Top pro-Israel Democrat Warns Netanyahu Government 'Mistakes' Could Erode U.S. Support

'Israel has one friend in the world...Those who risk U.S. support should know what they’re doing': Rep. Brad Sherman, one of Israel's strongest supporters in Congress, has a pointed warning for Netanyahu's government, its plans to undermine the judiciary and its far-right ministers

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Washington
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Congressman Brad Sherman on Netanyahu: 'I see the mistakes this government is doing'Credit: REUTERS/John Fredricks
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Washington

WASHINGTON – Perhaps no Democratic member of Congress has defined what it means to be “pro-Israel” more than Rep. Brad Sherman.

A top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the California lawmaker has spearheaded legislation aimed at bolstering U.S.-Israeli cooperation relating to security, energy and technology. He has also been equally strong in his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and support for Israel’s regional integration.

But these days Sherman is concerned. He is watching the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, and is worried about an “erosion” in U.S. support for Israel as a result of them.

“I see the mistakes the current government is making,” Sherman told Haaretz in an interview over the weekend. His support for Israel, “even when the government makes mistakes,” is why he has chosen to speak up.

“Because I’m part of the U.S. government, I’m a little reluctant to say what exact structure of government Israel should have,” he says, regarding Netanyahu’s plan to weaken Israel’s judicial system. “But to the extent I have an opinion, judicial review is a good idea. It’s good to have basic democratic principles and a Supreme Court that can make sure you adhere to them.”

The plan being promoted by Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, will significantly weaken the ability of Israel’s top court to conduct judicial review, and will give the smallest possible parliamentary majority the ability to overrule Supreme Court decisions. The changes have led to major protests in Israel, with more than 130,000 taking to the streets last Saturday night.

Far-right extremist and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attending a cabinet meeting earlier this month.Credit: Atef Safadi/AP

Sherman believes the planned judicial overhaul, along with the very makeup of the government, could further alienate many Democrats from supporting Israel.

Last year, he warned Israel’s leaders against including far-right provocateur Itamar Ben-Gvir in the government, tweeting that “extremists” like the Otzma Yehudit leader “undermine Israel’s interests and the U.S.-Israel relationship, which I and my colleagues have worked to strengthen.”

Speaking with Haaretz, Sherman notes that “before the current government does anything, just the makeup of that government is corrosive to support in the Democratic caucus.” He adds that “Israel has one friend in the world, plus Guatemala. It cannot afford to only have half of one friend. The fact is they need the United States. They need us in international forums, they need us for so many reasons. Those who risk U.S. support should know what they’re doing.”

Sherman, 68, considers himself a lifelong Zionist. He has addressed every AIPAC conference since 1997, and has visited Israel many times since his father first took him to tour the young Jewish state.

In 2015, he was the first Democratic lawmaker to oppose then-President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. In retrospect, he says, Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. Congress that year had a negative impact in the fight against the deal.

“I would talk to my colleagues about the inadequacies of the agreement – the sunset date [2025, after which restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program would be lifted], the number of centrifuges. Then when Netanyahu accepted the Republican invitation to speak in Congress, the picture of the agreement was no longer a centrifuge but the confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu,” he recalls. “At that point, I knew our chances of getting sufficient votes completely evaporated.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the joint Congress Session in Washington, March 2015.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

Two factors

Sherman’s decades-long commitment to Israel’s security and the U.S.-Israel relationship makes his concern over the current government’s actions even more significant. The primary risk, in Sherman’s eyes, is failing to embrace the two-state solution and “toying with the idea of annexation.”

He warns of those on the right who think Israel will be able to annex the West Bank without giving citizenship to the Palestinian population – a step that would dramatically alter the demographic balance between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens who can vote in Israeli elections.

“Disenfranchising, if it’s temporary, is entirely legal. If it’s occupied territory, you’re working toward a negotiated two-state solution, then people who aren’t going to be under your sovereignty and aren’t going to be your citizens don’t vote in your elections,” he says. “Once you say out loud that the West Bank is a permanent part of your territory, how do you deprive the people who live there?” Sherman asks. Supporters of annexation “don’t really have an answer,” he says.

Sherman argues that there are two factors that contribute to Israel’s declining support among liberals in America.

The first is that “liberals always root for David,” he says. “If your map of the conflict is everything west of the Jordan River, Israel is Goliath. If your map of the conflict is from Rabat to Jakarta, where a huge chunk of the world chants for death to the Jews, Israel remains David.”

Rep. Brad Sherman questioning witnesses before a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing in September 2020. U.S. President Joe Biden is “the best Democrat Israel could hope for,” he says.Credit: Kevin Dietsch / Pool via AP

The second problem according to the congressman is what he terms the “Kent State Rorschach test.” In his words, “If you’re a liberal, you have a tendency to see rock-throwing demonstrators confronting uniformed soldiers and think of Kent State,” he says, referring to the four unarmed college students who were shot to death by the Ohio National Guard during a Vietnam War protest in May 1970. “If you don’t want to do a lot of thinking, you just root for the side that looks right,” he adds.

For Sherman, there is an added urgency in navigating the tensions between advocating for Israel while also publicly calling out the extremist coalition in hopes that it doesn’t further alienate his fellow Democrats.

According to him, this can be done by “making sure my colleagues are aware that for decades and decades, Israel sought a two-state solution. Even today, the Palestinians reject the idea of a Jewish state and an Arab state.”

Sherman also notes that under the current circumstances, U.S. President Joe Biden is “the best Democrat Israel could hope for” – though this should not make Israel overconfident of U.S. support. “The fact that Biden’s policies are good doesn’t guarantee that, a decade from now, a different president would have equally good policies,” he warns.

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