Mar 25, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Netanyahu aggravates rift with pro-Israel Democrats

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a dark gray suit, light blue shirt and red tie, sitting in front of a wooden wall and two Israeli flags.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bewildered even some pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers on Monday by scrapping talks with Biden officials in protest against a U.N. resolution endorsing a ceasefire in Gaza.

Why it matters: The further degeneration in the relationship between Netanyahu and Democrats comes as Congress is preparing to vote on billions of dollars in aid to Israel as soon as next month.

  • The White House has accused Netanyahu of a calculated overreaction to the U.N. measure aimed at bolstering his political standing in Israel.

What they're saying: "I think, by all appearances, Netanyahu is going out of his way to try to create a wedge between the U.S. and Israel for his own internal politics. I think that's unfortunate. I hope I'm wrong," Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) told Axios on Monday while on a trip to Israel.

  • Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said of Netanyahu, "You can't treat your strongest ally with disrespect and then blame them for taking action which might be tilted in a new direction."
  • Cohen added: "The President and many friends of Israel have lost some political support for supporting Israel, with an unpopular government causing a humanitarian crisis."
  • Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told Axios, "I think it is in Israel's interest to come to Washington, talk to the administration, and implement those of their suggestions as are helpful. Refusing to come to Washington is a mistake."

The backdrop: The U.N. Security Council on Monday morning passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire during the month of Ramadan — which ends April 9 — and the release of all hostages held by Hamas.

  • It's the first such ceasefire resolution to pass the body since the Oct. 7 attack, facilitated by the U.S. abstaining rather than vetoing the measure.
  • Netanyahu responded by cancelling plans for top aides Ron Dermer and Tzachi Hanegbi to discuss alternatives to Israel's planned invasion of Rafah with Biden's national security advisor Jake Sullivan.

Between the lines: Some lawmakers believe Netanyahu's cancellation of the meetings with Dermer and Hanegbi is largely symbolic and won't meaningfully impact U.S. efforts to rein in Israel.

  • "Yoav Gallant is in the United States and is continuing in his meetings," Schneider noted, referring to the Israeli defense minister who is slated to give Sullivan a list of U.S. weapons Israel hopes to receive.
  • Another moderate, pro-Israel Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, quipped, "They're really punishing us by denying us time with Ron Dermer."

Zoom out: Relations between Democrats and Netanyahu have been on the rocks for months as Israel has continued to hammer Gaza in its quest to wipe out Hamas.

  • Things have come to a head more recently, however, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) breaking with Netanyahu sharply earlier this month and calling for new elections in Israel.
  • Some Democrats have also pushed back on plans by House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress.
  • "Bipartisan support for the Israel-U.S. relationship ... is something that should be protected, should be nurtured, and hopefully built upon," said Schneider. "I hope the prime minister understands that."

The other side: Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly sided with Netanyahu on Monday and blasted the Biden administration for abstaining on the U.N. ceasefire resolution — as did one Democrat.

  • "It's appalling the U.S. allowed passage of a resolution that fails to condemn Hamas," ardently pro-Israel Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said in a post on X.
  • Two dozen Senate Republicans also hit back at Schumer on Monday with a resolution affirming Israel's "inherent right to defend itself" and declaring any call for elections in Israel "an act of electoral interference."

What to watch: Schneider is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu this week and said he wants to hear "what the vision is, not just for eliminating the threat of Hamas ... but also what his vision is for the long-term future."

  • Schneider added that he hopes that Netanyahu will "work to try to eliminate any appearances of a rift and, to the extent that there is a rift, take the steps necessary to try to mend those relationships."
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