Inside storyWhite House counters that moves will boost Palestinians

Some Democrats ‘dumbfounded’ by Biden’s willingness to hand major gifts to Netanyahu

Two lawmakers say timing not right to add Israel to Visa Waiver Program or to broker a Saudi normalization deal, actions that will bolster PM’s far-right government

Jacob Magid

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet with US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet with US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition passing the first piece of legislation of its judicial overhaul last month, US-Israel relations appeared to be dropping to one of their lowest points in years.

US President Joe Biden had all but begged Netanyahu not to move ahead with the effort to radically curb the High Court of Justice’s power without at least some support from the opposition. But the prime minister plowed ahead anyway, and his coalition passed the “reasonableness law,” which curtails judicial review of government decisions and appointments, 64-0 on July 24, with the opposition boycotting the vote.

The planned overhaul has kept Netanyahu from a coveted White House visit for seven months and counting; all the premier has at the moment is an assurance from Biden that a meeting will happen somewhere in the US by the end of the year.

That isn’t to say that ties would improve dramatically if the overhaul were shelved. Even before it passed the reasonableness law, the Israeli government’s policies did enough damage to Biden’s relatively limited goal of keeping the two-state solution on life support that Washington summoned Israel’s ambassador for a dressing-down, the first of its kind in over a decade.

But against that backdrop, the Biden administration is working to finalize in the coming months a pair of major initiatives deeply desired by Netanyahu: one to accept Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and another to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The administration has argued that the US relationship with Israel extends well beyond the current government and that both initiatives include elements that will improve Palestinian livelihoods and even boost the prospects for a two-state solution.

Mourners carry the body of 19-year-old Palestinian Qusai Jamal Matan, during his funeral in the town of Burqa in the West Bank on August 5, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

But those arguments don’t appear to be convincing everyone in Biden’s party.

Two Democratic lawmakers who spoke to The Times of Israel this week on condition of anonymity expressed a degree of “dumbfounded-ness” over the administration’s insistence on moving forward with both undertakings at a time when the Netanyahu government is seen to so egregiously undermine US interests in the region.

‘Right moves, wrong time’

Both lawmakers were quick to point out that they principally support Israel’s entry into the VWP as well as Jerusalem normalizing ties with Riyadh.

“This is the most far-right government we’ve ever seen, and we’re talking about giving them something that will help solidify Netanyahu’s hold on power,” said the first Congress member. “I get that there are other factors at play here, but these seem like the right moves at the wrong time.”

The two also sought to differentiate themselves from the Squad of eight or so progressives in the House of Representatives who would likely oppose both Biden initiatives regardless of which government was in power in Israel.

“I’m deeply committed to the safety and security of Israel. As we’ve seen in the months since this far-right government came into power, Israel has been less safe and less secure. So why should the administration be bending over backward for Netanyahu and his allies, who have no intention of granting the Palestinians a state?” asked the second Congress member.

Others in the party, however, appear to have less of an issue making such significant gestures to Israel now.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and colleagues host a delegation of Democrats from the House of Representatives lead by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in Jerusalem on August 7, 2023. (Haim Zach / GPO)

House Majority Leader Hakeem Jeffries led an AIPAC-funded delegation of 25 Democrats to Israel this week, rubbing shoulders with Netanyahu and telling Israeli reporters that he “takes [the premier] at his word.”

The same can’t even necessarily be said of Biden.

Asked the day after the reasonableness law passed whether the US president trusts Netanyahu, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre refused to answer. “What I can tell you again, as you just stated: They have a longstanding relationship. They speak candidly with each other.”

The first Democratic lawmaker speaking on condition of anonymity agreed that there was a range of views in the party regarding the Netanyahu government, but insisted, “I’m far from the only one on my side of the aisle who’s uncomfortable with the kinds of things [the administration] is considering giving to this Israeli government.”

“I tend to think I’m a lot closer to where a lot of my Jewish constituents are at on this, in terms of their opposition to this government, particularly over what it’s been doing on judicial reform,” said the second Democratic lawmaker.

‘We should be very wary of the Saudis’

The Times of Israel spoke to a third Democratic lawmaker who agreed to go on record, but refrained from criticizing the Biden administration’s decision to pursue the induction of Israel into the VWP and the Saudi normalization deal while the Netanyahu government remains in power.

Like the two anonymous lawmakers, though, Sen. Chris Van Hollen stressed his principled support for both initiatives, while specifying that each should be conditioned on significant improvements in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

In the case of the VWP, he argued that Israel should only be accepted if it can commit to full reciprocity in its treatment of Arab-, Muslim- and Palestinian-Americans and took issue with the arrangement that the administration has reached with Israel on that matter, which he claimed allows “discrimination” to continue.

As for the normalization deal, Van Hollen noted the “undemocratic Saudi regime’s” major demands: a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to its defense in the event of an attack, and a US cooperation in the establishment of a civilian nuclear program without significant safeguards.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, at a Senate appropriations subcommittee, March 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

Van Hollen acknowledged that a deal that would see Riyadh gradually detach from China would serve a major foreign policy interest for Washington.

“But we should be very wary of the Saudis trying to exercise an excessive amount of leverage, by threatening to jump into China’s arms,” he said. “Every time they say, ‘Give us more or we’re going to move closer to China, we shouldn’t be like, ‘How high can we jump?’

“This is like a triple bank shot, and [it] presumes that the Netanyahu coalition could continue, even in the face of the requirements that would be put on the table to address Palestinian equities and concerns,” added Van Hollen.

“We’re putting a lot on the table for normalization, and we should want to frame this in a way that provides for a stable peace in the Middle East,” which the senator said would require major Israeli steps toward the Palestinians, including a settlement freeze, the dismantlement of all illegal outposts, and allowing the expansion of Palestinian towns in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank.

The administration defends its stance

The White House maintained that a normalization deal would be consistent with Biden’s longstanding policy in the region.

“As part of our regional integration US foreign policy goals, we support normalization efforts with Israel, including Saudi Arabia, which would lead toward a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region,” a US National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement responding to a query on the matter. “Regional integration benefits US national security interests, the interests of our regional partners, the people of the United States, and the citizens of the region.”

Still, the spokesperson clarified that “normalization and the details of any agreement reached have to be decided by two sovereign states,” indicating that the Palestinian component of the deal may be left for the Israeli and Saudi leaders to debate.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah on June 7, 2023. (Amer Hilabi/Pool Photo via AP)

Commenting on the effort to add Israel to the VWP, a US State Department spokesperson said in a statement that the “US is equally committed to taking steps in the bilateral relationship that benefit US and Israeli citizens alike. One such step is Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program once it has fulfilled all requirements.”

“Key among those requirements is the extension of reciprocal privileges to all US citizens and nationals – including allowing Palestinian-Americans to travel to and throughout Israel for short-term visitor stays (tourism, business, and transit). This includes allowing Americans on the Palestinian population registry the benefits of such visa-free travel,” the spokesperson added.

“We welcome the changes to Israel’s travel policies announced by Israel to ensure equal treatment for all US citizen travelers, without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity, and expect further changes to be implemented.

“While VWP is first and foremost a security partnership, the program also facilitates legitimate reciprocal travel, increases commerce, and strengthens our people-to-people ties,” the spokesperson said.

A US official told The Times of Israel last month that Washington doesn’t take political considerations into account when adjudicating a country’s application for the VWP.

The official did point out, though, that the decision to help Israel qualify for the program was made during the previous unity coalition, hinting that Biden might not have been as generous with the current one.

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