When Fareed Zakaria asked Benjamin Netanyahu on April 30 during “Fareed Zakaria GPS” about Israel’s relationship with the United States, the prime minister kvelled that the Senate and House majority and minority leaders all visited Israel in recent weeks and that the House just voted 400-19 for a resolution expressing support for the strengthening of the U.S.-Israel relationship, security assistance for Israel and the Abraham Accords. The problem is that the Israeli prime minister misinterprets support in Congress as an endorsement of his policies and, despite knowing better, as protection from a president with whom he disagrees.
The visit of congressional leaders was notable. Maybe it has happened, but offhand I can’t think of another time or place where the leadership has gone to a foreign capital within a few days or weeks of each other. One other impressive aspect of the delegations is that they mixed the old guard—Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the new—Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
Cynics may dismiss the trips as photo ops to impress Jewish voters and donors; however, none of them depend on Jewish votes or money for re-election. The pilgrimage of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a different story, as it had no purpose other than to demonstrate his pro-Israel credentials to a voting bloc he would like to have in a presidential run.
The resolution was yet another demonstration of the weakness of the anti-Israel lobby, which is mostly comprised of the far left of the Democratic Party. J Street expressed its “regret” that it passed and lamented it did not mention the long-dead two-state solution, while 18 of the 19 “Nays” came from “The Squad” and its ilk. Note that while 17 of those Democrats are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (Democrat Betty McCollum of Minnesota is not but is one of the most anti-Israel members of Congress), another 79 from the Caucus (four did not vote) voted for the resolution. The one Republican, Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), said he voted against the measure because it expressed support for security assistance to Israel, and he opposes foreign aid.
The problem with focusing on congressional victories is that Congress does not make foreign policy, and while it can have some influence, primarily on military aid, the final arbiter is the president. Netanyahu knows that Congress may make it difficult for the president to use aid as a lever to punish Israel, but that does not insulate the country from pressure. Moreover, the president is the most powerful lobbyist and will almost always get what he wants.
Israel learned this the hard way many times, most notably during the Suez War when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was forced to give up the territory Israel captured from Egypt after President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to cut off all economic aid, to lift the tax-exempt status of the United Jewish Appeal and to apply sanctions on Israel. Members of Congress opposed the threats and said they would prevent them from being enforced, but Israel could not risk a breach with its most important ally.
Netanyahu found that he couldn’t count on Congress during the Obama administration when even pro-Israel Democrats backed the president against Netanyahu on both men’s top priority: the Iran deal. Congress also had no power to stop Obama from abstaining rather than vetoing the U.N. resolution labeling settlements illegal.
Incidentally, AIPAC also learned this lesson. For years, it believed it could get by lobbying Congress before recognizing in the late 1980s that it needed access to the administration to have a chance to influence the most important policy decisions, and even then, its impact was limited. AIPAC had challenged presidents Carter and Reagan on arms sales to the Saudis, and lost both fights. Since the latter effort to prevent the sale of AWACS failed, AIPAC has put up little resistance to arms sales though its policy had been to oppose those to any state not at peace with Israel. Prime Minister Menachem Begin also was the loser in those debates, which in the AWACS case was framed as “Reagan vs. Begin.”
A decade later, AIPAC and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir were given a similar lesson in Washington power politics when they failed to prevent the George H.W. Bush administration from linking loan guarantees to Israel with settlement construction. I had a front-row seat for that one as Bush complained, in what some interpreted as an anti-Semitic remark, that “there are 1,000 lobbyists up on the Hill today lobbying Congress for loan guarantees for Israel and I’m one lonely little guy down here asking Congress to delay its consideration of loan guarantees for 120 days.”
The most important issue for Netanyahu remains Iran. While Republicans in the House may seek stronger sanctions against Iran, they and the rest of the members are mostly irrelevant. Congress cannot stop Biden from negotiating a return to the nuclear deal, which reports suggest he still hopes to achieve despite the seemingly obvious disastrous consequences of doing so. Congress also will not have a say in whether Biden orders a strike on Iran or supports one by Israel.
The flurry of joint military exercises is probably, from Biden’s perspective, meant to send a message that Iran should make a deal. But I don’t think Iran believes that Biden would pull the trigger so the march towards a bomb continues. Netanyahu can order a strike as his predecessors did against Iraq and Syria, and take his chances on the U.S. reaction. Neither of those operations damaged the U.S.-Israel relationship; if anything, they improved it by demonstrating Israel’s strategic value. They also didn’t harm American interests.
That may not be the case if Israel goes it alone on Iran. Unless it can achieve the same level of success, the destruction of Iran’s capability without any response from the mullahs, the consequences could be much more serious. Whether Washington helps or not, Tehran will assume that we gave Netanyahu a green light. Iran and its proxies may then attack U.S. targets, and neither the American public nor Congress is anxious to be drawn into another war. Israel will need Biden to have its back militarily and politically.
Israel wants and needs Congress on its side, but make no mistake, the future of U.S.-Israel relations depends on the goodwill of the president.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby,” “Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”