WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is a stalwart of the mainstream pro-Israel lobby in the Senate, told Benjamin Netanyahu that his partnership with an extremist leader could shatter support for Israel in the United States.
Menendez raised what he said were “concerns” about Itamar Ben-Gvir with the former — and hopeful — Israeli prime minister during a visit to Israel in early September, Axios reported on Sunday. At the time, Netanyahu had just hosted Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, another right-wing party leader, at his Caesarea home.
The visit was part of Netanyahu’s effort to work with Ben-Gvir, an adherent of the racist beliefs of the late rabbi and politician, Meir Kahane, to unite far-right parties into a single bloc so they can maximize their clout in Israel’s Nov. 1 election. Ben-Gvir, who has also lionized Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish extremist who massacred 29 Palestinians at worship in 1994, would likely secure a cabinet position in a Netanyahu-led government.
According to the Axios report, Netanyahu was peeved at Menendez’s statement, but the senator pressed the matter further, saying Ben-Gvir’s inclusion would seriously erode bipartisan support for Israel.
Major pro-Israel groups made a similar warning three years ago when Netanyahu, then the prime minister, was contemplating a similar arrangement. In the end, Netanyahu did not need the extremists to form a government.
Menendez is one of Israel’s most outspoken supporters in the Senate, earning huge cheers when he attends pro-Israel events. He is also influential, chairing the Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier this year he warned the Biden administration that he would oppose reentry into the Iran nuclear deal — a key Biden priority and a move Israel opposes — if the terms turned out to be as they were reported at the time.