US House speaker in Knesset amid fraught US-Israel ties

Ilan Ben Zion & Tia Goldenberg

AP  /  May 1, 2023

JERUSALEM – The U.S. House speaker addressed Israel’s parliament on Monday, a rare honor awarded to the highest-ranking Republican in U.S. politics at a time of fraught relations between Israel’s government and Democratic President Joe Biden.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu portrayed the speech as a nod to bipartisan U.S. support for Israel as it marks 75 years since its creation. Critics say the platform given to McCarthy — he’s only the second House speaker to address the Knesset, after Newt Gingrich in 1998 — is a pointed jab at Biden.

McCarthy spoke to the Knesset, greeted by frequent applause and a standing ovation, as lawmakers returned from a month-long recess. They are expected to resume the fight over a contentious plan, promoted by the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, to overhaul the judiciary.

The plan has split Israelis and drawn a rare public rebuke from Biden. Amid the tensions, Biden has so far denied Netanyahu a typically customary invitation to the White House after his election win late last year.

In a challenge to Biden, McCarthy said Monday he expects the White House “to invite the prime minister over for a meeting, especially with the 75th anniversary” of Israel’s independence. He said he would invite Netanyahu to speak to Congress if Biden doesn’t.

McCarthy’s visit to Israel was another sign of the gradual transformation of Israel from a bipartisan matter into a wedge issue in U.S. politics. The trend goes back more than a decade, when Netanyahu began openly siding with Republicans against Democrats. In parallel, some younger progressive Democrats have become increasingly critical of Israeli policies, including the treatment of Palestinians.

McCarthy addressed the Knesset at a time when both Republicans and Democrats are steeling for presidential nomination races. Republicans are seeking to present themselves to voters, especially to evangelical Christians, as the best ally to Israel.

McCarthy and Netanyahu met face to face ahead of the Knesset address and the Republican lavished praise on the Israeli leader, saying his “leadership, character and courage” inspire Americans.

The Californian said the the U.S. “cherishes its unbreakable bond” with Israel, pledged continued funding for security assistance, and said the countries must “remain resolute in our commitment that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon.”

Before the parliament recess, Netanyahu had paused judicial overhaul plans under intense pressure, which has included large weekly protests, a labor strike and threats by military reservists to stop showing up for duty. Biden waded into the criticism, saying Netanyahu “cannot continue down this road.”

While Netanyahu and Biden have known each other for decades, their relationship has soured since Netanyahu returned to office late last year after a brief break as opposition leader. The Biden administration has voiced unease about Netanyahu’s government, made up of ultranationalists who were once at the fringes of Israeli politics and now hold senior positions dealing with the Palestinians and other sensitive issues.

Over the years, Netanyahu, a lifelong conservative with American-accented English and deep ties to the U.S., hasn’t hidden his Republican leanings even as he’s spoken of the importance of keeping Israel a bipartisan issue. In 2015, he delivered a speech to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal which was widely seen as a slight against the Obama administration, which negotiated the agreement. He was accused of backing Republican Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president and was one of President Donald Trump’s closest international supporters.

That Republican tilt has tested ties with American Jews, most of whom lean Democratic.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations, said there’s been “serious damage” to Israel’s ties to Washington, and that Netanyahu himself “broke the bipartisanship” surrounding Israel. The McCarthy visit, he said, was a way for both Republicans and Netanyahu to stick it to Biden.

“Netanyahu thinks that if McCarthy visits here it will put pressure on the White House to invite him.” Gilboa said. “Republicans are fighting over who’s the greatest supporter of Israel.”

The White House snub is another sore point for the embattled leader, whose legal plan has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises, sent his Likud party tanking in public opinion polls and tarnished the 73-year-old leader’s legacy.

The month-long parliamentary break has allowed Israelis to take stock of the tensions set off by the legal plan, which had been proceeding at a feverish pace in the previous session and had reached a boiling point after Netanyahu dismissed his dissenting Defense minister.

The future of the plan isn’t clear. Netanyahu said he was temporarily suspending the drive to change Israel’s judicial system to allow the coalition and the opposition to come to a negotiated compromise. But the talks don’t appear to have produced many agreements and Netanyahu’s allies are pushing him to move ahead if the talks fail.

He’s also facing pressure from the streets — tens of thousands of people who support the overhaul filled the area near parliament on Thursday as a show of force in favor of the legal changes. Protests against the overhaul have continued for 17 weeks, including during the parliament recess, with as much intensity.

Netanyahu is expected to keep a focus on less divisive issues in the coming weeks, such as passing a budget at a time when Israel’s economy is on shaky ground and inflation is rising.

But he will also face hurdles. He is up against a court-ordered deadline in July, which requires the government to legislate a military draft law about the near-blanket exemptions enjoyed by members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. Instead of serving in the country’s compulsory military, like the majority of secular Jews, ultra-Orthodox men are allowed to study religious texts. Experts say this system keeps the growing community cloistered and does not encourage its integration into the workforce, something seen as necessary to safeguard the future of Israel’s economy.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies say the overhaul is necessary to rein in an interventionist legal system that has taken power away from elected politicians. They want to weaken the Supreme Court, have the government control who becomes a judge and reduce judicial oversight on legislation.

Critics say the changes will upend Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances and imperil the country’s democratic foundations.

Tia Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv