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At US embassy, Bennett pushes for return of bipartisan backing for Israel

Premier uses Fourth of July address to vow to strengthen ties with Democrats, which are seen to have taken a hit in recent years

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Embassy in Israel Charge D'affaires Michael Ratney at the US Embassy's Independence Day celebration on July 5, 2021. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy in Jerusalem)
US House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Embassy in Israel Charge D'affaires Michael Ratney at the US Embassy's Independence Day celebration on July 5, 2021. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy in Jerusalem)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed on Tuesday to prevent Israel from being used as a political football in the United States, as the new Israeli government works to restore ties with the Democratic Party, which have become frayed in recent years.

“I’ll challenge any attempt to make America a partisan political issue in Israel and any attempt to make Israel a partisan political issue in the United States,” Bennett said in his remarks at the US Embassy in Jerusalem’s annual Independence Day celebration.

“Our policy is bipartisan. We’re friends of everyone,” the prime minister continued. “Because the friendship between our two democracies will always transcend party politics.”

Bennett’s comments echoed those made last week by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid during his meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when Lapid acknowledged that “mistakes were made” that damaged Israel’s bipartisan support in Washington.

Neither Bennett nor Lapid mentioned opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu by name, but critics of the former prime minister say his willingness to engage in public quarrels with Democratic administrations, as well as his overwhelming embrace of the divisive former US president Donald Trump, harmed ties with the Democratic Party.

Bennett in his Tuesday speech sought to focus on areas of agreement between the two countries. “Israelis across the political spectrum are fundamentally pro-American. We like America. We appreciate, we admire what you’re doing out there and that’s the way it ought to be, also in America vis-a-vis Israel,” he said.

“I stand committed to making the bond between us even stronger, by expanding our already strong strategic cooperation in the face of any threats to our people’s security, building even more robust economic and trade relationships,” he added.

The prime minister took the opportunity to highlight his own American heritage. Bennett’s parents are from San Francisco and he spent parts of his childhood on the West Coast. As an adult, he and his wife Gilat lived in New York, where he ran a tech company.

The premier noted with pride his parents participation in the civil right movement, which led to his father’s arrest during a protest at a San Francisco hotel that refused to hire black people.

Bennett went on to boast about the diverse nature of his new coalition — a detail that has become something of a talking point by Israeli officials in their talks with countries abroad.

“We’ve got eight different parties — left and right, Jews and Arabs. It’s not easy, but it’s working because there is a spirit of goodwill. And when there’s trust and goodwill, it can work,” the prime minister said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Embassy in Israel Charge D’affaires Michael Ratney at the US Embassy in Jerusalem on July 5, 2021. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy in Jerusalem)

Also addressing the event was Embassy Charges d’affairs Michael Ratney, who was dispatched to Jerusalem last month to head the mission until a full time ambassador is approved by Congress. US President Joe Biden’s nominee for the post, former State Department deputy secretary Thomas Nides, is expected to face a Senate hearing in the coming weeks.

“There have certainly been a lot of changes in Israel recently and also a lot of changes in Washington, but it’s reassuring to see that one of the constants is a rock solid US-Israel partnership, across nearly all sectors of our society. We know that you and your entire government will be great partners as we enter a period that inevitably brings both opportunities and risks,” Ratney said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Embassy in Israel Charge D’affaires Michael Ratney with the embassy honor guards at the US Embassy’s Independence Day celebration on July 5, 2021. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy in Jerusalem)

“Israel has no better friend than the United States,” he said, adding that the two countries “stand together in our determination that Iran must not obtain a nuclear weapon.”

Sitting on stage with Bennett and Ratney was US House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks, who was leading a bipartisan Congressional delegation visit to Israel.

Meeks addressed Bennett’s point on maintaining bipartisan support for Israel. “I want to assure the prime minister that he does not have to worry. The United States of America, Congress, especially the US House of Representatives — we’re not here because of politics. We’re here because of values. We share the same values,” he said, noting that his panel chose Israel as its first destination to visit since the pandemic as a testament to the close ties between the two countries.

Meeks was joined on the trip by fellow Democrats Ted Deutch, David Cicilline, Sara Jacobs, Kathy Manning, Abigail Spanberger and Brad Schneider, along with Republicans Andy Barr, French Hill and Nicole Malliotakis.

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