US politicians' visits to Israel point to a changing relationship

Democratic and Republican figures are having to deal with evolving attitudes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict back home

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis holds a news conference during an official trip to Israel. His was one of three visits by prominent US political leaders to the country last month. Reuters
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During a 10-day stretch in April, there were three visits to Israel by prominent US political leaders. What made them noteworthy weren’t the visits themselves, but what they revealed about the evolving US-Israel relationship.

From April 22-25, House of Representatives Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries visited Israel with a delegation of 11 Democratic members of Congress. From April 27-29, the Republican Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis led a delegation to Israel as part of a four-nation tour to promote Florida business. And then from April 30-May 2, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy came calling.

No one was fooled by the stated purpose of the DeSantis visit. He is testing the waters to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. And despite coyly dodging questions about his potential candidacy, everything Mr DeSantis did during his time in Israel was seen through that lens.

Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem, DeSantis signed an anti-hate crime bill passed by the Florida legislature. It was unusual, to say the least, for a governor to sign a piece of domestic legislation while overseas. While the bill imposes penalties for a range of actions that harass individuals for their religion or ethnicity, Mr DeSantis focused his public comments on anti-Semitism, making it clear that he accepts an expanded interpretation of that term to include criticism of Israel and support for boycotts of the country. Mr DeSantis also used the occasion of his visit to highlight another proclamation he signed affirming Florida’s special relationship with Israel.

In remarks he made during his short visit, Mr DeSantis was careful to endorse former president Donald Trump’s policies toward Israel: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (although he curiously suggested that he would have done it sooner); withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal; and promoting the Abraham Accords. He also found occasion to criticise President Biden for “butting into Israel’s internal affairs” by cautioning the current Israeli government to rethink its radical “judicial reform” legislation.

It is worth noting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did meet with Mr DeSantis, but kept the visit low-key and without official comment – most likely because Mr Netanyahu didn’t want to provoke a reaction from Mr Trump.

Mr McCarthy’s time in Israel had more of the formal trappings of an official visit. He addressed the Knesset (making him the second US Speaker to do so, with Newt Gingrich being the first in 1998) and had a very public sit-down with the Prime Minister. Like Mr DeSantis, Mr McCarthy endorsed the Trump-era agenda for the Middle East and followed the well-worn script of “unwavering support”, “unbreakable ties”, pledging military aid, attacks on Iran and support for expanding the Abraham Accords.

Unlike the DeSantis visit, Mr McCarthy’s was largely ignored by the press. He only succeeded in making news when, in an obvious criticism of Mr Biden’s failure to invite Mr Netanyahu to Washington, the Speaker offered his own invitation. Should that occur, it would represent the third time a Republican Speaker of the House invited Mr Netanyahu to address Congress in order to attack a sitting US Democratic president (Mr Gingrich invited Mr Netanyahu in 1998, using the opportunity to rail against Bill Clinton’s embrace of the Oslo peace process, and John Boehner invited him in 2015 to attack Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal).

While Israel remains a central issue in US politics, there is a fundamental shift in the role it plays

The least publicised of the three visits was the Democratic delegation led by Mr Jeffries. He had the same meetings, used largely the same talking points, and differed only in “raising concerns about the proposed judicial reforms that hundreds of thousands have protested in the streets” — not exactly a headline maker.

What can be learnt from the three visits is that while Israel remains a central issue in US politics, there is a fundamental shift in the role it plays. Polls show that Democrats now favour the Palestinian cause over support for Israel by a 49 per cent to 38 per cent margin, and American Jews, the vast majority of whom are Democrats, are increasingly alienated from the policies of the Netanyahu government. So, the targets of the DeSantis and McCarthy visits were not Jewish voters. They were playing, instead to the very pro-Israel right-wing Christian evangelicals who make up 40 per cent of the Republican vote.

Recall that exactly two years ago at a conference organised by ultraconservative Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer advised Israel not to rely on the support of American Jews. They were, he cautioned, too small in number and too deeply divided on Israel. Instead, he said, Israel’s strongest supporters were the far more numerous right-wing Christians, whose ideology made them uncompromising devotees of Israel. And as that rock-solid, religiously motivated base of the party are also Trump supporters, it becomes clear why Mr DeSantis and Mr McCarthy would go to great lengths to endorse the former president’s agenda.

The purpose of Mr Jeffries’s visit was more difficult to discern. He pledged his commitment to bipartisan support for Israel – by which he means keeping in line most Democratic members of Congress. At the same time, with the party’s progressive base moving in a different direction, there is an increasing restiveness in his caucus, with many of his Democratic colleagues speaking out in ways that are critical of many Israeli policies.

So if the majority of American Jews will vote for Democrats and growing numbers of them aren’t wedded to Israel, why is Mr Jeffries’ singing off the same old page? A recent article in Jewish Currents quotes a New York Jewish Democratic operative providing the answer: “Jeffries is out re-establishing his credentials with Jews, particularly donors”. Pro-Israel political action committees spent tens of millions of dollars in recent election cycles and it appears that Mr Jeffries doesn’t want to risk losing their support.

The bottom line is that the three recent visits to Israel reflect the changing dynamic in US politics and the policy debate. There’s a deep partisan split on the issue of Israel. With Mr Trump and his religiously conservative pro-Israel voters dominating the Republican side, Republicans are of one mind on the issue. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, are stuck between courting some of their very pro-Israel donors and appealing to their more progressive voters. Despite Mr Jeffries’ pledge of bipartisan support for Israel, both the Democrat/Republican inter-party tensions and the Democrats’ intra-party tension on the subject are real and growing.

Published: May 11, 2023, 2:00 PM