Israel lobby’s realignment over Ben-Gvir is giving Biden room to criticize

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  November 21, 2022

Netanyahu’s elevation of the racist messianic politicians Ben-Gvir and Smotrich despite calls by Israel’s friends in the U.S. to ostracize them has caused an earthquake in the Israel lobby.

The shocking success of the racist-fascist party Religious Zionism in the Israel election three weeks ago has caused an earthquake inside the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. And that earthquake has allowed Joe Biden to take unprecedented –for him– baby-steps to confront the Israeli government.

In fact, the Biden administration appears to be scripted by J Street, which is trying to replace AIPAC in the Israel lobby as the true representative of American Jews.

There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s review the sequence.

For two years Joe Biden has rolled over for Israel, promising that he would keep his disagreements with Israel behind closed doors. But in the last week Biden has departed from the script.

The FBI is reportedly starting an investigation into Israel’s killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh way back on May 11– and Israeli leaders howled and said they’d refuse to cooperate, having swept the matter under the rug.

And State Department spokesperson Ned Price said it was “abhorrent” that the rising star of the Israeli right, Itamar Ben-Gvir, had gone to a memorial for his hero the racist Meir Kahane and praised him lavishly.

Both these actions took place after the U.S. election on November 8, of course. Just like Obama waited till after Hillary Clinton’s race in 2016 to allow the UN Security Council to condemn Israeli settlements.

More importantly, both actions follow the Israeli election in which the party of the messianic racists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich gained 14 seats, looming as partners for Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power.

The key political fact here is that Netanyahu is turning to Religious Zionism in spite of sharp warnings from the Israel lobby and the Democratic Party that he must not do so. No, Netanyahu has treated those warnings with disdain, which surely goaded the Biden administration.

In the runup to the Israeli election, Sen. Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime hack for Israel, reportedly warned Netanyahu that if he included Ben-Gvir and Smotrich in a new government it could harm U.S.-Israel relations.

Menendez was surely speaking for Biden too. The Biden administration was reportedly “very upset” with Jewish leaders for not being more outspoken against Ben-Gvir.

Right after the Israeli election, several players in the rightwing Israel lobby who have sway inside the Biden administration attacked the idea of Ben-Gvir coming into the new Israeli government.

Mark Mellman and Ann Lewis, the heart of the Democratic Majority for Israel, issued a statement that they were “deeply troubled” by the success of the Ben-Gvir/Smotrich party and said it “should have no place” in a governing coalition.

Two other pillars of the Israel lobby, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, warned Netanyahu not to bring Ben-Gvir into the government because it would damage Israel’s standing in American politics: giving “an enormous boost” to Israel’s “fiercest critics,” and those trying to end U.S. aid to Israel and “delegitimize” the Jewish state.

Normally we would have nothing to say about Israeli coalition negotiations as Americans, Ross and Makovsky said, but these are not normal circumstances: “there is a campaign against Israel and it is important not to strengthen the hand of those determined to weaken the relationship.” Menendez’s warning to Netanyahu “should set off alarm bells in Israel,” they said.

Those who have no love for Israel will seize on this. They will use it to expand their appeal in the Congress and the country. They will exploit it to try to undo aspects of the relationship, and certainly to challenge Israeli military requests.

Now Netanyahu is flipping the bird to Ross, Menendez, Ann Lewis and Mark Mellman. Why? First, because Netanyahu needs Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to “crush” the Israeli legal system so that his trial on corruption charges will come to naught.

“Netanyahu… wants this coalition with all the difficulties and all the headaches that it will include because it’s the only coalition that will remove the legal threat to him,” reporter Amir Tibon told an Israel Policy Forum podcast. “Netanyahu doesn’t have an alternative to Smotrich and he doesn’t want one. This is the government we are going to have. Everybody needs to come to terms with it and think what to do.”

Second, Netanyahu believes that the United States is something “easily moved.” He thinks the Israel lobby will have his back, as it has always had his back in the past.

The Israel lobby is clearly in great disarray right now– with a realignment coming. AIPAC and the ADL and the American Jewish Committee will swallow anything. But the center-right and liberal Zionists are in an uproar.

J Street has seized the moment. The liberal Zionist group’s CEO Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote three days after the Israeli election that the rise of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich should bring an awakening for the American Jewish community — against AIPAC.

This is a moment of truth and of choice….Who will be the primary political voice of our community? Will it be those, like us, who stand for justice, democracy and diplomacy? Or those, like AIPAC… And what will America’s Jewish communal leadership do?

Ben-Ami went further on an Americans for Peace Now webinar. He said that the Israeli election was a “huge opportunity” for liberal Zionists to seize control of the Israel lobby.

“This is a rare moment where the center of the American Jewish community suddenly pays attention for a few minutes to what’s going on over there and the reality of the creeping annexation, the reality of the growing power of the far right… It’s just shocking to me, but large numbers of American Jews are completely unaware of all these things.”

Now that these Jews are paying attention, J Street will show them that it represents American Jewry and not AIPAC.

“This is a moment for us to seize the opportunity to grow our own power in this country.”

Forget about leftwing/anti-Zionist Jewish groups– they don’t count for J Street.

Ben-Ami said that there must be U.S. policy consequences of a Ben-Gvir government. It’s time for Joe Biden to stop laying down.

“The United States needs to make clear what its policies are. This administration has never actually revoked the Trump peace plan. It has never affirmed its commitment to a two-state solution affirmatively. It hasn’t said that the territories are occupied, it hasn’t said that settlements are illegal. These are policies that our government now with a government led by the far right needs to make clear. .. We need a set of policies from the Biden administration and the Congress.

“In tone, the Biden administration has been accommodating of the [outgoing] Lapid Bennett government and it has kept its differences quiet. That should not be the case when there’s a government led by the people we’re now seeing. The tone needs to shift. And the public statements need to be clearer.”

The thought was echoed by Hadar Susskind of Americans for Peace Now. Biden’s belief that differences should be worked out “behind closed doors… needs to change.”

That is exactly what we saw last week.

Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum writes that the new era has begun and the Justice Department investigation of Abu Akleh’s killing and the State Department’s criticism of Ben-Gvir show that Biden is going to take action.

[These] are attempts to shape the ground ahead of what everyone expects to be a new Israeli government that will quickly move to transform Israel’s relationship with its justice system, its relationship to accountability, and its relationship with the West Bank. Everyone—Israel, the U.S., and the international community more widely—is trying to shape the future, but what we got a glimpse of over the past week is the future that is already here.

 J Street celebrated the Abu Akleh investigation. It is telling the Biden administration that it has its back, and that the American Jewish community is behind J Street.

These are high stakes. Political candidates see the Israel lobby as critical to election. Just look at all the Republicans who fawned to the Republican Jewish Coalition over the weekend in Las Vegas. The Republican Jewish Coalition claims that more and more Jews are voting Republican.

The Biden administration is now trying to lobby Netanyahu to keep Smotrich from becoming Defense Minister. But whatever positions Smotrich and Ben-Gvir get they are sure to push racist hateful policies that will strengthen the case of American progressives that Israel is not a democracy.

The extremist demands of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich will force Biden to take a stand against his own instincts, Amir Tibon said on that podcast:

“This coalition has the potential to cause serious damage with the United States and force Biden against his political will and instincts to have to take action on the Israeli Palestinian issue… I don’t think this administration wants to go into a peace initiative in the Middle East right now… they would rather not deal with the Israeli Palestinian issue at all… but this government could force them to do it…. if they start annexing settlements and legalizing illegal outposts and giving immunity to soldiers who are killing innocent Palestinians.”

Netanyahu will respond to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s demands by saying, “But Biden!” Tibon says. But Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have only contempt for Americans, and so the day is not far off when many Democrats call for a block on military aid to Israel because “there’s now a fascist element in the Israeli government.”

It’s the disarray in the Israel lobby that will give those Democrats permission to speak out.

“Without the strong support of the American Jewish community, Israel is pretty fast losing the ability to also have strong support in the Democratic Party… This government is going to cause some important changes in that arena.”

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich won 14 seats. They are the third largest party in Israel for a reason. Racist extremism is very popular there. They won’t be quiet when they go into the next government… the Israel lobby will continue to fracture… the “strong support of the American Jewish community” will weaken… and Democrats will have more and more political space to criticize Israel. Great news for people like me who want the “Jewish state” to become a democracy.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-2006