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Netanyahu’s Coalition From Hell Won’t Shake Biden

The last thing either leader wants right now is a major confrontation.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich sit next to each other, both smiling.
Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich sit next to each other, both smiling.
Itamar Ben-Gvir (left), Israeli far-right lawmaker and leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, and Bezalel Smotrich (right), Israeli far-right lawmaker and leader of the Religious Zionist Party, attend a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Oct. 26. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli elections are over—and now the fun begins, as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begins the process of assembling a governing coalition. His first choice would be to shed the three extreme right-wing parties composing the Religious Zionism alliance, which he knows will be a perpetual migraine headache from day one, in favor of a broader national unity deal with either Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party or even Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

But to secure this outcome and prevent these extremists from participating in government, perhaps in senior positions, they’d have to agree to somehow grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution, and that seems a real stretch right now. Failing that, he’ll have no choice but to put together the coalition from hell.

And that poses a critical question: Will a Netanyahu-led coalition—that, for the first time in Israel’s history, includes parties that are openly and proudly Jewish supremacist, anti-democratic, anti-Arab, and homophobic—lead to a train wreck in the U.S.-Israel relationship?

The Israeli elections are over—and now the fun begins, as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begins the process of assembling a governing coalition. His first choice would be to shed the three extreme right-wing parties composing the Religious Zionism alliance, which he knows will be a perpetual migraine headache from day one, in favor of a broader national unity deal with either Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party or even Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

But to secure this outcome and prevent these extremists from participating in government, perhaps in senior positions, they’d have to agree to somehow grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution, and that seems a real stretch right now. Failing that, he’ll have no choice but to put together the coalition from hell.

And that poses a critical question: Will a Netanyahu-led coalition—that, for the first time in Israel’s history, includes parties that are openly and proudly Jewish supremacist, anti-democratic, anti-Arab, and homophobic—lead to a train wreck in the U.S.-Israel relationship?

Surely the answer must be yes. You can’t have an Israeli government that extreme and not have perpetual crisis with your closest ally, even one as seemingly pro-Israel and forgiving as U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration. Joined at the hip with two right-wing extremist provocateurs in his coalition pressing an anti-Arab agenda, it’s only a matter of time until they strike a match and set ablaze an already combustible issue like Jerusalem, actions against Israeli Arabs, or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. One is reminded of that famous line from author John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle: “There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.”

Much, of course, will depend on how the new government behaves, how much control Netanyahu can muster over his unruly coalition partners, what ministerial portfolios they’re given, and what their own priorities are. Still, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker famously said the best way to find a war is to go looking for one. And right now, neither Netanyahu nor Biden are looking for a war.

Rather than a spontaneous or major bloodletting, the U.S.-Israel relationship is more likely to suffer from a thousand cuts that will over time—concurrent with Israel’s deteriorating image—undermine the confluence of values, interests, and domestic support that have made the U.S.-Israel bond so resilient and enduring.


Biden isn’t former U.S. President Barack Obama. That’s important to note, as the biggest tensions with Netanyahu occurred during Obama’s presidency. Obama took on both the Palestinian and Iran issues at the same time—red flags to an Israeli prime minister preternaturally suspicious of America’s motives. Biden learned a thing or two from his former boss and didn’t take the same approach.

Biden’s view of Israel as an embattled democracy and his concern about Israel’s security stretches back to his first visit to Israel in 1973. Biden feels very much part of Israel’s story and struggles. That long-standing commitment has generated a certain kind of familiarity and even affection for Netanyahu that comes from decades of interaction.

Indeed, on Monday, Biden spoke with Netanyahu to congratulate him on his party’s win in the election, telling Netanyahu: “We’re brothers. We’ll make history together.”

It’s not that Biden hasn’t had his own frustrations with Netanyahu or is naive about the gaps that separate their views. He’s no doubt disappointed by Israel’s latest election results and that he’ll end up having to host Netanyahu at the White House instead of Lapid.

But Biden’s default position with Netanyahu isn’t inherently or inexorably adversarial. Biden loves Israel, not Netanyahu. But according to Biden biographer Evan Osnos, he also knows that Netanyahu is part of the complex puzzle that is Israel and that Netanyahu is likely to remain a part of it. After Netanyahu’s defeats in 2006 and 2022 as well as three stalemate elections in 2019 and 2020, he still remained Likud’s leader. And now, he is on the brink of returning to the prime minister’s office.

Much will depend on how Netanyahu behaves. But Biden’s first instinct in the face of a spat with Netanyahu won’t invariably be to confront him, certainly not publicly. When it comes to criticizing Israel’s accelerated move to the right, a pragmatic Biden may well be tempered by America’s own democratic backsliding. Israel witnessed a peaceful transition of power with no violence, storming of the Knesset, or claims of stolen elections—and with Lapid’s dignified concession to Netanyahu. One could only wish the U.S. democratic process had fared as well.


The last thing Netanyahu wants or needs is a major fight with Biden. In the wake of Democrats’ likely losses in Congress, Netanyahu may see Biden as a much-diminished figure. But he also knows that fighting with a U.S. president, especially one that’s perceived to be pro-Israel, makes little sense—unless it’s on an issue that threatens Netanyahu’s redlines, such as pressing for a two-state solution or an Iran nuclear accord.

Netanyahu will also be very busy at home managing his unruly coalition and focusing on legislation that will grant him immunity from prosecution and reform (read: undermine) the independence of Israel’s judicial system.

Netanyahu fashions himself a world leader and statesman and will relish his return to the international stage, including a visit to the White House. He has no intention of becoming an international pariah. Indeed, he is inherently risk averse and cautious, particularly in matters of war and peacemaking. He will go to great lengths to beat back right-wing pressure for initiatives such as more provocative policies in the West Bank, a major military operation against Hamas in Gaza, and escalating the situation with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As critical as he was about the recently concluded Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement, he will honor its terms. Likewise, fashioning himself the father of the Abraham Accords, he’ll want to preserve Israel’s relationships with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco—and at least hold open the possibility of further improvements with Saudi Arabia.

All of this will demand tight oversight and control of national security decision-making and relying on professionals in the Israel Defense Forces as well as the intelligence services to try to limit actions that might blow up the security situation in the West Bank and Jerusalem. One name that has been floated for foreign minister is Likud member Amir Ohana, the only openly gay member of the coalition, which would be Netanyahu’s effort to temper criticism of the homophobic representatives in his government.

How he will avoid giving far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir what he wants—a portfolio for public security—is not clear. It will be fascinating in the days ahead to see what kind of coalition agreements he reaches with the two extremist parties and who will get the key portfolios for internal security and defense.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and U.S. State Department will likely steer clear of meeting with Religious Zionism’s two primary leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, and neither will be given portfolios that would likely require regular or sustained contact with very senior-level U.S. officials.

If Netanyahu is looking for a way to preemptively mend fences with Washington, he might consider changing Israel’s policy on Ukraine and becoming more responsive to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request for military assistance. Last month, Netanyahu gave an interview where he appeared open to such a change and indicated he might even be asked to mediate between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelensky.

Making common cause with the United States on Ukraine and Iran’s shipment of drones to Russia would be smart politics. Still, nobody should hold their breath regarding a major change in Israel’s position on providing missile defense to Ukraine. Netanyahu valued and touted his relationship with Putin for years, and he would be reluctant to give that up or jeopardize Israel’s room to operate in Syria, which Russia enables.


Fortunately for Netanyahu, the two major issues that have roiled U.S.-Israeli relations in recent years—the Iran nuclear accord and Palestinian statehood—are now neither ready for prime time nor top priorities for the Biden administration.

The extraordinary demonstrations in Iran have pushed the nuclear agreement to the back burner: The U.S. special envoy for Iran admitted last month that the administration is just not focused on it. Should the Iran nuclear accord come alive again, however, tensions between Netanyahu and Biden would reemerge. And, ironically, even if the agreement dies, Netanyahu and Biden will differ over how to deal with what is likely to be Iran’s expanding nuclear program. U.S. and Israeli risk assessments may well be different as the very real possibility of using military force comes into play. Indeed, Netanyahu will increasingly argue that the only way to deal with a repressive Iran that kills its own citizens and helps Russia kill Ukrainians is to use military force.

As for the Palestinian issue, any serious negotiations leading to a two-state solution were unimaginable even under the Lapid government, let alone with this current coalition. The biggest challenge for the Biden administration will be how to respond to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem as well as any number of other items on the agenda of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, including legislation to legalize settlements, loosen the rules of engagement against Palestinians for Israeli military and police, and protect them from liability.

The very presence of the two Jewish supremacist parties in the Netanyahu government will encourage settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, which is already at a dangerously high level. Should Ben-Gvir become minister for public security, one could easily see his visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif triggering serious violence in and around Jerusalem and, given the experience of the May 2021 conflict, potentially leading to violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel proper. The administration might well face action in the United Nations Security Council. Given the complexion and policies of the new government, defending Israel in the international arena will prove increasingly difficult.


Much will depend, of course, on Netanyahu’s capacity to control his coalition partners and on Biden’s own priorities. And no one should be surprised if at some point in 2023 or 2024 Netanyahu finds it to his advantage to try to broaden his government or even call for new elections.

But even if Netanyahu and Biden manage to avoid a major confrontation during the president’s first term, that should not and cannot obscure the damage and dangers the new Israeli government portends for U.S.-Israeli ties. As veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas contends, Israel is neither a fascist, homophobic, nor racist country, yet it will have a government that has the capacity to push the state of Israel in those directions.

It matters that in terms of the popular vote, the difference between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs was less than 1 percent. But this was not a left-versus-right divide. Many in the anti-Netanyahu bloc would be quite comfortable voting for a right or center-right party. The fact remains that 62 percent of the Israeli Jewish electorate self-identifies as right wing, 11 percent identifies as left wing, and 24 percent identifies as centrist.

If there were to be a corrective to this government in a future election, Israel would still likely remain a right or center-right country that is increasingly less liberal and has wide gaps separating Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews as well as Grand Canyon-sized differences standing in the way of any final settlement with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the meantime, the shared values and interests that have bonded the U.S.-Israel relationship will continue to fray, and the bipartisanship critical to a healthy U.S.-Israel relationship will erode as Israel becomes an intensely partisan issue in U.S. politics. The Republican Party has set itself up as the go-to party for supporting Israel and has tried to paint the Democrats as less supportive—if not, in some quarters of the party, openly hostile. Netanyahu has played the Republican card before, and should former U.S. President Donald Trump or a Republican avatar enter the White House in 2024, this partisanship will only intensify.

For some, Israel ceased being a country the United States shares common values with long ago. Last Tuesday’s election ought to shake the faith of the majority who believe it still does. When the image of Israel as a peace-seeking nation committed to democratic, pluralistic values fundamentally changes in the minds of Americans, so too will the special nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Sadly, that change seems well underway.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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