'Bibi better not try to divide us on partisan lines again'

With Biden cautious on new Israeli gov’t, Dems at J Street ready to take gloves off

As White House takes wait-and-see attitude, Congress members addressing group’s conference blast ‘extreme right-wing’ coalition being formed by Netanyahu, liken him to Trump

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

(L-R) Democratic Reps. Melanie Stansbury, Jennifer Wexton, Madeleine Dean and Sean Casten address the J Street conference in Washington on December 5, 2022. (J Street)
(L-R) Democratic Reps. Melanie Stansbury, Jennifer Wexton, Madeleine Dean and Sean Casten address the J Street conference in Washington on December 5, 2022. (J Street)

WASHINGTON — Each of the seven Democratic lawmakers who addressed this week’s J Street’s conference expressed alarm over the “extreme right-wing” government being formed in Israel, as the Biden administration chose a more cautious approach.

Most of the lawmakers are self-described progressives and part of a camp that has long grown uncomfortable with Israeli actions in the West Bank, but they are also not aligned with the more left-wing Squad that includes such lawmakers as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, and made a point of highlighting the importance of the US-Israel relationship.

The representatives’ lack of hesitation in openly lamenting prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power and his elevation of extremist lawmakers to senior posts served as a preview to the kind of pressure the Biden administration will likely face from its own party to come down harder on Israel in the coming years.

For now, the administration indicated it was taking a wait-and-see approach to its dealings with the next Israeli government, which could be sworn in within days.

“We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the conference.

The White House held a meeting last week to discuss how it might engage with the next government, but no decisions were made, Axios reported Wednesday.

An official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides is currently not planning to meet with Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party who Netanyahu has tapped to become the next minister in charge of police. That policy may also extend to Bezalel Smotrich, who Netanyahu plans to appoint as finance minister and whose pro-annexationist Religious Zionism party has also been granted authority over a pair of Defense Ministry bodies heavily involved in West Bank policy.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the J Street National Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“In Israel, the political forces defending democracy and equal rights and freedom under law and the peace process must contend with a surging far-right alliance in the Knesset, which is poised to contribute numerous members to Netanyahu’s new cabinet,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, who led the impeachment efforts against former president Donald Trump.

“The inclusion of political extremists in the government of a democratic society — as we’ve seen recently here in the Trump administration — constitutes a clear and present danger to democratic values, the rule of law and human rights,” he added in his keynote address at the conference’s opening plenary on Saturday night.

Seven-term congressman Rep. Gerry Connolly tore into Netanyahu’s decision to “trash” former president Barak Obama’s Iran policy in an address to a joint session of Congress in 2015 and said the only solution to dealing with the Islamic Republic that the prime minister-designate will accept is a “kinetic” one where the US conducts a military strike against Tehran’s nuclear sites. “The consequences would be catastrophic,” he said.

“Bibi [should know] that when he comes here, he’d better not try to divide us on partisan lines again. He’d better not risk Israel’s long-term support in the United States by making it a partisan issue. And he’d better listen to voices, including the voices in this room, who are growing in number,” Connolly said on Monday.

“He’s put together the most extreme right-wing government in the history of Israel, including people who were not long ago designated as terrorist supporting, not only by our government and Europe but by Israel itself,” Connolly said of Ben Gvir, whose Otzma Yehudit party members are disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane’s Kach party has been outlawed in the US and Israel as a terror organization.

Rep. Peter Welch, who recently won the election for one of Vermont’s two Senate seats, said Netanyahu has “display[ed] a callous disregard for the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

“Why is he working to create a government that not only opposes a two-state solution, but one that would include ministers who would expel Arab Israeli citizens?” he asked. Ben Gvir campaigned on expelling “disloyal” Arab citizens.

“I cannot support Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine the very aspirations of the democratic State of Israel by marginalizing, annexing and compromising rights of Arab Israeli citizens,” Welch added.

He also referenced Trump’s dinner last month with prominent antisemites Kanye West and Nick Fuentes: “Bibi didn’t have dinner with Trump and Ye and Fuentes, but it’s clear he’s serving the same menu.”

In her video address to the conference, Rep. Becca Balint — who will replace Welch in the House of Representatives — hailed the earlier remarks of J Street president Jeremy Ben Ami. “An ultra-right-wing Netanyahu government will force a moment of reckoning for the US-Israel relationship,” she quoted him as having said.

Speaking together onstage about the J Street-sponsored trips they took to Israel and the West Bank, Reps. Melanie Stansbury, Jennifer Wexton, Madeleine Dean and Sean Casten expressed their dismay at the situation on the ground, particularly for Palestinians in Hebron and for Israelis in the Gaza border, vowing to do their part from the Hill to bring it to an end.

Dean, a Philadelphia area congresswoman, also made a point of expressing her concern over how the next Israeli government might exacerbate the situation. “I’m so gravely concerned about the direction that… [the new government] will take Israel and the Palestinian people.”

Wexton, who has in past signed onto initiatives expressing her concern over Israeli unilateral measures in the West Bank, said she expected the Biden administration to follow through on pledges to block them.

“And if they don’t, I’ve got Secretary Blinken coming before my committee soon, and I think that I’ll ask him about that,” she said.

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