Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in this week with a visiting delegation of 24 Democratic Congress members. The session came shortly after the passage of the first in the Netanyahu government’s series of proposed judicial reforms, which U.S. President Joe Biden and other members of the Democratic Party have strongly criticized.
Members of the delegation—led by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)—expressed unwavering support for Israel despite disagreements.
Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) told JNS of the reforms that “this is really for Israel and Israelis to sort out.”
“I think everyone’s looking for a really smart, thoughtful compromise that will allow this democracy to strengthen and to continue to flourish,” he said. “I must add: It’s remarkable to see the protests [against the reforms] and how the democracy really is alive here.”
Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) echoed these sentiments, telling JNS: “Israel is a democracy and will make its own decisions, and should make its own decisions. What’s best for this country should be decided by this country. But what we are looking for—as a liberal Western democracy—are decisions, reforms that are going to protect that democracy.”
Netanyahu told the delegation that he wants a compromise with the opposition on judicial reform and is willing to work for it. But the congressmen expressed the belief that even if no compromise is forthcoming, the U.S.-Israel relationship will remain strong.
“I know people on the right, I know people on the left. They all stand united in the ideal of a democratic Jewish state and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. And that is something that I think will survive almost anything,” Schneider said.
Landsman said that “the bond between the United States and Israel is incredibly strong. I think it continues to grow stronger. There’s a lot of reasons for that. It’s just a long-standing, really successful relationship. And so I don’t think that the issue of judicial reform will undermine the relationship.”
Another issue raised during the meeting was possible normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. JNS asked Schneider and Landsman about the chances that the Democratic Party will support an arms deal with the Saudis and the security guarantees from the U.S. that they have requested as part of a normalization deal.
“It’s not an automatic approval,” said Landsman. “I suspect, and this has been the case so far, that the administration will negotiate and keep members of Congress informed. Any agreement would be vetted by not just the Congress but the American people. And so it has to be done in a transparent way.
“But I’m very glad that these conversations are happening,” he added. “The administration, [Biden’s] team, they are very much engaged in what could be a breakthrough partnership.”
“Nothing’s automatic,” said Schneider. “We vet everything. And so I will look at the deal. I’ll say, does it achieve the goals we’re trying to achieve? There are tradeoffs and risks in every single negotiation, every single deal.
“I’ll try to evaluate those, and if it satisfies my concerns, if it clearly sets a path that’s going to bring peace and prosperity to the countries of the region, I’ll be more inclined to support it than if it’s something that I think is a hope and a dream and we’re taking far more risk than the benefits to be achieved now,” he said.
The delegation also discussed the situation in Judea and Samaria.
Schneider said, “The settlers’ violence disturbs me greatly. I’ve talked to [Israeli Ambassador Michael] Herzog about it in the United States. It is a real concern. The prime minister made very clear that Israel does not tolerate it, does not accept it, and is going to do everything in its power to stop it. It needs to be addressed, and it’s something that … we are watching very closely.”
“Violence is always going to be concerning to us and it worries a lot of folks,” said Landsman. “It’s awful. So, we have got to get to a place where there is real stability, and the way is to have a very legitimate governing authority in the West Bank that has real support from the global community, particularly these Arab countries, that could help a lot in the West Bank to ensure that there are economic opportunities.”
Among some members of the delegation, the issue of Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora was also on the agenda. JNS asked Schneider, who is Jewish, about recent comments by some Israeli government ministers that received a great deal of criticism from American Jewish communities and officials.
“I feel there are people on the extremes who are trying to create that rift,” he said. “My goal is to try to make sure that rift doesn’t open up again.
“Speaking as a Jewish American, we are one big family and have a responsibility for each other,” he asserted. “I have my own personal connection to Judaism, but that leads to a very personal connection to Israel. And I think if we respect everyone’s Jewish identity and meet people where they are, that is going to make us stronger.”
Extremist rhetoric on the issue is “going to make us weaker,” Schneider said.
Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.