Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was optimistic before he boarded his flight to New York on Saturday night. “In the moment of truth,” he told the reporters covering his trip to the UN, “we saw that the representatives of the American people supported us.”
Bennett was referring to the vote last week in the House of Representatives on President Biden’s billion dollar emergency aid request for Israel’s Iron Dome system. The prime minister relished the final vote tally: 420 in favor, only nine against. His own fragile coalition, which enjoys the smallest possible majority in Israel’s Knesset, could only dream of such decisive margins.
Politically, Bennett has every reason to celebrate.After Israel was caught by surprise, as Jonathan Lis reported in Haaretz last week, by the decision to remove the Iron Dome funds from an urgent budget bill, his nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu tried to place the blame on the new prime minister. This was an unfair accusation, which ignored historical facts – for example, the fact that calls among U.S. progressives to withhold military aid to Israel started and expanded under Netanyahu – but amidst the public uproar in Israel, it seemed very effective.
The vote on Thursday, which solved the funding problem and also reinforced the high levels of support Israel still enjoys in Washington, served Bennett very well domestically. All the energy that Netanyahu and his army of mouthpieces and online trolls invested in creating an atmosphere of crisis and failure, came back to haunt them once the 420-9 margin took over the headlines.
Bennett and his partner in the “crime” of replacing Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, suddenly looked like responsible adults who know how to manage Israel’s delicate relations with Washington, while Netanyahu looked like an opportunistic fearmonger who blew a temporary complication out of proportions. A win for Israel, a loss for Likud and the Squad.
Bennett tried to implicitly, though not directly, take credit for the successful outcome in Congress. But in reality, Iron Dome has had the backing of the overwhelming majority of American lawmakers for years, and was an almost sacrosanct American commitment to Israel even in the ugliest days of the Netanyahu-Obama rivalry. President Biden promised to replenish Israel’s stockpiles almost immediately after the previous Gaza war, shortly before Bennett entered the prime minister’s office. It’s hard to argue, in other words, that this funding is Bennett’s personal achievement.
A more sensible argument is that while the funding itself was promised to Israel regardless of its prime minister, the new Bennett-Lapid government had a role in the quick, efficient and decisive manner of action taken by the Democratic leadership in Congress to solve the crisis. When the funding was removed from the budget bill, senior Democrats first briefed the media that they would include it in the Defense Appropriations bill, a solution that could take weeks to actually implement. But within hours, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer vowed to bring it up immediately for a separate vote, a rare step that showed a real sense of urgency.
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Israel’s supporters in the Democratic Party, from Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Hoyer and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, are all eager to help Bennett’s government. They’re relieved that they don’t have to work anymore with Netanyahu, the so-called Republican senator from Jerusalem, and are comfortable with the more liberal Israel represented by Lapid and the left-wing parties in this eclectic coalition.
But Bennett should not allow their goodwill to blind him to some obvious realities. The main reason these Democrats want to help him is that they despise Netanyahu and are afraid of helping him by destabilizing the current coalition. That threat will evaporate if, as expected, in just over a month his government succeeds in passing its state budget through the Knesset, which has already given it preliminary approval.
If the Knesset indeed passes the budget, Bennett’s government will look stable and strong, with a high chance of surviving for at least two more years. If and when that happens, Democrats will no longer fear bringing back Netanyahu by being too tough with Bennett. Things that the Biden administration has avoided doing thus far, such as reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, would be back on the agenda.
Bennett won’t be happy, obviously, about this new approach in Washington. But he would be wise to remember what he just learned about Israel’s friends in Washington – when he needed them last week in Congress, they came through for him. He shouldn’t agree to all of their wishes and demands, obviously, but unlike his predecessor, he should offer them constructive steps and bold ideas that can truly improve things between Israel and the Palestinians. If he fails to do that, he will discover that 420-9 was a one-time kind of margin