delegation discussion

Republicans and Democrats come together for delegation to Israel, but judicial reform creates point of division

McCarthy-Hoyer delegation to Israel highlighted bipartisan support for Israel, but also underscored how judicial reform is increasingly becoming a partisan issue

Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks after the signing of an agreement with his Israeli counterpart at the Shagall Hall in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem on May 1, 2023, during his visit to the country with a Congress delegation.

A bipartisan delegation to Israel last week led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and former Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was supposed to put on display bipartisan support for Israel.

But while lawmakers on both sides of the aisle emphasized their ongoing support for the Jewish state, the trip also highlighted how Israel’s judicial reform proposal is becoming a political wedge issue among supporters of Israel in the U.S. 

Democrats argue that criticizing the overhaul is not inconsistent with supporting Israel, while Republicans call such criticism inappropriate and a potential sign of flagging support for Israel.

Lawmakers on the trip who attended briefings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana said that judicial reform was a subject of discussion — but that only Democrats in the group expressed concerns about the issue.

Hoyer told Jewish Insider last week that “friends ought to be candid with one another when they see things that they think are inconsistent with what we think are the proper steps to take,” drawing a parallel to Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress in 2015 in which he expressed disapproval over the Iran nuclear deal, which the U.S. was at the time negotiating.

“Neither Israelis nor Americans ought to be surprised that the other from time to time expresses disagreement with some things that the other is doing. That does not mean that we don’t have an enduring bond of friendship and alliances,” he said. “It means that friends are saying, ‘I don’t think what you’re doing in this particular instance is in the best interest… of our alliance.’”

Rep. Max Miller (R-OH), one of two Jewish House Republicans, argued that Democratic criticism of judicial reform throws into question Democratic support for Israel.

“I believe that’s a big indication of who supports the State of Israel more within this country,” he said. “I think that is a huge indicator of how the Democrat[ic] Party feels about the State of Israel and feels about being a Zionist.”

Rep. Nick LaLota (R-NY) said he didn’t feel it was his place to weigh in on the judicial reform debate because it doesn’t pertain to U.S. national security.

“The partnership between Israel and America is one that’s based off of national security. And when thinking about that partnership, I don’t think it’s appropriate for one partner to leverage another with a term that’s outside of that partnership,” he said. “If we saw that Israel was doing a deal with China, or North Korea, or another one of our adversaries, I think it’d be proper to ask Israel to reconsider the position… that harmed our national security, because that’s the basis of our partnership.”

“Part of the reason we were there was to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence and sovereignty,” he continued. “And I think it would be inappropriate to — especially when celebrating [Israel’s] sovereignty — to try to influence its internal decision-making.”

Miller later acknowledged “the Democrats… who were with us are fantastic, they’re great people — I loved every single one of them,” describing them as “all great people who support Israel.”

“A part of democracy is civil discourse, and they were able to engage in that,” Miller said. “While they may see the judicial reform differently than I do — [and] most of the Republicans  — we were able to sit down, and we were able to talk about it and hear the reasons as to why… but the bottom line is, is that they still support Israel. And to me, that’s fundamentally what matters.”

Lawmakers said that discussions with Israeli leadership also touched on Iran policy.

“Everybody on all sides reiterated that a nuclear armed Iran was not an option that could be accepted, period,” Hoyer said. “There was a discussion about [how] we had to make real the understanding among the Iranians that that was the case,” adding that the group reiterated comments from administration officials that any “whatever action was necessary to stop them… was on the table.”

Despite fading prospects for an Iran nuclear deal, lawmakers said they still don’t see the administration and the Israeli government — which has consistently opposed reentry into the deal — as in alignment on the path forward, however.

“I think there’s a different perspective, there has been for a long period of time,” Hoyer said, but added that there is a “central agreement” that Iran cannot be allowed to become a nuclear power and that Israeli officials said that “intelligence relationships and work between Israel and the United States have never been better” because of the shared Iran threat.

LaLota agreed that it would be “premature” to say that the Israeli government and the Biden administration are aligned on Iran policy, noting that “many Republicans wish that our administration was stronger with respect to Iran.”

“We heard that same thing from Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he added. “Nations like Iran generally respond to strength. Our diplomatic and economic efforts should be positioned from a position of strength.”

The delegation also discussed Israel’s growing ties with China, and concerns that Beijing might make moves to acquire successful Israeli businesses.

“We made clear… within this country of the United States that we’re fighting against that, and we’re encouraging the Israelis — and I believe they’re going to take that tack and limit that kind of business,” Miller said. “But yes, it is a concern.”

LaLota, a Navy veteran who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said that he was particularly interested in the possibilities for greater U.S.-Israel cooperation on cybersecurity.

“It’s possible, if not likely, the next war won’t be won with rifles and bombs. It’ll be won with keyboards and mice,” he said. “Israel is known to have a very strong cybersecurity program. And I think it’s in both of our nation’s best interest to continue to share lessons learned with respect to cyber, so that we can both deter conflict with our common adversaries or if necessary, win a cyber war.”

While in Israel, McCarthy and Ohana announced the formation of a House-Knesset Parliamentary Friendship group, which LaLota said “will only strengthen the already strong ties between our two legislative bodies. So we’re looking forward to that.”

Outside of policy conversations with Israeli leaders, members of the delegation said that the group’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center was particularly emotional.

Miller said the “most impactful” part of his visit was finding the names of family members in the Book of Names at Yad Vashem.

“It was a very sobering feeling to see one of your family members’ names within that exhibit,” he said. “And it’s something that stayed with me not only throughout that day, but even until today. And it was the first thing I told my family about because we always have to remember that this can happen again.”

D’Esposito said he was particularly struck by the story of a woman who gave birth in a concentration camp to a child who died hours later. “To see those names in that scale, the thousands upon thousands of pages, just reiterates how much work we need to do and how hard we need to be committed to all forms of hate in antisemitism and providing funding for education and really talking and teaching the stories of the Holocaust.”

Despite the differences over judicial reform, lawmakers called the trip a strong show of bipartisan solidarity with Israel.

Hoyer, a longtime advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship, told JI last week that he joined the trip, and invited a number of other Democrats, “because I think it’s useful to ensure that there is a bipartisan presentation to the Israelis, and a realization by the Israelis that this is a very important bipartisan issue, not a partisan issue.”

D’Esposito noted that recent visits to Israel by Democratic and Republican leaders from both the House and Senate have sent “a real clear and concise message from every corner of this country, that Israel is important and that our relationships are important, and that there are a core group of lawmakers that will continue to fight and advocate and do all that they can to promote and maintain peace in the Middle East.”

The lawmakers also said that the trip had fostered genuine bipartisan camaraderie, especially among the freshmen members.

“We all got along, we all enjoyed each other’s company and I truly believe it was a trip that established friendships on both sides of the aisle for decades to come,” D’Esposito volunteered.

LaLota echoed that sentiment. “You’re generally on a plane or in the same hotel, or in the same cramped bus for the better part of four days; that sort of proximity lends itself to getting to know folks better,” he said.

Miller added, “It’s unique trips like this that are able to bring both sides together, that are going to help the American people.”

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