WASHINGTON – As Israel’s election approaches, the mood among Democratic lawmakers, officials and pro-Israel organizations is dominated by Bibi fatigue. Officials tell Haaretz that the exhaustion is directly related to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance with the Republican Party, and blame him for turning the U.S.-Israel relationship into a strategic problem.
“The personalization of the relationship to Netanyahu – and the exhaustion with him – after 10 years in this current go-around has reached its peak,” says one senior analyst in a Washington think tank. “Whether it’s his fault or not, his hugging of [former President Donald] Trump and inability to criticize anything he did really put a damper on his ability to restore any relationships with the Democrats.”
“Netanyahu has deeply offended [Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi and alienated many Democratic members of Congress when he chose to align as closely with Trump and sought to undermine [former U.S. President Barack] Obama,” says one Democratic lawmaker.
An official close to the Biden administration directly links Netanyahu’s drift toward the Republican Party with former Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. “Dermer actively pushed away Democrats and embraced Republicans – especially after 2015. It wasn’t just public posturing, it’s just what they truly believed. The fundamentals of the relationship are strong, but Bibi and Dermer have made it more difficult with the way they’ve acted individually.”
Trump attempted to transform the U.S.-Israel relationship into a personal one, notes a former Obama administration official: “We really shouldn’t personalize it, it’s quite dangerous. And it never should have been this way, it shouldn’t have been personal with Netanyahu and Obama either. It should be about our two countries.”
The lack of phone call between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden has highlighted this dynamic over the last few weeks. Despite efforts by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki to downplay any supposed snub, the issue has become a Republican talking point against Biden’s foreign policy. Several Republican members of Congress have slammed Biden’s “offensive” lack of engagement while he prioritizes reaching out to adversaries like Russia and China.
“When Bibi came to Washington, D.C., for what was essentially a campaign photo-op at the White House under extraordinary circumstances with the COVID emergency, he didn’t even reach out to the Biden camp. He stood by Trump and didn’t even place a call to Biden,” says an official close to the new administration. “He has a history of meddling in U.S. politics, including with Mitt Romney, and he did the same thing with Trump, now he’s complaining about not getting a phone call? It takes some chutzpah to complain about the order of Biden’s international calls when you do this. It’s really extraordinary.”
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Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, tweeted last week, “what a surprise that after Bibi spent years relentlessly undermining the Obama-Biden Administration he’s not at the top of the call list.”
But the former Obama administration official says it’s not personal: “Biden is dealing with multiple national crises. American Jews are dealing with national crises, the likes of which we’ve never dealt with before. This is being exacerbated by the Israelis not realizing this. Look at their superficial support of Trump – they’re smart, they know he aligns with white supremacists, but ‘support is support.’”
“American Jews will always consider themselves to be pro-Israel, as they define it, and the U.S. government will continue to support Israel as it always has,” the official notes. “In some ways, however, the Israeli alignment with Trump was a betrayal. How could it be after seven decades-plus of defending Israel that they didn’t see the threats we face?”
This official believes the Biden administration wants to stay as far away from Israel’s election campaign as possible – “especially after seeing Trump intentionally inserting himself into three Israeli elections, not to mention Netanyahu trying to insert himself into our elections. Perhaps this distancing is a course correction on what should be normal U.S.-Israel relations, which are based around our own respective national interests and not around personalized relationships.”
The official notes that beyond Biden and Netanyahu, U.S. and Israeli officials are speaking with their respective counterparts. “Things are pretty normal right now – the Trump years were the anomaly. No matter who wins, the relationship will go in a positive trajectory and the focus will be on the issues. I think a lot more of this dynamic is determined by Jerusalem than Washington,” the official says. “Biden will take a certain approach no matter what. What happened during the Obama administration, as the incoming was coming from Jerusalem, Washington was forced to respond. The U.S. is only in control of half of this equation.”
“Netanyahu hasn’t lost credibility, he’s still the legitimate leader of our closest ally in the Middle East. He’s just personally undermined any of the additional goodwill about engaging with him,” says the official close to the Biden administration. “Unlike the way Bibi proactively meddles in our presidential politics, Biden won’t do that. We’re not going to fly to Jerusalem and do a photo-op with his toughest opponents. If Israelis choose him to be their prime minister again, I expect Netanyahu to try to press the reset button.”
Of all of Netanyahu’s challengers, U.S. officials consider Yair Lapid to be the most viable replacement. The Yesh Atid chairman, who’s English language skills and understanding of American culture is considered to be an asset, has built up relationships on both sides of the aisle over the years. One of his senior advisors is Mark Mellman, founder of the Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel organization that seeks to increase and ensure support for Israel within the Democratic Party and has quickly become a formidable force among the pro-Israel establishment in Washington.
Lapid has a particularly good relationship with Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, Chairman for the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism. He has also met several times with leading Democrats such as Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker. He also met with Biden during his time as vice president, as well as with current Iran envoy Rob Malley (the target of a recent right-wing campaign alleging he held anti-Israel biases) and Phil Gordon, then-White House Middle East coordinator and current deputy national security advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Lapid has good relationships with Democrats – most politicians in Israel have good relationships with Democrats. There are pro-Israel stalwarts in Congress who are happy to speak with Israeli leaders, regardless of party, except when they actively seek to offend them,” the official close to the Biden administration says.
Lapid, along with New Hope Chairman Gideon Sa’ar, will be addressing the Brookings Institution’s international conference on the Middle East and the Biden administration later in February – perhaps their most significant international exposure ahead of the March election.
Several experts note that Israel should better utilize President Reuven Rivlin, with one calling him Israel's best strategic asset in Biden's Washington. Rivlin spoke with Pelosi in August 2019 to lower the flames after the Israeli government prevented Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering the country due to their support for the BDS movement.
Rivlin noted after his conversation with Pelosi that U.S.-Israel relations are “not dependent on the links with either party.” This was seen at the time as a rebuke of Trump, who said just days earlier that Jews who voted for the Democratic party were showing “Great disloyalty.”
“Any prime minister would do well to utilize Rivlin's truly unifying message and statesman-like opinions as a way to help rebuild relationships with the political diversity in America,” says Joel Braunold, managing director at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
Others hope that the new Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Gilad Erdan, will work to reestablish the relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party. Sources tell Haaretz that they are optimistic Erdan will prioritize restoring the bipartisan balance during his tenure as ambassador.
“Erdan is not a left-wing guy, but the fact that he’s making a concerted effort to reach out to Democrats and to say the right things – it’s such a stark contrast,” the official close to the Biden administration says. “It’s hard to underestimate what it means to no longer have Ron Dermer in Washington. Democrats will never forget how Bibi prioritized the reelection of the worst president in American history, but we’re also grown-ups. If he’s prime minister, he will be treated as such.”