they’re certainly no friends of Israel. Israel is stronger, safer and more secure when both parties support it with equal vigor. Those who use it as a partisan prop to score short-term points commit a grave and dangerous disservice to its long-term stability. It is a liberal democracy in a dangerous region, not a political football to be kicked around on the playing fields of partisanship.

Beyond resetting the importance of bipartisan support for Israel, Lapid has set an important tone in his domestic politics. In a speech last February in Israel, attended by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, he remarked: “On all the main issues that concern the state, in all the main differences facing the government, the real division isn’t between the right and left, but between a Zionist, democratic and liberal center, and dangerous violent extremes.” He went on: “The question that preoccupied me when we established this government was why do politicians not behave like the country? Why is it that on all main issues, Israelis agree more than ever, but the political divide is more serious than ever?”

It’s a good question. In Jerusalem, and in Washington as well.

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael. 

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu biden foreign policy Israel Israel–United States relations Jerusalem Steve Israel US-Israel relations US-israeli relations Yair Lapid Yair Lapid

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