Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell visit Israel and meet with Netanyahu amid looming crises


(JTA) — Judging from the photos and the tweets, it looked like a set of normal Congressional delegations to Israel: Senators posing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The U.S. ambassador declaring that “Bipartisanship is alive and well in Israel!!” Pledges of mutual support amid external threats. Sen. Chuck Schumer standing arm-in-arm with Netanyahu, grinning. 

But these are not normal times in Israel, where the Netanyahu government is advancing legislation to sap the power of the judiciary, drawing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in protest. On top of that, a wave of violence is cresting over Israel and the West Bank: An Israeli raid on militants in the West Bank city of Nablus this week killed 11 Palestinians, and the State Department said it was “deeply concerned.”

Both of those crises were crescendoing as Schumer, the Jewish Democrat and Senate majority leader — as well as the Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — led delegations of their parties’ senators to the country. A few other delegations of current and former U.S. lawmakers also descended on Israel this week. 

Neither Schumer nor McConnell spoke out about the court reform, and they did not respond to requests for comment on it. But it was a subtext of some politicians’ public statements. And earlier in the week, McConnell — along with several other Republican politicians — addressed the Hertog Forum, a conference organized by the Tikvah Fund, a conservative group that is underwritten by American Jewish philanthropists who are sympathetic to the judiciary reform.

“We see you as a staunch ally on so many issues, you’re going to see here of course the internal and external issues that are on our agenda,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog told Schumer in a public statement. He explicitly mentioned external issues, including threats from Iran and efforts by Israel and the Biden administration to expand normalization agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

But the “internal” issue preoccupying Herzog right now is Netanyahu’s court overhaul. Herzog has thrown himself into efforts to get the governing coalition to put the brakes on the changes and enter into negotiations with the opposition.

Schumer picked up on the hint and praised Herzog for his skills at conciliation. “You give everybody a great deal of optimism, somebody like you in this position with your talent and your ability to bring people together and listen to all sides,” Schumer said in his own public statement. 

Biden administration officials have called for a pause on proposed reforms, which could endanger civil rights protections in Israel. In addition to being the administration’s top ally in the Senate, Schumer is one of his party’s staunchest supporters of Israel.

Schumer’s emphasis on Herzog’s aptitude at “bringing people together” was telling: Israeli presidents are not generally expected to be professional conciliators (though Herzog’s predecessor took that role on as well). The job has historically been mostly ceremonial, with a focus on diplomatic representation to other nations. 

But Herzog, in a dramatic speech last week, begged to play a new more involved role, as Israel faces a potential constitutional crisis and protests against the reforms go on.

For his part, Schumer in his remarks with Herzog noted that the delegation “is a very powerful group of senators, each head of a major committee or major area and we wanted to stop in Israel.” Among the delegation were Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, who heads the armed services committee, and Oregon’s Ron Wyden, one of the most influential lawmakers in the area of intelligence.

The judiciary reforms did apparently come up in meetings Netanyahu had with a third congressional delegation, organized by an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This delegation was solidly aligned with AIPAC’s traditional pro-Israel positions, and in interviews with the Times of Israel, two members of he delegation said the proposed judiciary reforms did not trouble them.

“At the end of the day, the changes that are made or not made, I still think that Israel is a very strong democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East, and I think our relationship continues to get stronger,” said Rep. Juan Vargas, a California Democrat who is among the closest in his caucus to AIPAC. Agreed Texas Republican Rep. Randy Weber: Netanyahu is “going to get this done.”

No one mentioned, at least not in public statements, the recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Releases from Netanyahu’s office were anodyne, praising the friendship of senators from both parties.

The American and Israeli leaders did openly discuss Iran as well as the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries. It may have been a sign that Netanyahu hopes Schumer is in the same place he was in 2015, when the senator was one of the few Democrats who opposed the Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration.

President Joe Biden entered office pledging to reenter the deal, which former President Donald Trump had abandoned at Netanyahu’s behest. But in recent months Biden officials have said that talks to reenter the deal are all but dead.

Among the other congressional delegations in Israel was one including Sen. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who is said to have presidential ambitions. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is weighing a presidential run, was also in Israel. Pompeo and Cotton are both close to Saudi Arabia — Cotton posed with its de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, on his way to Israel — and Netanyahu has made clear his strong desire to normalize relations with the kingdom. 

Netanyahu also met with a delegation of Democratic lawmakers organized by J Street, the liberal Israel advocacy group.

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