Biden’s Hidden Birthday Message for Israel

9 minute read

A foreign leader visiting Washington to celebrate their country’s 75th birthday would normally be an occasion for backslapping comity. But with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the most right-wing government in the nation’s history—punctuated by its attempt to weaken the judiciary—the U.S. will mark the milestone under a dark cloud. The man who runs the country is not invited.

Rather than Netanyahu, the Biden administration and Congress will welcome Israeli President Isaac Herzog this week to commemorate Israel’s 1948 founding. It will mark a rare instance in which Israel’s head of state—a largely ceremonial role with no executive authority—is representing the nation before such an audience instead of the Prime Minister, who helms its government.

“The main message of his visit is who is not visiting, which is a very weird situation” says Matt Duss, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former foreign policy aide to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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While President Joe Biden called Netanyahu on Monday for the first time since the Israeli premier re-entered office in December, the relationship remains cold. Biden, who recently described the current ruling coalition as “one of the most extremist” in Israel’s history, invited the Prime Minister to meet in the United States, according to a readout of the conversation. But the offer did not include a visit to the White House, the ultimate gesture of a presidential embrace. Most likely, sources say, the two will have a tete-a-tete on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September. “Every single word and phrase is scrutinized in those readouts,” a senior administration official tells TIME. “What’s not included is often more important than what is included.”

For a president who’s taken a hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not wanting to get bogged down in the same intractable quagmire as his predecessors, Biden’s moves amount to an ominous warning: Under Netanyahu’s stewardship, Israel is on an accelerated path of destroying its founders’ vision of a Jewish democracy.

The sources of Biden’s grievances are manifold. Since reclaiming power, Netanyahu has formed a hard-right coalition filled with ultraconservative and ultra-Orthodox voices. They have moved quickly to expand Israel’s settlement presence in the West Bank—gobbling up land that Palestinians see as their own and making the conditions near-impossible for an independent state to ever emerge there. Equally disconcerting has been Netanyahu’s assault on Israeli democracy. His bid to diminish the power of the Supreme Court has sparked a historic backlash, with thousands of Israelis taking to the streets and blocking highways for months. Netanyahu—who continues to face his own legal woes on corruption charges—plans to finalize the law next week.

Read more: On Its 75th Anniversary, Israel Faces Its Gravest Internal Crisis Ever

Israel’s rightward lurch has not only upended Israeli politics and society. It’s changing the contours of the U.S.-Israel relationship, with Democratic voters and politicians becoming increasingly more exasperated with Israel and more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

That’s one reason why Herzog may be a more palatable spokesperson for Israel in Biden’s Washington. A left-of-center politician who was Netanyahu’s chief rival in the 2015 Israeli election, Herzog supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, as Israel’s president, he’s not part of the ruling coalition. He will meet with Biden at the White House on Tuesday and address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

Herzog’s visit wasn’t originally intended as a repudiation of Netanyahu. When he traveled to Capitol Hill in October, then Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited him to return to Washington to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary, a source close to Herzog tells TIME. That was before Netanyahu even won the election in November. After Kevin McCarthy took the Speaker’s gavel from Pelosi in January, he merely followed through on an invitation that was already extended.

But Israel has become such a flashpoint on the left that any Israeli leader’s visit is a source of consternation to progressives. Several Democratic House members have already said they’re boycotting the speech, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who recently drew condemnation from members of her own party for calling Israel a “racist state”—comments she later walked back—has said she’s unlikely to attend.

The number of Democrats missing Herzog’s address is slated to be substantially smaller than the 58 Democrats who skipped Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress lambasting the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear talks. Yet given that the purported purpose of Herzog’s visit is to commemorate Israel’s founding, it reflects shifting attitudes toward the country in Congress. “There’s a big difference between who’s not willing to attend a Bibi speech versus who’s not willing to attend a Herzog speech,” a former senior Democratic Hill staffer tells TIME. Put simply, these members are less protesting one figure they think is advancing objectionable policies than a stand-in of the nation as a whole.

Even some of Netanyahu’s most prominent critics think it’s a mistake to spurn Herzog. “We are urging members to attend,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Zionist advocacy group J Street, tells TIME. “It goes back to the symbolism of Herzog as President of Israel and really a symbol of the state more than the policies of this government.”

For Israel’s fiercest antagonists, that’s the point. “I think there’s a real danger in pretending that Mr. Herzog is an acceptable face of Israel,” says Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American activist and a senior fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. “He is, at the end of the day, a representative of this state.”

The imbroglio reflects a concern among Israel’s allies that the Herzog boycott may not merely represent progressive frustration with Israel’s right-wing government, but opposition to Israel as a whole. It comes amid a sea change in public opinion on the conflict. In March, a Gallup Survey found that 38% of Democrats said they sympathize more with Israel, whereas 49% said they sympathize more with the Palestinians. That marks a dramatic shift from seven years earlier, when 56% of Democratic respondents said they sympathized more with Israel versus the 23% who said they sympathized more with the Palestinians.

“Are there changing attitudes among progressive Democrats with Israel? Yes, there are,” Ambassador Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace adviser to President Barack Obama, tells TIME. “The progressives are more sensitive to the Palestinians and the Palestinian narrative and less so to Israel.”

The fault for this trend, Netanyahu’s critics will say, rests on the Prime Minister, who ruined his relationship with President Obama over their differences in confronting Iran. The apotheosis came in 2015 when he accepted a backdoor invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress, unambiguously aligning himself with Obama’s opposition. While Netanyahu’s political motivations might have been tied to the Israeli election scheduled for two weeks later, the speech ultimately helped cement the impression of Israel as a Republican cause.

That perception was only compounded in the Trump years, with the former President appearing to act as Netanyahu’s faithful servant by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, cutting aid to the Palestinians, and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord. Since then, the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord has only become more elusive.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground has gotten more volatile. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu authorized the Israeli Defense Forces to conduct its largest military escalation in the West Bank in more than 10 years, striking a Jenin refugee camp. The operation killed 10 people and injured hundreds of others. Such an incursion, which the IDF said was a counterterrorism operation, would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

If nothing else, it may be symptomatic of a larger issue. Netanyahu has enmeshed Israel deeper into a one-state reality, minimizing the possibility of an eventual Palestinian state and plunging the nation he leads deeper into an existential crisis.

To be sure, the Palestinians have historically been crippled by their own intransigent leadership. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have both squandered opportunities for Palestinian sovereignty. And the bloody legacies of the Second Intifada and multiple wars with Hamas have scarred an Israeli public that reasonably fears that withdrawing from the West Bank would create a Gaza-like power vacuum to be filled by the most extreme forces.

But as Israeli leaders who came before Netanyahu had acknowledged, the country cannot rule over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank forever without suffering profound moral and political consequences. Without a two-state outcome, Israel will either have to franchise all Palestinians and lose its status as a Jewish state, or not franchise them and lose its status as a democracy.

Netanyahu’s critics in Washington fear he is bent on choosing the latter option. And as Biden seems to be implicitly suggesting, that may not only threaten the sustenance of liberal Zionist ideals. It may also irreversibly rupture Israel’s relationship with its most important ally.

“I don’t think we’re going to hit a line in the sand and suddenly everything changes,” Ben-Ami says. “But over the course of this coming generation, more and more Democrats and more and more progressives will distance themselves from Israel. This threatens the bipartisan support that always existed for the State of Israel.”

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