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Netanyahu to address major Jewish Republican conference

The speech Saturday is a rare show of partisanship by a foreign ally

Israel's Likud Party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives during the swearing-in ceremony for lawmakers at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Tuesday. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AP)

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference Saturday amounts to a display of support for one American political party ahead of a presidential election that is rare for a foreign ally.

Netanyahu, who is set to return to power as leader of the United States’ strongest ally in the Middle East, has worked with Democratic presidents in the past. But his close relationship with Donald Trump — who launched another White House bid earlier this week — has now manifested in a degree of partisanship that could make working with President Biden challenging.

Netanyahu is scheduled to appear via satellite at Saturday’s conference in a conversation with Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who previously noted that “there’s not much daylight between Netanyahu and Republicans, at least Republican election leaders,” according to Haaretz.

This has been a point of criticism aimed at Netanyahu from current Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has prioritized improving the country’s relationship with Democrats after the Trump and Netanyahu administrations.

“The management of the relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States was careless and dangerous,” Lapid, the former foreign minister, said last year during a ceremony at his department. “The Republicans are important to us, their friendship is important to us, but not only the friendship of the Republican Party.”

“We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate and House, and they are angry,” he added. “We need to change the way we work with them.”

The conference, which gets underway Friday, has drawn possible contenders for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, with Trump expected to speak by live stream sometime Saturday.

Biden has known Netanyahu for decades, having worked with him as vice president during the Obama administration and as a senator who once chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But after his election as president, Biden did not appear to make it a priority to work with the Israeli leader who called Trump “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House” during the 2020 presidential campaign.

Netanyahu has a long history of aligning himself with the GOP and the party’s presidential candidates, but recent decisions have displayed a further tilt toward the right. Democrats appear to have responded to this pivot in their view of Netanyahu, with only 14 percent approving of him in a 2019 YouGov poll.

Perhaps as a result, Biden was slow to call Netanyahu after his inauguration; he spoke with the leaders of China and Russia before having a conversation with Israel’s prime minister. And it is unclear whether another invitation will be extended to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, an opportunity he has previously had three times. The White House denied that the decision was “an intentional diss,” but it was interpreted that way by some Israeli leaders.

Yet it might not have been surprising considering decisions Netanyahu made that appeared to show his opposition to the potential policies of the Biden administration, including approving hundreds of new housing units in the West Bank during the presidential transition period. And just weeks after the 2020 election, Netanyahu delivered a speech criticizing Biden’s plan to rejoin the international accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

Trump had withdrawn the United States from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a move welcomed by Netanyahu.

More recently, this month’s Israeli election results provided a slim parliamentary majority for Netanyahu and, perhaps more surprisingly, a win for the country’s far right. Members of one of Israel’s previously fringe, fundamentally racist and stridently anti-democratic movements could find themselves in some of the nation’s most influential political positions.

Bezalel Smotrich, a self-described “proud homophobe,” has announced plans to drastically change Israel’s justice system. And Itamar Ben Gvir, who supports expelling “disloyal” citizens of Israel — both Jewish and Arab — is expected to be an influential voice in Netanyahu’s administration.

“We’re demanding a change,” Ben Gvir said earlier this month after preliminary election results showed that his party’s slate had secured about 15 seats, thus becoming the third-largest party in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Ben Gvir, a leader in the Otzma Yehudit party, spoke to a spirited crowd of young, religious men dancing to music while shouting, “Death to terrorists!”

“We’re demanding to make an absolute distinction between those who are loyal to Israel, with whom we have no problem at all, and those who are undermining our precious country,” he said.

Democrats remain steadfast supporters of Israel, while Republicans have a long history of close ties with Netanyahu. In January 2015, unbeknown to the Obama White House, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on Iran — a major snub of the presidency.

“The Congress can make this decision on its own,” Boehner said at the time. “I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world, and the president last night [in a State of the Union address] kind of papered over it.”

Netanyahu used the March 2015 speech to warn against a deal with Iran on its nuclear program and economic sanctions. President Barack Obama announced the agreement, reached with European allies, in August 2015.