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Israel’s New Foreign Minister Yair Lapid Seeks to Repair Relations With US
Yair Lapid arrives at the President's Office in Jerusalem to receive the mandate to form a new government on May 5, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Israel’s New Foreign Minister Yair Lapid Seeks to Repair Relations With US

What is needed is better ties with the Democratic Party, and mending the rift with American Jewry, but it won’t be easy

Israel’s newly instated Foreign Minister Yair Lapid vowed to repair ties with the Democratic Party in the United States, after years in which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost exclusively cultivated warm ties with the Republican Party.

“The management of the relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States was careless and dangerous. I’ve warned against it more than once, but the outgoing government took a terrible gamble, reckless and dangerous, to focus exclusively on the Republican Party and abandon Israel’s bipartisan standing,” Lapid said during the hand-over ceremony at the ministry of foreign affairs earlier this week.

Since its inception in 1948, Israel enjoyed bipartisan support from Washington. But during the Netanyahu years, the relationship between Israel and the US took a sharp turn.  

“This was one of Israel’s biggest assets,” said Yaki Dayan, former chief of staff to Israeli Foreign Ministers Silvan Shalom and Tzipi Livni, and former Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, of that bipartisan support. “We used to see wall-to-wall support for Israel.”

As disagreements between Netanyahu and Democratic US governments mounted, the Israeli leader gradually aligned himself with the Republican Party and turned to support from the Christian Evangelical community in the US.

“The relations need to be repaired on several levels – with the Biden administration, with the Democratic Party, Jewish representatives in the Senate and the Congress and, finally, with the Jewish community in the US,” explained Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “The rehabilitation will not be easy,” he added.

Israel’s association with the Republican Party was a problem for many in the American Jewish community, especially for the younger generation

With Barack Obama in the White House, the rift became increasingly evident. Not only had Netanyahu openly embraced Obama’s opponent, Republican Mitt Romney, in the 2012 presidential election campaign, he also chose to handle his disagreements with Obama very publicly. Undoubtedly the low point in the relationship came in 2015 when Netanyahu addressed Congress on the subject of the Iranian nuclear deal after receiving an invitation from Republicans, spiting the American president.

When Republican President Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, Netanyahu enjoyed a long honeymoon period. But now, with a Democratic president in the US and a new government in Israel, relations are expected to change. Many believe there is an urgent need for Israel to repair relations with the Democratic Party, which also has implications for Israel’s relations with the large Jewish community in the US, a majority of who vote Democrat.

“There is a lot to be done after twelve years of Netanyahu,” said Dayan, “Israel’s association with the Republican Party was a problem for many in the American Jewish community, especially for the younger generation.”

“For the most part, Netanyahu ignored the American Jews,” said Gilboa.

With the ultra-Orthodox parties outside of the current Israeli government, it will be easier to mend the rift between large parts of the American Jewish community and Israel. In recent years, the government in Israel has shunned Reform Judaism, a branch to which many American Jews belong.

Progressive elements in the Democratic Party have become more vociferous and are encouraging the party to abandon its previous, almost unconditional, support for Israel.

“The progressive wing is the biggest threat to the relations between the Democratic Party and Israel. There needs be a new strategy in Israel that strengthens relations with the moderate members of the party,” said Gilboa, “In order to do this, it would be wise to use the leftist wing of the Israeli coalition that has a common language with the Democratic Party.”

Biden called Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett just hours after he was sworn in, signaling perhaps a new start to the relationship between the two governments. While communication may be smoother between Washington and Jerusalem, the core issues that may cause discord still remain.

Negotiations between the US and Iran on a new nuclear deal will conclude in the coming days and likely will not satisfy Israel.

“The current government will not be more flexible on the Iranian issue,” said Gilboa, “There is a wide consensus in Israel about the threat.”

“It was a bad deal. I opposed it. I still oppose it. Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb,” Lapid said Monday in Jerusalem, echoing years of Netanyahu’s policy.

“Netanyahu chose to be confrontational,” said Gilboa, “Bennett and Lapid will try to influence the agreement as much as possible through cooperation and ultimately get strategic compensation for the agreement.”

The government has players that are close to both American parties. It’s about promoting a more moderate, middle-of-the-line policy

With experts believing Iran is close to building a nuclear bomb, the US may opt to buffer Israel’s defenses in order to pacify its opposition to the upcoming deal.

“The disagreements need to be managed very delicately, with a low profile,” said Dayan, “There is no doubt that there will be a confrontation between Israel and the US on the Iranian issue.”

Israeli officials have indicated they will iron out differences with Washington behind closed doors.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict could also create friction with the US. After years of stalemate in peace negotiations, it is expected Biden will adopt a more conciliatory approach toward the Palestinians. After Trump adopted Netanyahu’s hard-line policy and largely abandoned the two-state solution, the White House has already indicated otherwise.

“Israel will have to be more open to negotiations with the Palestinians and be less critical of the US … and allow the US to conduct direct talks with the Palestinians without Israeli involvement,” said Yonatan Freeman of the department of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Right-wing elements in the coalition will restrain Bennett from making major concessions to the Palestinians.

The diverse Bennett-Lapid coalition likely will adopt a more even-handed approach to American politics, and not only in an attempt to heal the existing wounds.

“The government has players that are close to both American parties,” said Freeman, “It’s about promoting a more moderate, middle-of-the-line policy.”

For Israel, it is now the time to foster relations with both parties in the US. Netanyahu’s gamble may have paid off with Trump, but it was a risk that could have played out differently.

“The policy will be balanced,” said Dayan, “The Republicans must not be abandoned and the focus should not only be on the Democrats, this should not be difficult.”

With a fragile coalition to manage, Bennett will seek to avoid controversial issues that risk the stability of his government. The Biden administration is also looking for political stability in Israel and for some quiet in parts of the Middle East, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not high on its agenda.

“They will not want to push the coalition and fracture it,” said Freeman.

 

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