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It’s a near-consensus in Israel that the second most important factor for the country’s defense, after maintaining a powerful army, is a strong relationship with the United States, predicated on bipartisan support. While most Israelis may not follow the nuances of American politics, they know that putting all of one’s diplomatic and security eggs in one basket is risky business.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has benefited from his close relationship with President Donald Trump, who enjoys higher popularity in Israel than perhaps anywhere else and has favored Israel heavily in his policies. But as Israel prepares for the transition in Washington, concerns are growing that the country is seen as a “red state.”
“Israel cannot afford to be a branch of the Republican Party,” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid warned the day before the U.S. election.
Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow for the Atlantic Council, spent more than 25 years advising several Israeli prime ministers. “Fawning over Trump in a way that almost no other country did, that comes with a cost,” he cautions. “I think that the Netanyahu government should have been more careful to not put Israel in a situation where it stands accused of playing partisan politics.”
Well before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel made the calculated decision to align himself closely with the Republican Party.
So much so that he’s sometimes referred to as “the Republican senator from Israel,” and Israel itself has been called – only half-jokingly – “a red state.”
But as Mr. Netanyahu, a Trump loyalist whose sluggish congratulatory message to President-elect Joe Biden was noted by critics at home, adjusts to the impending transition in Washington, a question is being asked in Israel: Will the country pay a political price for breaking a cardinal rule from its own playbook, that preserving bipartisan U.S. support is sacrosanct, essential for Israel survival?
Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid was the first to assail Mr. Netanyahu’s “Republicans First” approach, in recent months talking about the virtues of bipartisanship.
“Israel cannot afford to be a branch of the Republican Party,” Mr. Lapid warned from the Knesset floor the day before the election. “Israel is losing the Democratic Party.”
Mr. Netanyahu has benefited from his close relationship with Mr. Trump, who enjoys higher popularity in Israel than perhaps anywhere else.
“Fawning over Trump in a way that almost no other country did, that comes with a cost,” cautions Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow for the Atlantic Council who spent more than 25 years working for several Israeli prime ministers, including as a foreign policy adviser.
“I think that the Netanyahu government should have been more careful to not put Israel in a situation where it stands accused of playing partisan politics,” he says. “To the extent that its relations with the U.S. are unscathed, it will owe in great measure to the fact that Israel will have plenty of friends in the incoming administration as well.”
Polling of Israelis from across the political spectrum has consistently shown a belief that the second most important factor for Israel’s defense, after maintaining a powerful army, is a strong relationship with the United States.
That’s predicated on bipartisan support, both in Congress and the White House. While most Israelis may not closely follow the nuances of American politics, they know that every four years a presidential election is held, and that putting all of one’s diplomatic and security eggs in one basket is risky business.
Swift and effective damage control therefore is now of the essence, analysts say.
“Israel has a lot of work to do in establishing open and constructive communication lines with Democratic officials and in transforming Israel to once again become a bipartisan issue,” says Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank.
Some are urging the government to run, not walk.
“Israel needs to work immediately to start repairing relations and creating new lines of communication. Time is of the essence, and failure to do so will undermine Israel’s security in the Middle East,” wrote Yaakov Katz in The Jerusalem Post, the center-right newspaper where he serves as editor-in-chief.
Seemingly heeding that message, Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, announced Tuesday he had spoken with Mr. Biden by phone to congratulate him. He sounded the theme of working with both Democrats and Republicans, telling the president-elect: “You know that our friendship is based on values that are beyond partisan politics and that we have no doubt that, under your leadership, the United States is committed to Israel’s security and success.”
Mr. Biden, who spent 40 years in the Senate, has a long pro-Israel voting record. He likes to tout a 1973 meeting he had in Israel with then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, as well as stories of his father’s emotional response to the founding of the state.
But underscoring the delicacy of the moment, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived Wednesday on a three-day visit to the region. Among his stops Thursday was a winery in Psagot, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. It marked the first time a senior U.S. diplomat visited a Jewish settlement.
Secretary Pompeo, and others in the Trump administration, have been busy reversing long-held U.S. policy by extending de facto recognition of such settlements as part of Israel. On Thursday he also visited the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. President Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau in 2019.
He has “gifted” Israel with several other notable prizes, some more symbolic than strategic, like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and others significant, like brokering peace accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.
The last time Mr. Pompeo was in Israel, he addressed the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem, with the ancient walls of the Old City glittering behind him.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says this is emblematic of both American and Israeli politicians using the other country as a tool to sway their own people.
“The norms of politics in both societies have led the politicians to instrumentalize relations, and that is not good,” she says.
Address to Congress
For Democrats, a searing symbol of this was Mr. Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before a joint session of Congress. It was an unprecedented move, a head of state invited by the Republicans without coordination with the Obama White House, to give a speech to persuade Congress to quash President Barack Obama’s negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal. It was regarded as a brazen insult to Mr. Obama and remains an open, polarizing, partisan wound for Democrats, among them Obama aides. Some of those people will be working in the Biden administration.
In the Knesset, Mr. Lapid explained why he finds Mr. Netanyahu’s behavior reckless: “Until a few years ago, Israel was above politics in the United States. We were a bipartisan issue. All the governments of Israel preserved good relations with the Democrats and the Republicans. Netanyahu decided, mostly for internal reasons, to break with that principle,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu later defended himself, also at the Knesset, citing what he said were his close ties to Democratic leaders, including Mr. Biden, who he has known almost 40 years, since the president-elect’s early days as a senator. “I don’t stand for Republicans or Democrats. I stand only for the State of Israel, and that will continue with the next [U.S.] government.”
Yet Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy has put him in a bind, argues Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University who studies U.S.-Israel ties.
“There has never been such hatred between [the American parties] as there is today, so to at this point decide to take sides is shooting yourself in both feet,” he says.
That said, Dr. Rynhold cautions against rushing to conclusions about the lasting impact, saying it’s still unclear if Israel will pay a price. Much of this will play out in what policies Israel chooses to follow, he says.
“Democrats can agree broadly on an underlying commitment to Israel,” he says, noting surveys have found that while Mr. Netanyahu is deeply unpopular among Democrats, support for Israel remains strong. He acknowledges that progressives in the party are more focused on Palestinian human rights and are more critical of Israel.
Something that would certainly alienate even moderate Democrats would be settlement expansion, especially building outside the major settlement blocs.
On the immediate horizon, Israel risks angering an incoming Biden administration with the announcement that in late January, just as Mr. Biden is scheduled to begin his term, it will begin the process of building 1,200 units in a planned settlement near East Jerusalem called Givat Hamatos.
Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar, a close Netanyahu associate, said that “these days are an irreplaceable opportunity to establish our hold on the Land of Israel, and I’m sure that our friend President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be able to take advantage.”
Such comments lay bare the sense that Mr. Trump is indeed still seen as Israel’s “best friend ever,” as Mr. Netanyahu has called him. But even more than that, it points at Israel’s shift rightward, perhaps the greatest indicator of the future of Israel’s relationship with the U.S. under Mr. Biden.