In 2001, while off duty and in what he thought was a private executive, Benjamin Netanyahu boasted, “I know what America is. America is something you can move very easily, move America in the right direction.
Reelected in 2009, and still in office 12 years later, Netanyahu has pushed American Jews and Democrats in one direction – but not, in his view, the “right” direction. His approval ratings among Jews and Democrats have fallen under water. He remained popular with Republicans.
The story of Netanyahu’s relationship with America is that he knows what part of America is – the part that identifies as politically conservative.
“There is no more articulate or eloquent spokesperson for Israel than Netanyahu, he’s a great communicator, he knows the issues,” said Morton Klein, president of the right-wing Zionist organization of America , who has been close to the Netanyahu family. “No one can put the facts together for Israel like Netanyahu. “
The other America, the one that votes Democratic, Netanyahu ignores or simply never has. This other America includes the vast majority of American Jewish voters.
This dichotomy was evident in the secretly recorded conversation between Netanyahu and a family he consoled after a terrorist attack in 2001, two years after Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu in an election, ending his first term as prime minister. Netanyahu, a private citizen at the time, described his successes as prime minister in limiting Israeli concessions during the Oslo peace process.
“I wasn’t afraid to play cute, I wasn’t afraid to face [former President Bill] Clinton, ”Netanyahu said.
Confronting Clinton and “playing cute” by cultivating Republicans for political influence infuriated the then president. But that was not enough to shake the approval of American Jews for the telegenic and English-speaking prime minister, who spent much of his young adulthood in the United States and whose relationship with the American Jewish community goes back to the United States. he was a diplomat in the United States in the early 1980s. In surveys in the late 1990s, more than 60% of American Jews said they approved of the way he had handled the peace process.
It wasn’t until his second stint as Israel’s leader, in which he became the country’s longest-serving prime minister, that Netanyahu tarnished his reputation among American Jews – and failed him among the Democrats. Netanyahu has had a series of confrontations with President Barack Obama over the Palestinians and Iran, which he followed with a hug from President Donald Trump. These relationships, coupled with his increasingly conservative policies in Israel, have soured a relationship with American Jews that was once on solid foundations.
In 2009, the year Netanyahu returned to power, only 23 percent of American Jews disapproved of him, according to the American Jewish Committee’s annual poll. That number doubled to 47% in 2017, the last year the AJC poll included the question. His approval rating rose from 59% to 45% among American Jews during the same period.
Netanyahu’s approval rating among Democrats has never been high, but it has also plummeted over the past decade. In 2019, the last time Gallup surveyed its ratings among Americans, it was 18%. Her approval ratings among Democrats fluctuated in the 1920s and 1930s for much of the decade, except at the height of her confrontation with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, when she fell to 17%.
Netanyahu’s confrontations over settlement issues with Obama, a Democrat popular with Jewish voters, in 2010 and 2011, probably didn’t help either.
Klein of the ZOA said that Netanyahu was moving slowly through the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, unlike some of his predecessors, but that the left would never accept it, because Netanyahu resisted supporting the two-state solution that has become one. liberal orthodoxy. when it comes to Israel.
Klein said Democrats over the years have been increasingly influenced by elements hostile to Israel. “I don’t think those in Congress who are hostile to Israel will become less hostile if you have a left-wing prime minister,” he said. “Their hostility is based on their belief that Israel does not unilaterally give the Palestinians a state. “
But there were other factors affecting Netanyahu’s relations with American Jews, including the concessions he made to religious parties in his coalition, as well as policies that ran counter to the pluralistic inclinations of American Jews. The extent of the reduction in those policies was revealed in a holiday call that then-Netanyahu’s senior adviser Ron Dermer had with Jewish federation leaders in 2011.
Dermer came equipped with talking points about the peace process – but he was unprepared for a shootout of furious questions about the status of women in Israel, including separate seats on buses serving the Haredi Orthodox community and the humiliation of an Israeli scientist who won an award from the Ministry of Health but was forbidden to receive it on a stage by the Minister of Health, who was haredi.
Other difficult times in the increasingly difficult relationship between Netanyahu and American Jewish leaders followed a similar theme: in 2017, Netanyahu reneged on a deal to provide space for non-Orthodox group prayer at the Western Wall. His threat in 2018 to deport African asylum seekers spurred condemnation of Jewish leaders not known to criticize Israel. His warning to Likud voters on polling day in 2015 that Arab “moorings” were heading to the polls shocked American Jewish groups. His work in 2019 with a far-right party drew warnings from major Jewish groups, including the AIPAC lobby, which hardly ever criticizes Israel.
For Democrats, Netanyahu identified himself indelibly with Republicans in 2015 when he accepted an invitation from then-Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress and berate Obama for his Iranian policies.
This event was organized in part by then-Ambassador Dermer, an adviser so close to Netanyahu that he was called “Bibi’s brain. Democrats say Miami-born Dermer, who began his political career in the 1990s working with a GOP consultant, did indeed become a Republican supporter when he accepted Boehner’s request to keep the planned speech a secret until he can do as much damage as possible to Obama.
The day after Obama’s State of the Union speech, Boehner announced Netanyahu’s speech, a move calculated to make Netanyahu appear as the most serious statesman, which outraged Democrats – in especially black Democrats. A number of Democrats boycotted the speech.
Netanyahu’s perceived partisanship only intensified after the election of Donald Trump and their fierce mutual embrace: Trump broke several taboos in US policy in Israel and embraced Netanyahu’s platform, shifting the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, funding aid to the Palestinians, quitting the Iran nuclear deal, and crafting a peace plan that would give Israel a huge chunk of the West Bank. Netanyahu repaid the favors, calling Trump the most pro-Israel president of all time and defend Trump when his statements seemed anti-Semitic, or at least insensitive to Jewish fears.
“The Trump-Bibi alliance has become the face of the US-Israel relationship, which we said at the time to be really bad for Israel,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, chairman of the liberal pressure group pro-Israel J Street.
Dermer, in particular, accompanied Trump to Pittsburgh in 2018 after an armed man, uttering a xenophobic conspiracy theory that Trump had peddled, murdered 11 worshipers in the city’s Tree of Life synagogue. Dermer was visible as Trump visited the site of the massacre, which was an odd move because the massacre had nothing to do with Israel. But the local Jewish community has made it clear that they would prefer Trump to stay away, and Dermer was a practical Jewish leader for the president.
“There have been a series of actions and circumstances that have exhausted some of the goodwill between Netanyahu” and the Democrats, said Representative Brad Schneider, a Jewish Democrat who was previously a secular leader at AIPAC and to the American Jewish Committee. “I think the way  the speech started, the process was not helpful, it left a lot of hurt feelings.
Mark Mellman, who heads the Democratic Majority for Israel, a group that backs Democrats who follow a more traditional pro-Israel line, said his work has not been made easier by the perception that Netanyahu is in Republicans’ pockets.
“This is deeply felt by Democrats and it helps to give the issue a partisan aspect,” he said.
It didn’t help, said Schneider, that Dermer – now back in Israel – recently said in a public address that American Jews “disproportionately” criticize Israel and that evangelical Christians are more reliable as supporters. .
“When former Ambassador Ron Dermer says we should focus less on the wider Jewish community, it doesn’t help build goodwill within the Jewish community,” Schneider said.
Democrats also saw Netanyahu, encouraged by Trump, exclude what had become Democratic doctrine: a two-state end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The opening of Netanyahu last year, the annexation of parts of the West Bank shocked even the most pro-Israel Democrats.
There is a group of members of the Jewish Democratic Congress who hail from Jewish youth movements and summer camps, and who have been for years among the main architects of Middle Eastern politics. They talk to each other about the optimism they felt in the 1990s, when Israeli-Palestinian peace seemed tangible. Now they feel he’s crushed. For them, the once admired Netanyahu has become persona non grata.
“For decades, Israel has wisely cultivated relations with Democrats and Republicans,” said a former Jewish Democratic congressman who asked not to be named to speak frankly. “Bibi broke that tradition and set her sights on Republicans, and permanently undermined the confidence of many Democrats on and off the Hill.”