5 Ways Biden Can Thread the Needle With Israel’s New Coalition
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-wing government presents the Biden administration with some unpalatable and inconvenient choices.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has returned from the Middle East with few tangible results in his diplomatic pouch.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has returned from the Middle East with few tangible results in his diplomatic pouch.
With his visit coming just after several days of violence between Israelis and Palestinians—including an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin that killed nine Palestinians, some of whom the Israel Defense Forces said were Palestine Islamic Jihad members implicated in past terrorist attacks, as well as a shooting outside an East Jerusalem synagogue by a Palestinian that killed seven Israelis—there wasn’t much hope, let alone expectation, of progress.
At a minimum, progress would have meant getting both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take concrete steps to de-escalate and work together to prevent terrorism and violence in the future. Through no fault of Blinken’s, this could never have been achieved.
Blinken’s public remarks made clear that he had raised concerns with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his government’s proposed judicial reforms that, according to many jurists, would impinge on Israel’s democratic system. Blinken advised reaching a national consensus before undertaking partisan change.
There wasn’t much to show, however, on efforts to contain the violence and rebuild trust between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has suspended security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank, leaving everything in the hands of the Israeli army. Meanwhile, the Israeli cabinet proposed measures on Sunday to retaliate for the Jerusalem terrorist attack, but it is hard to see how the policies, which include destroying the homes of terrorists’ families or deporting them, will help deter future attacks; there’s scant evidence that it has worked when carried out in the past.
Coming almost immediately on the heels of a flurry of back-and-forth U.S. and Israeli trips—Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer to Washington and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William Burns to Israel and the West Bank—it was clear well before Blinken arrived that his visit would be part of a broader piece, with particular focus on Iran. Never before had a U.S. administration engaged with a new Israeli government as early, as often, and at this high a level.
Clearly, that engagement reflected the Biden administration’s real concern about the new right-wing government’s direction and offered an opportunity to lay down some markers, especially on issues related to Israeli policies toward Palestinians and on the judicial reforms that might erode Israel democracy. At the same time, judging by the tone and tenor of the Blinken visit, the Biden administration has clearly decided to embrace the new Israeli coalition publicly and not confront it. We wouldn’t be surprised if an early Netanyahu visit to Washington is in the offing.
The administration surely is aware of the risk that this flurry of high-level visits will be perceived as legitimizing the most extreme government in Israel’s history. But Joe Biden—a preternaturally pro-Israel U.S. president whose initial instincts were never to confront Israel but to work with it—seems willing to take that risk. Biden has other priorities, not to mention his likely decision and announcement to seek a second term. Fighting with Israel is risky business, especially in light of a Republican Party that has set itself up as Israel’s sole stalwart friend. Biden might be persuaded to get tough with Israel and the Palestinians if there were realistic chances of achieving a breakthrough that would make a fight worthwhile. But there simply aren’t.
There are no easy choices for an administration facing this Israeli government. Here are five suggestions the Biden administration could follow to have any chance of successfully navigating what’s likely to be a very fraught road ahead.
1) Hang it on the prime minister. Netanyahu has said repeatedly he can control the more radical impulses and actions of his ministers, and the Biden administration ought to hold him to that commitment. Palestinian terrorism and the predisposition of some of Netanyahu’s ministers to use the violence to advance their narrow political agenda in the occupied territories present Netanyahu with a test that will be difficult to pass. The decisions made by the Israeli cabinet on Sunday indicate how difficult it will be for Netanyahu to rein in the radicals.
Netanyahu crafted this coalition to meet his immediate need to defer, nullify, and escape prosecution in his ongoing corruption trial. He is now saddled with it and needs to manage the coalition’s worst impulses, including by maintaining the status quo at Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, not gutting Israel’s Supreme Court, and avoiding a full-blown conflict with Palestinians in the occupied territories. Indeed, a functional U.S.-Israeli relationship depends on it. As Blinken emphasized throughout his visit, this relationship depends on a confluence of both values and interests.
2) Make the relationship more transactional. Netanyahu looks after Israel’s interests first, and so should the Biden administration tend to the United States’. Allies trust one another and do for one another. There’s reciprocity, not just free-riding.
Israel wants U.S. help in normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia (an interest the Biden administration shares) and in toughening up an approach toward Iran. And the Biden administration wants any number of things from Netanyahu, including a tougher Israeli policy against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, the United States’ closest ally there, and the only country in the region whose history is linked to genocide. It’s not unreasonable for the United States to expect more when it comes to Russia’s brutal invasion.
Biden isn’t pressing Israel on a two-state solution—but he does want Netanyahu’s government to avoid taking actions that could make the situation in the West Bank far worse than it already is. The United States also has its own set of problems to resolve with the Saudis; Israel can exacerbate both the U.S.-Saudi relationship and its own future relations with the kingdom if it continues to take provocative actions toward the Palestinians.
At this point, though, it’s hard to see the Biden administration explicitly laying out precise quid pro quos and trade-offs to Netanyahu (e.g., if you ratchet up pressure on the Palestinians, we’re not going to work with you to maintain and broaden the Abraham Accords), largely because there’s no guarantee countries such as the United Arab Emirates would play along. And Netanyahu would likely reject that approach. Nor is it politically viable with the U.S. Congress. Israel has yet to respond definitively to the U.S. request to supply vintage Hawk missiles to Ukraine. And given Israel’s refusal to supply military assistance to Ukraine, the answer is most likely to be no.
3) Make Iran the priority. As volatile as the Palestinian situation may be, Iran’s nuclear program is the only issue that might trigger a wider regional confrontation, replete with rising oil prices and falling financial markets.
The Biden administration and Israel still disagree over the virtues and drawbacks of reviving the Iran nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but they do not disagree about the danger that Iran poses in the region, whether through its drive toward becoming a nuclear threshold state or its aggressive behavior in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere.
Iran’s brutal efforts to suppress its current domestic protests and Tehran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine have made the prospects of a renewed nuclear agreement unlikely, which should reduce some of the tensions with Netanyahu (unless, by some miracle, a renewed diplomatic opportunity with Iran arises on the nuclear issue). And major tensions could arise if Israel makes an assessment that it must use military force to respond to Iran’s ramped-up nuclear program and the United States disagrees.
But diplomacy, containment, and smart, demonstrable deterrence—certainly including but not limited to a credible military option—will be the key to dealing with Iran in the period ahead. That will require close and nuanced diplomatic and security cooperation and coordination between Israel and the United States. The recently concluded joint military exercise involving thousands of U.S. and Israeli forces in the Mediterranean Sea was clearly intended to send a signal to Iran of combined U.S. and Israeli resolve, and it won’t be the last of such coordinated initiatives in the months ahead.
4) Sharpen the almost nonexistent current focus on the Palestinian issue. Even if the prospects for serious progress on the Palestinian issue are almost nonexistent now, the Biden administration must continue to press both the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority to prevent further deterioration on the ground. White House and State Department words and hand-wringing are not enough.
The raid in Jenin and the terrorist attack that followed showcased two long-standing truths in the Israeli-Palestinian drama. Some Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and some within Fatah, remain intent on violent resistance. The Palestinian leaders lack a political strategy for advancing toward their stated goal of self-determination and statehood. The terrorism and violence inflict pain and suffering but do not move the dial closer to a resolution of the underlying conflict. Indeed, even the most serious outbreaks of violence and war are followed by a return to the status quo ante, or worse, with nothing having been accomplished.
For its part, Israel has pursued a counterinsurgency strategy for decades designed to disrupt Palestinian terrorist operations and inflict pain on the Palestinians as a means of trying to end the terrorism, but it, too, has no political goal. At best, Israel can make costs to Palestinians very high for engaging in terrorism, but as long as Palestinians see no political avenue out of the occupation, they appear willing to absorb those costs. For Israel, this has meant short periods of calm interspersed with short periods of terrorism and violence. It’s a strategic cul-de-sac with no way out.
The Biden administration must continue to press Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume security cooperation with Israel and to do more to preempt terrorism and violence in the West Bank. Abbas must also develop a diplomatic approach that responds to past Israeli and U.S. diplomatic initiatives. And he must invigorate Palestinian politics by calling elections for parliament and the presidency so that the Palestinian public can make clear its choice: a process of peacemaking or continued terrorism and violence under the slogan of resistance. The half a billion dollars the United States has provided to Palestinians since April 2021 provides some leverage in these discussions; more significant U.S. leverage would be a commitment to revive serious U.S. diplomacy in peacemaking, something that has been absent since at least 2014.
As for Israel, even as it takes security steps to protect its population, it must also take steps to shore up the Palestinian Authority. This includes pushing aside efforts to speed up or legalize creeping annexation; improving economic living conditions on the ground; ending rampant settlement activity, including the legalization of outposts that are illegal under current Israeli law; and avoiding actions that seek to permanently bind the West Bank to Israel. Even if the question of using aid as leverage with Israel is off the table—it simply will not fly in Washington, where Israel has become a domestic political football—the United States carries enough weight to persuade Israel to pay attention when it sees seriousness and determination on the part of the most senior U.S. officials.
5) Make it clear that the United States will stay out of Israeli politics—but Israel must stay out of U.S. politics, too. Israel needs to understand that the bilateral relationship thrives when U.S. policy toward Israel enjoys bipartisan support in Washington. It may be tempting for Israel to game U.S. politics and decide to throw its weight behind the Republicans, as Netanyahu has done previously, especially as the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign begins this year to shift into high gear.
But Israel needs to be reminded that the United States has one president at a time and that blatant interference of the kind that Netanyahu engaged in on Iran during the Obama administration will be called out as an unfriendly act with consequences for the personal relationship between the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister.
The new Israeli government presents the Biden administration with some very unpalatable and inconvenient choices. It is a democratically elected extremist coalition led by a very skillful and willful prime minister whose primary goal isn’t stopping Iran from getting a bomb or normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia but finding a way to escape his ongoing corruption trial.
For that, he needs the cooperation of his coalition partners. He may be able to control some of what they want, but because they have leverage over him, Netanyahu can’t block everything. This virtually ensures rising tensions with the United States, unless of course some deus ex machina intrudes, such as war with Iran, a third intifada, or the collapse of the government and its replacement by a more centrist coalition.
But more likely, if the worst of the right-wing extremists’ agenda comes to pass, the Biden administration and Netanyahu will enter a bad patch far worse than the Obama years. And Biden—with no choice but to push back—may well find himself in the middle of a nasty fight that he doesn’t want or need.
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
Daniel C. Kurtzer is a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. He teaches diplomacy and conflict resolution at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.
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