The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The new Israeli government should turn the page on Netanyahu’s destructive approach to Washington

Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid, in the Knesset on May 30. (Debbie Hill/Pool/EPA-EFE-REX/Shutterstock)
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Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, served seven consecutive Israeli premiers over a quarter-century at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. William F. Wechsler leads the Atlantic Council’s work on the Middle East and North Africa.

Israel’s new government will be internally divided, inherently fragile and ideologically incoherent. The eight parties that make up this cohort — presuming it survives to be sworn-in — concur on little other than their shared conviction that Benjamin Netanyahu had to be ejected from office. It’s hard to see them tackling Israel’s many systematic challenges, and nearly impossible to imagine a significant breakthrough with the Palestinians anytime soon. Israeli political prognosticators are openly speculating about how many months it will be before elections are called once again.

Yet even despite these adverse conditions, it’s possible to imagine how the new government could address several problems that have bedeviled Israel during the Netanyahu years. Chief among them is protecting democratic institutions (especially law enforcement and the judiciary) from political machinations. Also vital: restoring civility and basic governance. (Israel hasn’t managed to pass an annual budget since March 2018.)

The importance of these priorities is already well understood within the new coalition. But there’s another that needs to be added to the list: revitalizing bipartisan support for Israel in the United States. The rejection of Netanyahu, after all, must also be a rejection of the toxic partisanship of the U.S.-Israel relationship that reached a crescendo during his tenure.

For decades, Israeli prime ministers recognized the strategic imperative of ensuring that the bilateral relationship was driven by shared interests and values. They labored to avoid Israel becoming a divisive domestic political issue in the United States, and to prevent it from being a partisan one.

Those shared interests and values still endure, which is why, despite an increasingly vocal minority, the wider American public remains positively inclined toward Israel. But first gradually and then suddenly, the relationship became excessively politicized, with quiet but credible allegations of mutual interventions into each other’s election cycles.

The tipping point was reached in 2015, when Netanyahu worked with Republicans to orchestrate a speech before Congress behind the back of the Obama administration. Then-Vice President Joe Biden did not attend, and scores of Democratic members of Congress, including many long-standing friends of Israel, likewise went absent.

Sincere policy disagreements are always legitimate, but to a generation of Democrats, there was nothing either legitimate or subtle about this bold intervention into U.S. domestic affairs. Rather than being chastened by the reaction, Netanyahu doubled down on his — and thus Israel’s — open alignment with Republicans against Democrats, and Donald Trump against Biden. Netanyahu’s advisers recommended that the Jewish state prioritize the support of American evangelicals, the most solid element of Trump’s base, over the support of American Jews, who voted predominantly for Biden. These repeated, conscious choices have left deep scars that desperately need to heal.

The reality is that there are far more Democrats across the United States who care deeply about domestic politics than there are Democrats who hold strong views about what is happening thousands of miles beyond their shores. Many of them have come to view Netanyahu, first and foremost, as a political ally of their partisan enemies at home. And for some, their perceptions about Netanyahu after his 12 years in power have come to define their views of the state of Israel.

The new Israeli government should recognize that this is both a serious problem and a potentially solvable one. Led by a man of the right (Naftali Bennett) in a union with parties of the center and left (including Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and the majority-Arab Joint List), the fledgling coalition is very much well placed to redress the fallout of Netanyahu’s partisan approach by reorienting the U.S.-Israel relationship back toward its bipartisan heritage.

As prime minister, Bennett would undoubtedly organize an early trip to the United States. He should take that opportunity to speak openly and directly to this issue. Ideally, he would publicly pledge that Israel will resist becoming aligned with any one party in the United States and declare that the bilateral relationship must be bipartisan at its core if it is to be sustained. He should repeat this message privately, with both Democratic and Republicans officials and with key constituencies — and American leaders of all political stripes should openly welcome such statements.

With these critical actions, Bennett could turn the page on Netanyahu’s destructive approach to Washington and help establish a new norm that allows for far more constructive relations between the two countries, and with both parties. In so doing, his new government — no matter how long or short it lasts — will have taken great strides toward securing Israel’s future.

Read more:

David Ignatius: What the U.S. should learn from Israel’s odd-couple proposed government

Max Boot: Republicans are far more radical than Democrats on Israel

Raphael Mimoun: Zionism cannot produce a just peace. Only external pressure can end the Israeli apartheid.

Charles Lane: Who’s guilty of what in the Hamas-Israel conflict?

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