Netanyahu meets with Democrats as he looks to buck notion of strained US ties

PM discusses Iran nuclear threat and expanding Abraham Accords with group of lawmakers led by House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, amid heat over judicial push

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) meets with a delegation of congressional Democrats led by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in Jerusalem on April 24, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) meets with a delegation of congressional Democrats led by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in Jerusalem on April 24, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Monday with a delegation of American congressional Democrats, as he continued to dismiss the notion that his government’s ties with the party and the United States more broadly were strained.

The meeting with the 12-member delegation led by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries took place in Jerusalem, against the backdrop of polling showing waning popularity for the longtime Israeli leader among both parties in Washington.

Already unpopular with Democrats due to strains during the Barack Obama administration, Netanyahu has seen his image take a further hit since the establishment of his new hardline government four months ago, and he has yet to receive a hotly anticipated White House invitation.

The Israeli cabinet has butted heads with US President Biden administration over its effort to overhaul the judiciary as well as its policies toward the Palestinians.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu used the Monday meeting to focus on two favored topics — the Iranian nuclear threat and expanding the Abraham Accords.

“The prime minister thanked Congressman Jeffries and the members of the delegation for their support for the State of Israel and emphasized to them the importance of the relationship between Israel and the United States,” Netanyahu’s office said.

Aside from Jeffries, the delegation included Reps. Gregory Meeks, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Yvette Clarke, Dean Phillips and Sara Jacobs.

Also sitting in on the meeting were Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, who has served as a point-man for Netanyahu on relations with the US, and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in Jerusalem on April 24, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” a day earlier, the premier acknowledged shrinking support for Israel among Democrats but noted that it began before his current government came to power and can be traced to the “demonization” of Israel in the media, which he said emphasizes the “collateral damage” incurred by Palestinians in the process of Israel defending itself from terror.

Netanyahu was presented with the results of a recent Gallup poll that showed, for the first time, Democrats are likelier to sympathize with Palestinians than with Israelis.

“I think we have to work harder to persuade our Democratic colleagues — or those of our Democratic colleagues who forget perhaps that Israel is the solitary democracy in the Middle East — that America has no better friend and no better ally than Israel,” Netanyahu said.

A separate Pew Research Center poll from last week showed that Americans are more likely than not to see Netanyahu in a negative light, and a plurality of young Republicans have never heard of the longtime conservative premier.

Still, the seniority of the delegation in Israel this week also indicated that the Democratic Party’s leadership remains closely invested in Israel, despite the hardline nature of the current government.

Bereaved families and Israelis stand next to memorial candles during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on April 22, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Netanyahu was pressed during the Sunday interview on why he is willing to meet with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is slated to announce his candidacy for president, when the Israeli premier already is seen as overly close to the Republican party.

“Of course [I’ll meet DeSantis], I meet with everyone, Republican and Democrat,” he responded. “It’s my job, and I think it’s important for Israel’s bipartisan support in the US.”

Biden said last month that Netanyahu would not be invited to the White House in the “near term,” noting his distress over the government’s judicial overhaul effort and urging the premier to “walk away” from the legislation it had been advancing on the matter.

Netanyahu said Sunday that he “valued” Israel’s alliance with the US and his personal friendship with Biden, and insisted that nothing can “get in the way of that.”

“It’s an internal matter we have to resolve, and the way we’re doing it is by seeking consensus,” he said, pointing to ongoing negotiations at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem aimed at reaching a compromise with the opposition on the judicial overhaul. The talks were launched after Netanyahu agreed last month to temporarily pause the legislative blitz in response to massive pushback at home and abroad.

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