US politics is being played out on Israeli turf

US politics is being played out on Israeli turf

US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy delivers a speech at the Knesset during his visit to Israel with a Congress delegation. (AFP)
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US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last month led a delegation of American lawmakers to Israel to celebrate the latter’s 75 years of independence. On the face of it, this was a bipartisan delegation of members of Congress, including both Republicans and Democrats. What emerged rather quickly was that, when politicians from two highly polarized political systems meet, both badly tainted by populism, bipartisanship is thrown out of the window and the temptation to play party politics while on foreign and fertile turf becomes too great to resist.

This phenomenon is likely to become ever more common, as the next US presidential election is less than a year and a half away. Few would question America’s cross-party commitment to Israel. However, given the current circumstances in both countries, we can expect that relations between them will play out in both the US elections and Israel’s constitutional crisis.

It is commonplace for high-ranking American officials and presidential candidates to visit Israel — and more frequently when elections loom. It gives them the opportunity to express their devotion to Israel and to have the all-important photo op with Israeli leaders that is supposed to please their constituents back home.

However, these are not ordinary times in either country and, should the next US presidential election turn out to be a second bout between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, it will be ugly, nasty, toxic and aimed at the lowest common denominator among the voting public, as will be the contests for the Senate and the House of Representatives. But the last thing Israel needs right now, at one of the most fragile points in its history, is to become a pawn on America’s political chessboard, where Republicans support the Israeli government and its far-right antidemocratic drive, while Democrats oppose the government only to collect some cheap points in their battle to win over American voters.

McCarthy cynically took advantage of his high-profile visit to Israel to undermine the Biden administration

Yossi Mekelberg

Similarly, it is never clever for any Israeli politician to intervene in American elections, not only because it is wrong to meddle with another country’s political processes, but because it might come back to haunt Israel if it should gamble on the wrong candidate. The close alliance between both countries on all levels, which is crucial for Israel’s survival and well-being, dictates staying out of domestic American politics.

Regrettably, McCarthy cynically took advantage of his high-profile visit to Israel to undermine the Biden administration’s efforts to curb the Israeli government’s current antidemocratic tendencies. It is exceptionally rare for any US president, or any other official for that matter, to openly criticize Israel, even more so when such criticism relates to its domestic politics. But Israel is suffering from its most severe period of political turmoil — one that threatens to harm US interests — which is why Biden, along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, among others, have not held back from criticizing a Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition government that, under the influence of its far-right and ultra-Orthodox members, is forging ahead in its assault on the judiciary and hence on the system of checks and balances to the power of the legislature.

Netanyahu desperately needs many of these laws currently before the Knesset in order to obtain immunity from prosecution and derail his corruption trial. For months, Biden has been holding back on inviting Netanyahu to Washington, thereby expressing his administration’s extreme displeasure at the direction taken by the Israeli government. By doing so, he is deliberately depriving Netanyahu of the most coveted foreign trip for any Israeli prime minister, let alone Netanyahu, who has always seen himself as being influential in America’s corridors of power, whether in the White House or on Capitol Hill.

The Israeli prime minister’s desperation for such an invite is becoming even more obvious as his troubles at home continue to mount, with no solution in the offing, for he believes that such a visit would provide him with both the statesman-like respectability he believes he deserves, but also a breather from the chaotic scenes at home.

Biden is making it clear that support for Israel does not necessarily mean supporting every action of its government

Yossi Mekelberg

However, Biden is rightly sticking to his guns and making it clear that support for Israel does not necessarily mean supporting every action of its government. And, significantly, he is signaling that one of the pillars of the bond between the US and Israel is the commonality of democratic values, without which the other political, strategic and economic pillars are in danger.

For McCarthy to undermine his country’s president by promising to invite Netanyahu to Washington himself, should such an invitation not be forthcoming from the White House, was cynical and irresponsible in equal measure, especially as hundreds of thousands of Israelis are taking to the streets every week in their struggle to save the democratic character of their country. McCarthy’s intervention has more to do with his strained relations with the president than his being a true friend of Israeli democracy.

The response from the White House was swift and US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby clarified that, to the best of his knowledge, Netanyahu will be invited to the White House at some point, but more importantly he reiterated that no such visit is currently planned. In other words, Netanyahu must first climb down from his antidemocratic tree before he can expect an invitation.

But McCarthy’s was not the only recent high-profile visit to Israel by an American politician. Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis stopped over on an international tour aimed at enhancing his foreign policy credentials and, in this case, he put Netanyahu in an awkward position. Any sign of the slightest positive expression toward any Republican candidate might ignite the short-fused and thin-skinned Trump, who has already announced his candidacy.

In the next few months, first during the US primaries and then with the presidential election itself, the issue of Israel will play a part in this most extravagant political show on planet Earth. Biden will have to walk a tightrope of differentiating between his unwavering friendship and commitment to Israel and his justified criticism of an Israel that is sliding down the slippery slope toward dictatorship and being an apartheid state, because the Republican candidates will be constantly seeking opportunities to attack him on his position. They will do this regardless of the damage it might cause to those who are fighting to try to save Israel’s democratic system, its relations with the Palestinians and its standing in the world, including its long-standing relations with the US.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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