May 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The good cop/bad cop routine on Israel

President Biden is seen delivering remarks about a cease-fire in the fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians.

President Biden speaks Thursday night about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The juxtaposition of Congress widely criticizing Israel while the president maintains support has created a good cop/bad cop role reversal that isn't going unnoticed in Israel.

Why it matters: An increasing number of Democratic lawmakers became frustrated with President Biden this week for his behind-the-scenes approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Axios found. That's a sea change from a tradition of presidential prominence, as well as unquestioned congressional support for Israel.

  • Lawmakers said they thought the White House should be more publicly forceful in its efforts to de-escalate the crisis.
  • It was only Thursday night that both sides agreed to a ceasefire, a development that Biden said in hastily arranged White House remarks came after the administration's "intense," "quiet and relentless" diplomacy that included six calls to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • In Israel, which had grown accustomed to criticism from President Obama before a respite of support from President Trump, officials came to view the White House and State Department as the "good cop" — weighing in to support Netanyahu's government and blocking problematic initiatives.

What they're saying: "I just wish they would be very forward-leaning and very public on the ceasefire," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  • "As the U.S., we always are weighing in aggressively for a ceasefire whenever there's civilian casualties on both sides of a shooting war. It just seems so odd that the U.S. isn't forcefully doing it. ... I can’t really figure it out."
  • Democratic senators and their aides have also privately expressed concerns about the lack of a congressional briefing about the issue, sources familiar with the talks tell Axios.

The other side: Israeli ambassador to Washington Gilad Erdan told Israeli media in recent days a change within the Democratic Party — and the growing influence of progressives — had a big impact on how the Gaza crisis played out.

  • Axios from Tel Aviv author Barak Ravid reports that Erdan said Israel must increase its outreach to minority groups in America to build new bases of support within the left.
  • “The mainstream of the Democratic Party supports Israel and supports military aid to Israel," Erdan said on Kan radio. “'The Squad' has grown into a group of 12 members of Congress that are very loud with many anti-Israeli initiatives, and I guess this has a lot of effect."
  • Democratic aides agree there's been a clear shift to the left by senators on the Israel issue, guided particularly by Palestinian activists.

Between the lines: Biden has a longstanding relationship with Netanyahu, dating back to his days in the Senate and as Obama's vice president.

  • Some experts have argued the outcry from Democrats could potentially work in Biden's favor, allowing him to use his own domestic politics as something of a scapegoat to preserve his relationship with Netanyahu while pushing him toward peace.
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