Democrat Senator And Congressman Accused Of Meddling In Israeli Politics

Concerns arise after Sen. Menendez and Rep. Sherman ask Netanyahu to reject forming a coalition with Itamar Ben-Gvir

<p>Israeli and U.S. flags seen in Krakow. On Sunday, August 28, 2022, in Krakow, Lesser Poland Voivodeship, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)</p>

Pro-Israel organizations in the U.S. are privately voicing their concerns that two Democrat government officials may have meddled in Israeli politics. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), recently called on opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to reject forming a coalition with controversial right-wing Member of Knesset, Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, should he win next month’s election. With just weeks to go until elections, this was viewed as a departure from the convention of not commenting on the electoral choices of allies.

“There can be no doubt that Itamar Ben-Gvir has a troubling past and that his ascension in Israeli politics would draw attention. This is a man who has been rather strident in his views, which offend many in the West, not to mention a fair portion of Israelis for that matter,” Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said to Zenger News. However, Schanzer noted that it is not typical for the U.S. to get involved in an ally’s elections, saying that while he thinks the statements “are well-intentioned,” they “veer in that direction” of meddling.

Robert “Bob” Menendez, US politician and lawyer, Senator for the state of New Jersey attends the 48th edition of Economic Forum of Cernobbio on September 02, 2022 in Cernobbio, Italy. (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

Ben-Gvir originally called for Arabs to be kicked out of Israel, but has changed his position to calling for the deportation of Arabs who oppose the state or IDF soldiers, and introducing the death penalty for terrorists convicted of murdering Jews. A few days after news of Menendez’s conversation broke, Ben-Gvir responded in a statement, saying that he was an “anti-racist” while expressing concern over the characterization by Menendez, who he called a friend of Israel. “Those who are enemies of a strong Israel seek to besmirch me by calling me and my party racist. But the truth is that we’re anti-racist—we are fighting against the racist anti-Semitism fomenting within the boundaries of our homeland,” Ben-Gvir said. “We believe that Israel needs to uproot terror organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, just as the United States defeated Al Qaida. Like millions of Americans, we believe that peace comes through strength and that Israel’s policies should be based upon the firm enforcement of our right to sovereignty and self-defense.”

Security attempt to prevent Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir from holding up signs reading “Shame” during a session at the Israeli Parliament. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

According to a director of a major centrist pro-Israel advocacy organization who requested to speak to Zenger News anonymously, many Jewish organizations have been expressing discomfort with Menendez and Sherman involving themselves in internal Israeli politics, but are not interested in airing their criticisms publicly so as not to appear to support Ben-Gvir. The source added that more right-leaning groups are calling Sherman and Menendez’s statements hypocritical, as nobody complained when the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned party Ra’am was made part of the last governing coalition, or that Sherman, who is the second-ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, did not push to remove Rep. Ilham Omar (D-Minn.) from the committee for her anti-Semitic statements. Rather than looking at them as friendly advice, the source said that the statements from the two officials are being viewed as threats. “They’re saying that voting for this guy is going to harm the U.S.-Israel relationship. That’s a threat. Especially to a country and to a society that feels very much dependent on support from the United States.” said the source. 

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) remains the only organization to publicly criticize Menendez and Sherman. “It’s an outrage for [them] to interfere in Israeli elections. It’s an outrage,” said ZOA National President Mort Klein. “I mean &mldr; you didn’t have Israel publicly saying, ‘This hurts U.S.-Israel relations if you have [Michigan’s Rep. Rashida] Tlaib and Omar in your Congress?’” Klein, who said he considers Sherman a very dear friend, questioned why those who came out with the criticism of Ben-Gvir were, in his opinion, two of the most pro-Israel members of Congress. He also questioned why the two officials ignored the danger of Israel’s far-left and Islamist parties. “It’s because the Democratic Party has moved to the left and become somewhat hostile to Israel. That was never the case years ago.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) questions witnesses during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing looking into the firing of State Department Inspector General Steven Linick, on Capitol Hill on September 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

The Israel Policy Forum—a Washington D.C.-based think tank that is influential among Democrats—joined the two officials in warning Israel to reject Ben-Gvir and his allied parties. “Any government with Ben-Gvir and any coalition with Otzma Yehudit or Noam will make it harder for American Jews to identify with Israel while eroding a larger sense of Jewish peoplehood. Israeli democracy is for Israelis, but we plead with Israeli voters to take this into account.” the organization said.

Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate.