Likud’s Nir Barkat calls Bennett-Lapid coaltion ‘interim’ government

Israeli MK Nir Barkat, a member of the Likud party with aspirations for party leadership, referred to Israel’s new coalition government as an ineffectual “interim government” in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday.

“They have no vision. They have no ideology. They have a mutual veto between the left and the right,” Barkat, the former mayor of Jerusalem, said of the new Naftali Bennett-led government. “And they agree to only do things that are not controversial. Therefore they can’t really make any bold moves. They start legislation and never finish a lot of it,” Barkat explained. “Nobody expects anything from them.”

Barkat predicted that Likud will “return [to lead the government] probably quicker than people think.”

The former Jerusalem mayor spoke to JI while visiting Capitol Hill on Tuesday to push back on Biden administration efforts to reopen the shuttered East Jerusalem consulate, which previously functioned as a hub for U.S.-Palestinian relations.

Barkat met with eight lawmakers — split between parties — on Monday and Tuesday to discuss what he said was Israeli opposition to the consulate. He would not name the legislators with whom he met. Israeli opponents argue that a consulate serving Palestinians in Jerusalem would undermine the goal of a united Jerusalem as the undisputed capital of Israel.

“I’ve been conveying my views and the understanding of the Israeli public — 75% of the public in Israel does not support such a move,” Barkat said, citing a poll that showed that 72% of Israelis oppose a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinians.

U.S. lawmakers “understand that this is something that the Israeli public is strongly against” he added. “It’s a move you don’t want to make without thinking. And they understand that this is a process that America respects, as a democracy.”

Barkat did not meet with any of the nine Democratic senators who wrote a letter to President Joe Biden in support of reopening the consulate.

Barkat emphasized that no new diplomatic missions to the Palestinians have been opened in Jerusalem since Israel achieved statehood — although several nations have preexisting Palestinian missions in the city that predate 1948. Former President Donald Trump shuttered the consulate in 2019 after moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Barkat worries that reopening the consulate would spark a wave of attempts by European countries to open similar missions in Jerusalem. The MK added that the U.S. and other nations should open diplomatic missions inside the Palestinian territories, such as in Ramallah, if they want to serve the Palestinians.

Barkat said he emphasized to U.S. lawmakers that “this is not a time for a partisan move against the Israeli public opinion.”

“I think we need to focus on bipartisan issues, and shy away from [a] partisan one-sided move,” Barkat said.

The MK said he further argued that the new Israeli government would be unlikely to support the consulate move, as right-wing members in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s ruling coalition would be unlikely to vote in favor.

“Many people understand that this is something that could dramatically shake the new government and risk the new government because the right-wingers of the government are going to be in a very bad situation… if they have to give consent to the American request, and I believe that they will not give consent,” Barkat said.

In addition to his diplomatic efforts in the U.S., Barkat is pursuing legislation in the Knesset to block any foreign government from opening a mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

“It’s similar to if there’s a lawsuit against something, you just wait for the courts to decide. You don’t want to sneak a decision knowing that there’s a legal procedure… happening in Israel,” Barkat said.

Barkat, a member of the Likud party which is now in the minority in the Knesset for the first time in over a decade, delivered a pessimistic report on the new government’s first weeks in office.

“We realize that sometimes sitting in the opposition sharpens your thinking. We work as a group,” he said. “We were able to derail a number of government decisions that could not pass in the parliament without a majority.”

Looking to the future, Barkat made clear his aspirations to lead Likud, but said he doesn’t plan to challenge longtime party leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directly.

“When Netanyahu… [decides] to resign, I will be there to compete for the leading role in Likud,” Barkat said. “We are a democracy, and Netanyahu was elected to be the head of the party, and I respect that.”

Barkat indicated he would not have handled the recent conflicts in Jerusalem — over issues like evictions and access to the Temple Mount — differently than the city’s current mayor, emphasizing that the evictions are the purview of Jerusalem’s court system, meaning politics “are totally irrelevant.”

Chuck Schumer called Yair Lapid to offer congratulations

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke with Israel’s new foreign minister, Yair Lapid, in a phone conversation on Thursday afternoon that touched on strengthening Israel’s relationship with Democrats, according to Schumer’s press secretary.

During a short break off the Senate floor, Schumer called Lapid, the leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid Party, to congratulate him on successfully forming a new unity government earlier this month. 

If the ideologically diverse coalition, which ousted former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in power, holds, Lapid will take over as prime minister in two years in accordance with a dual power-sharing agreement with Naftali Bennett, the current prime minister and leader of Israel’s Yamina Party.

The Senate majority leader said he looked forward to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and told Lapid that he appreciated the foreign minister’s public comments about bolstering Israel’s rapport with Democrats following recent violence between Israel and Hamas that has divided Democrats in the House and Senate, according to the press secretary, Angelo Roefaro.

Schumer and Lapid also spoke about the importance of bipartisan support for Israel among Democrats and Republicans.

The call comes on the heels of a recent conversation between Lapid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who, in a phone conversation on Tuesday, also discussed continuing a bipartisan consensus on Israel.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken is scheduled to meet with Lapid in Rome on Sunday.

Meeks details plans for committee’s Israel trip

An upcoming congressional delegation to Israel will be an opportunity for legislators to “be focused on support for Israel and its security and at the same time focused on the humanitarian concerns of the Palestinians,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who is leading the delegation, told Jewish Insider on Wednesday.

The trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories will be Meeks’s first as chairman.

Meeks, who took over the committee in January, replacing pro-Israel stalwart former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), cited last month’s war in Gaza, the Abraham Accords and the new Israeli government as having shaped his decision to prioritize traveling to Israel.

“To have an opportunity to sit down with this new government in Israel and bring together a bipartisan delegation from the United States Congress, where we can be focused on support for Israel and its security and at the same time focused on the humanitarian concerns of the Palestinians, it seems to me to be the right time and the right message to get that done,” Meeks said. “I just think that it’s really important to do.”

The group is also planning to meet with Palestinian leadership. Meeks, who represents parts of Queens and Brooklyn, said multiple committee members had already joined the trip, which is set to depart sometime in July, but did not name any of the legislators who had already signed onto the delegation, deferring to the members themselves.

“We have a lot of members who want to go, so that’s not an issue,” he added.

No committee members contacted by JI have confirmed participation so far.

Meeks said he hopes to hear how the U.S. can help keep Israel safe and address Palestinians’ humanitarian concerns.

“We’ve got to try to figure out how to move forward with a two-state solution,” Meeks said, adding that he sees the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab states, as “a window of strong opportunity to have change.”

Two prominent critics of Israel’s policies during the recent conflict — Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Joaquín Castro (D-TX) — are members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Meeks said he hopes that representatives who oppose some of Israel’s positions will join the delegation. 

“Hopefully we’re going to have a cross-section of members from all different viewpoints. I think that’s what’s good about our committee,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to be looking to travel with so that everybody can get information and ask questions.”

Israel-focused energy organization pivots to focus exclusively on Abraham Accords

The Abraham Accords marked a major shift in Middle East diplomacy and provided a new opportunity for technology, security and cultural exchanges across the region. But a little-noticed side effect of the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab nations — its potential consequences for the energy industry and the world’s climate — is now coming into sharper view.

Victoria Coates, a former Trump administration official and an architect of the normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab countries, argues that the deals would not have been possible had Israel not begun commercial production of natural gas in 2019. 

“It’s my position that the Abraham Accords, absent the shift in Israel’s energy posture, would not have occurred,” Coates, who served as special advisor to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette in the Trump administration, told Jewish Insider. Seizing on that insight, she joined the advisory board of the Council for a Secure America (CSA), a nonprofit originally founded in the 1980s to build ties between the American energy industry and the pro-Israel community, to rewrite its mission to focus exclusively on furthering the goal of the Abraham Accords within the energy industry. According to the new mission statement, which was unveiled last week, CSA will work to connect people working in the oil and gas industry in the U.S. with counterparts in Israel and Gulf nations, and to make American professionals aware of the benefits of working with Israel. 

The move underscores the degree to which the diplomatic agreements have also opened the door to lucrative business opportunities for energy companies both in the U.S. and Gulf countries.  

Last year Chevron acquired Noble Energy, a Houston-based company that has been a top investor in the Israeli energy sector. “What the Chevron deal meant was that U.S. energy [companies] were no longer afraid of going into Israel. Historically, they had been terrified, because the fear was, [if] you go into Israel the Gulf was going to freeze you out in some kind of boycott,” Coates explained. With the largest American energy company now invested in Israeli natural gas, the landscape changed for Gulf nations as well, Coates argued. “I think it will make Israel a very attractive partner to a lot of our Gulf allies,” she said.

CSA’s new mission comes as alternative forms of energy have gained traction in recent years, particularly in the wake of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The organization worried about staying relevant as political winds shifted against the core of its mission.

“There is a major, major, major movement away from fossil fuel towards alternative fuels,” said Fred Zeidman, the co-chair of CSA’s board and a longtime oil industry executive and Republican activist. “We decided we had to come up with some way to expand the agenda of the Council for a Secure America. What we could not do was to forsake fossil fuel, because that was 100% of our whole mission.” Cooperating with Gulf nations was an easy choice; energy is those countries’ primary source of revenue. 

The organization has a diverse array of supporters — former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) is on CSA’s advisory board and it was, in part, founded by Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice chair of the nonpartisan Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. As a nonprofit, CSA is also nonpartisan. “I’ve been very encouraged by everything the new administration has said, about their ongoing support for the Abraham Accords,” said Coates. “It’s vitally important that it be bipartisan.”

CSA joins the small but growing industry of think tanks and other nongovernmental organizations looking to further the work of the Abraham Accords. CSA plans to work with the Abraham Accords Institute for Peace, a nonprofit founded earlier this year by former senior Trump administration officials Jared Kushner, Avi Berkowitz andRob Greenway to increase trade and tourism between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — the countries that signed onto the agreements.

“We want to be in a place where if any of our folks [in the oil industry] say, ‘Hey, look, I really got something I want to sell into Dubai or into Oman,’ that we can connect them either directly or with Rob [Greenway] and Victoria [Coates],” said Zeidman. 

The organization also aims to bolster America’s credibility within the energy industry. “For us as an American institution, to be able to connect with both Israel and with the Gulf and with Eastern Mediterranean countries that are interested in these things and coordinate, it amplifies our role in that global market for fossil fuels,” noted Coates. 

CSA does not intend to only engage with the countries that were part of last year’s Abraham Accords. Coates pointed to Egypt, which has had a diplomatic agreement with Israel for more than 40 years but has only recently seen economic cooperation increase, as exemplified by the Egyptian energy minister’s recent visit to Israel. She also wants CSA to help move the Abraham Accords forward: “I would be very hopeful that Saudi Arabia would see it the same way,” she said.

For GOP hopefuls, Israel is the new Iowa

After the recent round of intense fighting between Israel and Hamas, several Republican politicians have visited Israel or announced plans to do so. One of the first to announce travel plans was Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, who arrived in Israel days after a cease-fire was announced. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Bill Hagerty (R-TN) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) visited on official congressional delegations. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Israel last week for a goodbye party for the head of Mossad and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced plans to visit with a Christians United for Israel delegation — even though neither of them currently holds public office.

It’s still two and a half years before any voters will head to the polls for the 2024 primaries, but potential candidates — like Cruz, Pompeo and Haley, who are all seen as likely 2024 Republican presidential contenders — are often trying to position themselves for the next race. Pompeo, for instance, was spotted in Iowa in March. 

“I think for Republicans in particular, visiting Israel and being supportive of Israel has now become a requirement,” said Elliott Abrams, currently a senior fellow at the Center on Foreign Relations who served in diplomatic roles in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Trump. 

But Abrams notes that politicians’ visits to Israel are not a new phenomenon, even if they have increased in recent years. “This is not new, and I think it’s particularly unsurprising right now, because you’ve got political change happening in Israel, because you just had a war, because you have a new American president who’s just setting his policy toward Israel and the Middle East. So it strikes me as pretty normal and predictable.”

Jewish Insider reached out to nearly a dozen Republicans who are considered to be potential 2024 contenders to see whether any of them have plans to visit Israel in the near future. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told JI that they have no such plans, though all of them have traveled to Israel in the past. 

Spokespeople for Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tim Scott (R-SC) and Ben Sasse (R-NE); South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem; Texas Gov. Greg Abbott; former Vice President Mike Pence; and former President Donald Trump did not respond when asked whether they plan to travel to Israel. 

Presidential candidates have a history of traveling to Israel while campaigning, although such visits usually occur much closer to an election. The late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) toured Israel on a Senate “fact-finding” delegation in March 2008 during the Republican primaries. A few months later, after clinching the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama visited the country for the first time. Now-Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), the Republican who ran against Obama four years later, visited Israel in July 2012. Trump was scheduled to travel to Israel as a candidate in 2015, but canceled the trip after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly criticized Trump’s campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. 

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) flank Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Jerusalem.

President Joe Biden did not travel internationally during the 2020 campaign — most of his general election campaigning took place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but he has visited the country on several other occasions, including several times as vice president. 

Many lawmakers from both parties have visited Israel on congressional delegations or on biennial trips for freshman lawmakers run by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation. Pressure from other pro-Israel groups has also highlighted the political importance of these trips. “I think that as America’s strongest ally in the region and one of our closest allies in the world, elected officials who are able should make an effort to visit Israel,” Pastor John Hagee, the founder and chairman of CUFI, told JI. 

Republican visits to Israel might also be linked to the 2022 midterms, when Republicans will seek to regain control of the House and Senate. “It’s going to be very important for the Republicans to recapture both houses of Congress in 2022,” said Marc Zell, an American attorney who lives in Israel and is the chairman of the Israel chapter of Republicans Abroad. “I think we have a really good chance of doing that, and Israel is part of the formula that many candidates will adopt as they prepare for 2022.”

Support for the U.S.-Israel alliance has become a key tenet of Republican campaigns at both the federal and state levels in recent years. “As a state governor, Gov. DeSantis is not in the same position to enact foreign policy as, say, U.S. senators,” his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, told JI, but she noted that his “first trip abroad as governor, in 2019, was to Israel for a historic business-development mission to promote stronger ties between Florida and Israel.” 

This trend is not new. Governors and state officials have traveled to Israel on trade missions for decades. Tim Pawlenty, a former Republican governor of Minnesota, traveled to Israel on a 2008 trade mission ahead of a possible presidential run. But the first Minnesota governor to travel to Israel, Arne Carlson, had done so 15 years prior, in 1993. 

One thing that has changed in recent years is the growing affinity between Republican lawmakers and Netanyahu, who has cultivated close relationships with Republicans in the U.S. Netanyahu welcomed Trump to Israel in May 2017 on the president’s first foreign trip while in office, and in early 2020, Netanyahu referred to Trump as “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.” 

With a new Israeli coalition set to take control from Netanyahu in the Knesset, Zell suggested that Republican support for the country might falter. Mike Evans, a prominent evangelical Christian, said at a Monday press conference that his followers would “go into the opposition” with Netanyahu rather than support Israel’s potential new government. 

Republican 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney visits the Western Wall on July 29, 2012 in Jerusalem’s old city, Israel.

“I’m not sure that we’re going to be seeing the same frequency of visits by Republican legislators and party leaders in the event that the [Naftali] Bennett-[Yair] Lapid government actually is sworn in,” Zell noted. “They might come to try to keep Israel in line with what Republicans consider proper U.S. policy, or they may stay away because they don’t want to have any friction with the new government on the issues where this new government may be playing up to the Biden administration.”

However, there is no evidence that this view has been adopted by any prominent American lawmakers. While visiting Israel last week, Sen. Graham stressed that U.S. support for Israel is not contingent upon who governs the country. “No matter who they select to run the government here in Israel, American will be in your camp,” Graham said at the press conference. “If a new government is formed, the relationship will stay the same between us and Israel.”

Recent Republican travel to Israel could also stem from a desire to signal politicians’ opposition to Biden’s policies in the region. Rather than relating directly to any political campaigns, “I think it has more to do with the critique of the current administration’s foreign policy,” Zell explained. 

This might also explain why Democratic senators have not traveled to Israel since the conflict: A number of senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, have already done so. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) visited the Middle East in early May, before the fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas. Coons visited the UAE to discuss nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Murphy stopped in Oman, Jordan and Qatar to discuss the war in Yemen.

Ultimately, the reason candidates visit Israel is not to influence policy, which many can’t yet do. It “gives you the opportunity, when you’re writing an op-ed or making a speech, to say, ‘I stood there across from Hamas-ruled Gaza,’ or, ‘I could see from the U.N. observation post Hamas 1000 yards away,’” Abrams said.

Hagerty: Biden admin’s foreign policy ‘has emboldened Iran and its proxies like Hamas’

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) laid much of the blame for the recent conflict between Israel and Gaza on the Biden administration’s Middle East policies, in an interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday. 

Hagerty, who returned from a multi-day trip to Israel on Wednesday morning, said he traveled to the region to “show my unwavering support for Israel.” 

The Tennessee senator characterized the recent conflict as a “test of the will of the Biden administration” on behalf of Iran and its proxies.

“This onslaught of violence and terrorism has been encouraged by policy positions coming out of the Biden administration because their embrace of Iran has emboldened Iran and its proxies like Hamas to step up and test this administration,” he said. “I think the Biden administration has put us in great jeopardy by reengaging with the Iranians… I think that puts the entire region at risk.”

Hagerty’s comments stand in stark contrast to those of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who also visited the region this week. Graham argued on Tuesday that most Democrats, including Biden, are strongly pro-Israel.

“You’ve got to look at how they vote. It’s hard to know what’s in a person’s heart… When they vote in a way that’s not supportive, I think that sends a very bad message,” Hagerty said, before adding that his constituents in Tennessee are pro-Israel regardless of party affiliation.

Hagerty confirmed that Israeli leaders told both him and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), with whom Hagerty was traveling, that they plan to request $1 billion in additional funding from the U.S. to resupply and upgrade Iron Dome, as first announced by Graham on Tuesday. Hagerty declined to say if he expects — as Graham does — that Biden and congressional Democrats will support that request.

“If every member of Congress had the benefit of what Senators Graham, Cruz and I saw, in terms of the effectiveness of the Iron Dome… I think that they would be supportive of that,” Hagerty said.

While in Israel, Hagerty met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, as well as members of the Israeli Defense Forces and business and think-tank leaders.

Speaking to JI less than two hours after Israeli opposition party leaders announced they had agreed to form a new government, setting the stage for Netanyahu’s ouster, Hagerty predicted that U.S.-Israel relations would not be impacted by the potential change in government.

“It should have no change at all. Israel remains our ally. It has since 1948 and will continue with our ally,” Hagerty said. “I look forward to working with Israeli leadership, whomever it may be, over the course of the coming year… I’ve gotta believe that the strategic interests remain the same.”

Hagerty did not travel to the Palestinian territories or meet with Palestinian leaders during his trip. He told JI that “the Palestinian leaders have got some problems to clear up,” pointing to Hamas’ control of Gaza and the Palestinian Authority’s ongoing payments to the families of terrorists.

“I think we want to be engaged with the Palestinian people, but the Palestinian Authority and Hamas both are very challenged in terms of the lack of leadership there and the terrorism that results from that,” he said. “My most important point right now is for us to show our solidarity with Israel.”

Hagerty said that to advance permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. should continue to work to facilitate regional economic cooperation through agreements, pointing to last year’s Abraham Accords. Hagerty also suggested that the U.S. should restrict aid to the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). 

“[The Palestinian Authority] walked away from the vision for prosperity that was placed before them. A plan was put before them that would have created a million jobs for the Palestinian people,” Hagerty said. “That’s why it shocks me that the Biden administration would come back, just in a knee-jerk fashion… to re-initiate aid to the Palestinian Authority with no preconditions, to re-initiate aid to UNRWA with no preconidtions.”

“We know we need to build economic prosperity in the region,” Hagerty continued, “and when the Palestinian Authority sees that it’s in their interest, which it should be, when the Palestinain people push them in that direction, I hope they’ll find their way to the bargaining table.”

Graham says Israel will seek $1 billion in additional funding for Iron Dome, anticipates Democratic support

In a press conference from the roof of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that the Israeli government plans to seek significant additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system and announced a new bipartisan proposal to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Graham said Israel will request $1 billion in Pentagon funding to replenish and upgrade the Iron Dome system, which intercepted thousands of rockets aimed at Israel during the recent conflict with Hamas. Defense Minister Benny Gantz is expected to make the ask during meetings with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin later this week.

“Iron Dome performed incredibly well, saving thousands of Israeli lives and tens of thousands of Palestinian lives,” Graham said. “I would imagine that the administration would say yes to this request and it will sail through Congress.”

The new funding will likely have support from the majority of Congress, though the request is likely to raise controversy among some congressional Democrats. Last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and several House Democrats led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attempted to block a $735 million sale of guided munitions to the Jewish state. 

Graham sought to downplay the extent of Democratic opposition to the aid, despite efforts by some Republicans to accuse Democrats at large — and President Joe Biden specifically — of having abandoned Israel and sided with Hamas.

“There’s been a big dustup over the last engagement with Hamas and the State of Israel in the United States, but I’m here to tell you there is a wide and deep support for Israel among the Democratic Party,” he said. “I want to thank President Biden for standing with Israel during this last conflict. I appreciate the administration’s willingness to seek from Congress more money for the Iron Dome system.”

Some of the House’s strongest critics of U.S. aid to Israel — including Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Betty McCollum (D-MN) — have expressed support for Iron Dome as a life-saving tool.

The South Carolina senator also discussed plans to propose an alternative to the Biden administration’s moves to seek a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal with Iran amid ongoing negotiations in Vienna.

“If the international community allows the Iranians to enrich, the Arabs are going to want that same capability, and we’re off on the road of a nuclear arms race in the Mideast,” the senator said on Tuesday. “‘Longer and stronger’ is not possible,” he added.

Graham said that he — along with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an opponent of the 2015 deal — are planning to propose an alternative deal that would allow Iran and Arab states to develop nuclear reactors to be powered with fuel from an international fuel bank. That proposal would prevent participating states from conducting enrichment.

“Without enrichment, you can’t make a bomb,” Graham explained, adding that such a proposal would test whether Iran is sincere about wanting nuclear power, rather than a nuclear bomb.

Graham also announced plans to propose a defense agreement with Israel similar to Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization treaty, which would obligate the U.S. to intervene when Israel is attacked.

Graham has met with high-ranking Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid, since arriving in Israel on Monday. 

The senator met on Monday with Netanyahu, who lauded Graham saying “no one has done more for Israel than you, Lindsey.”

“Nobody does more to protect America from radical Islam than our friends in Israel,” Graham responded, brandishing a sign reading “More for Israel” in English and Hebrew. “This sign says all you need to know about my trip. What happens with Iran matters not only to America but the world.”

Speaking to reporters, Graham acknowledged Netanyahu’s precarious political position as Lapid and Yamina head Naftali Bennett appear close to forming a coalition government.

“No matter who they select to run the government here in Israel, American will be in your camp,” Graham said in the press conference. “If a new government is formed, the relationship will stay the same between us and Israel.”

“If you like politics, this is the place to come,” Graham quipped in a video on Tuesday.

House Dems respond to GOP ads accusing them of opposing security funding to Israel

House Democrats pushed back on Wednesday against Republican attack ads accusing them of not supporting Israeli security after their votes on a GOP procedural motion last week.

The controversy centers around a failed motion to recommit introduced by Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) last Thursday which would have blocked passage of a supplemental funding bill for Capitol security — which House Republicans opposed — by returning it back to the Appropriations Committee, potentially killing it entirely. 

Gonzales also proposed an amendment to the bill for Appropriations Committee consideration that would have entirely replaced the Capitol security funding with additional funds for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The House vote, however, was only on sending the security supplement bill back to the committee, not on the Iron Dome amendment.

The motion failed largely along party lines, with all Democrats present voting against it, as well as one Republican, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY). Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) did not vote on the measure.

House Republican leadership has sought to use the vote to paint House Democrats as unsupportive of Israel. Meanwhile, the conservative group American Action Network launched a five-figure ad buy, according to Fox News, claiming four Democrats — Reps. Elaine Luria (D-VA), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-GA) and Susan Wild (D-PA) — abandoned Israel while it was under attack by voting against Gonzales’s motion.

Luria called the attacks “disgraceful” and “a flat-out lie.”

“The Republicans have taken this as a vehicle to just create a narrative that’s false and say that based on this procedural vote we — being every Democrat — were somehow voting against Israel and against supporting the Iron Dome,” Luria told Jewish Insider. “It’s absurd, it’s harmful, to try to make an issue that’s important to the security of Israel, to our strongest ally in the Middle East, and to try to use it as a political tool, especially when it’s just a straight-out lie.”

Bourdeaux similarly characterized the attacks as scurrilous.

“I voted to provide critical funding for law enforcement at the Capitol after 140 officers were injured in the January 6th attack,” Bourdeaux explained to JI. “Republicans opposed funding for the Capitol Police and our National Guard, and in a bizarre procedural gimmick, tried to make this about funding for Iron Dome. This kind of nonsense is why Republicans lost in Georgia.”

The motion to recommit was one of multiple attempts by Republicans last week to put Democrats in a bind on matters relating to Israel. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) unsuccessfully attempted to use a procedural maneuver to scuttle planned votes on opioid addiction treatments and condemning anti-Asian hate crimes and instead hold a vote on sanctioning Hamas — legislation that passed the House in 2019. 

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), who was leading House Democrats on the floor at the time, called Mast’s move a “red herring” which “would hand control of the House over to [Republicans].”

“Let’s not distract from the bills that we’re here to move forward today,” Scanlon added. House Democrats voted unanimously — with the exception of Golden, who again did not vote — to proceed with business as planned.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) attempted to capitalize on the Gonzales procedural vote, alleging that “Instead of standing with Israel, Democrats continue to stand aside.” And on the Mast legislation, he told The Washington Free Beacon: “Today every member in the House will have a choice between siding with our ally or siding with a status quo that will only perpetuate the unrest… the House should make it clear to the world that we stand united in support of Israel.”

Luria criticized the attacks as a transparent campaign tactic.

“This is to go after Democrats [in] seats they think they can and want to win back so that they can hand the gavel to McCarthy,” Luria said. “It’s purely a political maneuver. I think this is an issue that shouldn’t be politicized. I can understand policy differences, but strong bipartisan support of Israel in the U.S. Congress is not something that should be politicized because I think it sends the wrong message to the rest of the world.”

“The fact that anyone wants to send a message that our Congress is somehow divided on [Iron Dome] is really damaging,” she continued.

Luria emphasized that she has introduced and supported a range of measures intended to bolster Israel’s security and combat regional threats and supports the $3.8 billion in military aid the U.S. sends to Israel annually. All four members targeted in the attack ads also signed onto a bipartisan letter earlier this year expressing support for continuing unconditioned U.S. aid to Israel.

AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann told JI the organization “[does] not take a position on these types of procedural motions. We are confident that there will be overwhelming bipartisan support when Congress votes on funding for Iron Dome.”

Progressive reps push antisemitism definitions that allow for increased criticism of Israel

A group of progressive House Democrats plans to encourage Secretary of State Tony Blinken to consider alternatives to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, suggesting two definitions that allow for broader criticism of Israel. 

A draft of a letter to Blinken obtained by Jewish Insider, which is being led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and has been signed by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Andy Levin (D-MI), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), urges Blinken to “consider multiple definitions of antisemitism, including two new definitions that have been formulated and embraced by the Jewish community,” pointing to the Nexus Document and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.

The IHRA definition, first developed in the mid-aughts by a collective of government officials and subject experts, was used as guidance by successive Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to the George W. Bush administration, and codified by a 2019 executive order from former President Donald Trump. The push to codify the definition was born out of a 2014 meeting in then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) office.

While there is some overlap between the two more recent definitions and the IHRA working definition of antisemitism — which has been adopted by dozens of countries, many of them European — both the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, a majority of whose signatories are academics, and the Nexus Document, which was authored by U.S.-based academics, allow more space for criticism of Israel. The Jerusalem Declaration describes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as “not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.”

The Nexus Document pushes back on the idea — included in some of the IHRA definition’s associated examples — that applying double standards to Israel is inherently antisemitic. The Nexus Document argues instead that “paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of anti-Semitism” and that “there are numerous reasons for devoting special attention to Israel and treating Israel differently.” The Jerusalem Declaration similarly argues that boycotts of Israel are not inherently antisemitic.

“While the IHRA definition can be informative, in order to most effectively combat antisemitism, we should use all of the best tools at our disposal,” the letter argues. The letter will remain open for signatures until Tuesday.

Left-wing Jewish groups, including J Street, have been vocal about their concerns with the IHRA definition.

Abe Foxman, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League who led the organization while the IHRA definition was being developed, argued that this criticism stems from disagreements with Israeli policy, rather than legitimate issues with the IHRA definition itself.

“The common denominator of all the groups who don’t like the current definition are groups that have issues with Israel,” Foxman said. “[The IHRA definition] included a new dimension of antisemitism which was anti-Israel and anti-Zionism because in the last 20 years or so, antisemitism metastasized to use Israel as a euphemism for attacking Jews.”

In a letter to the American Zionist Movement in February, Blinken said that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA definition, indicating that efforts to implement alternative definitions may struggle to gain traction at the State Department. 

Foxman told JI that he is concerned that considering other definitions of antisemitism, as Schakowsky’s letter urges, would “water down” the State Department’s efforts to fight antisemitism and could also lead the range of other governments and private institutions that have adopted the IHRA definition to reconsider doing so.

Other House Democrats have defended the IHRA definition in the past and its adoption by the federal government. In a 2019 Times of Israel op-ed, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) urged the government to adopt the IHRA definition as “an important tool to guide our government’s response to antisemitism.”

“Opponents of this definition argue that it would encroach on Americans’ right to freedom of speech,” Deutch wrote. “But this definition was drafted not to regulate free speech or punish people for expressing their beliefs, however hateful they may be. It would not suddenly make it illegal to tweet denial of the Holocaust or go on television accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than the United States. But it would identify those views as anti-Semitic.”

In January, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations adopted the IHRA definition, and it has the support of major mainstream Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

Read the full text of the letter here:

Dear Secretary Blinken:

We write to thank you and the entire Biden Administration for your commitment to fighting against the rising threat of antisemitism, both globally, and here in the United States. We applaud your prioritization of combatting this ancient hatred. In carrying out this critical work, we urge you to consider multiple definitions of antisemitism, including two new definitions that have been formulated and embraced by the Jewish community.

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), of which the United States is a member, adopted a non-legally binding definition of antisemitism. The Department of State began using this working definition at this time. In September of 2018, the Trump Administration announced that it was expanding the use of the IHRA definition to the Department of Education. This was followed by the 2019 “White House Executive Order on Combatting Antisemitism” that formally directed federal agencies to consider the IHRA working definition and contemporary examples of antisemitism in enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

While the IHRA definition can be informative, in order to most effectively combat antisemitism, we should use all of the best tools at our disposal. Recently, two new definitions have been introduced that can and should be equally considered by the State Department and the entire Administration. The first is the Nexus Document, drafted by the Nexus Task Force, “which examines the issues at the nexus of antisemitism and Israel in American politics.” The Task Force is a project of the Knight Program on Media and Religion at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at USC. The definition is designed as a guide for policymakers and community leaders as they grapple with the complexities at the intersection of Israel and antisemitism.

Another valuable resource is the recently released Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA).  The JDA is a tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism as it manifests in countries around the world today. It includes a preamble, definition, and a set of 15 guidelines that provide detailed guidance for those seeking to recognize antisemitism in order to craft responses. It was developed by a group of scholars in the fields of Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies to meet what has become a growing challenge: providing clear guidance to identify and fight antisemitism while protecting free expression.

These two efforts are the work of hundreds of scholars and experts in the fields of antisemitism, Israel and Middle East Policy, and Jewish communal affairs, and have been helpful to us as we grapple with these complex issues. We believe that the Administration should, in addition to the IHRA definition, consider these two important documents as resources to help guide your thinking and actions when addressing issues of combatting antisemitism.

Once again, we thank you and President Biden for prioritizing this important matter and urge you to use all tools at your disposal to combat the threat of antisemitism.

Israelis expect a different approach from the Biden administration

Former Israeli defense officials offered differing views of the incoming Biden administration’s top Middle East priorities this week. Former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon celebrated the former vice president’s victory, while former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett praised President Donald Trump for his work in the region and expressed hope that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will chart a different course from previous Democratic administrations.

Bennett said the outgoing Trump administration “was simply outstanding in so many dimensions of support of Israel,” highlighting the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem; the killing earlier this year of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force; and the maximum pressure campaign on Iran. 

For Ayalon, Biden’s election and the selection of his national security team are a welcome moment for the security and future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. 

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Ayalon emphasized that the Biden administration’s emphasis on diplomacy will prioritize both resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of a broad initiative to move forward with advancing peace and countering Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region. 

“Israel will not be safe, it will not be a Jewish democracy, unless we come to an agreement with the Palestinians,” posited Ayalon, who co-founded the Israeli NGO Blue White Future in 2009 to push for a negotiated peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “I believe that in order to create this Sunni coalition as a future basis to confront Iran and create more stability in the region, we have to come to an agreement with the Palestinians.” 

Ayalon suggested that while Israelis appreciated Trump’s support of Israel, the foreign policy team Biden has assembled will gauge Israeli concerns about a return to the Obama administration’s approach to the conflict, which was perceived by Israeli leadership at the time as aggressive and somewhat hostile. “Even if they are the same people [who served in the Obama administration], they are older and they are much more experienced,” he stressed.

Israeli leaders may also be more willing to consider peace process concessions depending on the next administration’s approach to Iran, Ayalon said. “If Israelis will feel that [a two-state solution] is the price that Israel will have to pay in order to remove the Iranian threat, a majority will support it,” he suggested. 

Bennett expressed different expectations from the Biden administration. In a Zoom call hosted by the Zionist Organization of America on Wednesday, Bennett — whose party, Yamina, is polling in second place behind its right-wing rival Likud — projected that the Biden administration will learn from the mistakes of the past and take a different approach that will be more acceptable to the nationalist camp. 

“The other path has been taken so many times and failed so many times, and brought immense damage and suffering on the region,” Bennett asserted. “There is a price to pay for failed so-called peace attempts — usually it ends up with another round of violence and people die. And I think the incoming administration is very experienced. They’ve been there, seen that, done that. I’m not ignoring the well-known opinions, but I do think that we need to sit down and think thoroughly about how to manage the disagreements that we might have.” 

It is unlikely that U.S.-Israel ties will be as strained as they were during the Obama administration, Bennett said, explaining that the peace process is likely to be “far down the list” of Biden’s priorities. Bennett also expressed hope that “stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon does not become a partisan issue” in the U.S.

The former defense minister predicted that as more Arab countries express willingness to normalize relations with Israel, the paradigm of first resolving the Palestinian issue will become irrelevant. “I’ve always said that I’m okay with ‘land for peace’ — we are willing to accept land for peace from anyone who wants to provide us [with land],” Bennett quipped, adding, that “more seriously, the notion of ‘land for peace’ is crazy, and certainly, this will be one of the issues that we’re going to have to address.” 

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