Israel’s Incoming Extreme-Right Government May Put Strain on Ties With US
President Joe Biden and his aides have a plan for how to deal with the far-right, anti-Palestinian tilt of the incoming Israeli government: Make it all about Binyamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu is set to lead the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, including figures from the extreme fringes who staunchly support expanding settlements in Palestinian territories.
The veteran Israeli politician informed President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday that he has put together a government after 38 days of coalition negotiations.
Netanyahu’s coalition will have members of the country’s most radically right-wing elements who will hold powerful roles in the next government.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East analyst and negotiator for the State Department who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Media Line that “this is not new, we had right-wing elements taking part in many (previous) Israeli governments.”
However, the veteran diplomat says this Israeli government goes “beyond anything we see because you have at least two senior members who have been given senior responsibilities of extremely sensitive portfolios.”
This includes the Religious Zionist bloc, also comprising the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party and the zealously homophobic Noam party. Bezalel Smotrich, leader of Religious Zionism, and Itamar Ben Gvir, head of Otzma Yehudit, are far-right figures who will undoubtedly alienate liberal Americans and liberal American Jews in particular.
“You have a large number of American Jews, Americans whose support for Israel can be taken for granted, and they are much more willing to criticize Israel. Absolutely! Yes, it will have a negative impact on US Jews’ view of Israel,” according to Miller.
Ben-Gvir is a staunch advocate of Jewish settlements. Until a few years ago, he had a portrait hanging in his living room of Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at a Hebron mosque in 1994.
I don’t expect much will change, the Biden Administration prefers to express any disagreements privately, that will probably continue. There will be more uncomfortable private discussions.
Many analysts say the makeup of Netanyahu’s government raises serious concerns in Washington.
President Joe Biden and his aides have a plan for how to deal with the far-right, anti-Palestinian tilt of the incoming Israeli government: Make it all about Benjamin Netanyahu.
US officials have warned that defending Israel to the world community will become tougher.
Netanyahu left office last year, ending his 12-year term as the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, and his reelection poses a major headache for President Biden, whose administration is dealing with several foreign crises.
Two US officials told POLITICO that the Biden Administration “will hold the presumptive Israeli prime minister personally responsible for the actions of his more extreme cabinet members, especially if they lead to policies that endanger a future Palestinian state,” the American online news outlet reported.
“When [US] administrations find themselves in a conflict with Israel, it’s either because there are opportunities as there were for Henry Kissinger and Nixon; Jimmy Carter; and Bush 41 and James Baker,” Miller said.
These three US administrations, Miller says, wrestled with Israeli governments and Jewish supporters in the United States.
He says in each case the tension led to a positive outcome.
“When the US thinks that Israel is openly challenging its policy or alternatively taking steps that might undermine American interests, the US took steps,” Miller asserted.
“In this case, you have a situation in which it is almost a foregone conclusion that on several key aspects of US interests this new government is likely to adopt policies that directly challenge – not just challenge US policies but go beyond normal sorts of activities that the Israelis have pursued in the West Bank, Gaza and in and around Jerusalem in the course of decades past,” said Miller.
Because of that, he said, “there’s a serious risk that things may go out of control between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“I think there would be an effort to bind the West Bank more closely to Israel. Any Israeli activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank could result, as it did in May 2021, in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Jerusalem area,” he added.
The Biden Administration has more pressing policy priorities at the moment and, with a “blindly pro-Israel Republican majority soon to control the House and the Iranian nuclear issue looming, President Biden isn’t looking for a fight with Netanyahu,” according to Miller.
Analysts say the question becomes how or will the Biden Administration react to any policies taken by the incoming Israeli government that Washington thinks will increase tension.
“The administration will go to a great length to avoid confrontation with the incoming Israeli government led by Netanyahu,” according to Miller.
Even if violence or an escalation erupts between Israelis and Palestinians, Miller says it will not cause oil prices to rise or force financial markets to fall, and because of that, the Palestinian issue will remain low down on this administration’s agenda.
Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington where he also directs MEI’s Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs, told The Media Line that “not much will change” between the two countries with Netanyahu’s incoming coalition.
“The US-Israel relationship is kind of immune from politics, from even ideological differences. It’s a very deep and multi-tiered relationship. I don’t think any of those things is going to change,” he said.
Elgindy says that, despite several concerns US officials have, the historic ties are not contingent on any of them.
“I don’t expect much will change, the Biden Administration prefers to express any disagreements privately, that will probably continue. There will be more uncomfortable private discussions,” Elgindy said.
The peace process isn’t almost dead, it’s definitely dead. It’s been dead for many years. There’s no prospect in place either to mitigate the conflict or to resolve it.
He explains that the current administration is more committed to “maintaining” the status quo between Israelis and Palestinians.
“They [US] have moral and philosophical issues with this government, but all they can do is manage the conflict,” he said.
“The best indicator of future behavior is the past behavior; they have been extremely reluctant to get involved in any constructive way. I think there’s a decision very early made that they are not going to expend political capital on this issue. They see it as a losing issue, they are not prepared to do the heavy political lifting that is needed to move the process forward towards two states or whatever their vision is,” Elgindy said.
The problem, Elgindy says, is that the incoming Israeli government is not a status-quo government.
“This is a very radical government pursuing a radical agenda. The coalition agreement between Likud and the Religious Zionism bloc is frightening. Their outline for moving Israel from de facto annexation to de jure annexation. From de facto apartheid to de jure apartheid. That’s what is problematic for this administration,” he said.
Elgindy says that Ben Gvir and Smotrich “are not the first racists to be in an Israeli cabinet or people with offensive views,” but he adds that “the difference now is that we have a Kahanist, a Jewish supremacist who will be in a position of power. I think this is what is most disconcerting for the administration.”
He questions the US decision earlier this year to remove the Kahanist group from the foreign terrorist organization list.
“It’s not clear to me where their [American] redlines are. It’s an extremely minimalistic administration. They didn’t even reverse most of the Trump agenda,” he said.
Elgindy warns that the status quo in Israel is “deteriorating rapidly, and we’ve seen already in the last two years two different Gaza wars, we’ve seen an increase in tensions, there’s potential for things to explode but we will see limited intervention by the Biden Administration.”
“The peace process isn’t almost dead, it’s definitely dead. It’s been dead for many years. There’s no prospect in place either to mitigate the conflict or to resolve it,” he concludes.
Bob Silverman, a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem and a former senior US diplomat, told The Media Line that he “doesn’t expect a big falling out,” since ties between the two allies are deep.
“We got a hint on how relations will look like when Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken spoke to the J Street conference; he stressed continuity; he talked about action.”
Silverman says that, on the political level, he expects some back and forth, describing the US-Israel relationship as “dynamic.”
“There are strong ties and the US-Israel relationship is so important to Israel that I expect the professionals in the military, in the Intelligence agencies, in the business community, and to some extent in the diplomatic community to remain very much in charge of the day-to-day issues,” Silverman said.
Speaking at the annual conference for the left-leaning J-Street Middle East lobby in Washington in early December, Blinken told the crowd that the US will continue its steadfast support for Israel despite its differences with Netanyahu’s incoming government.
Blinken vowed to oppose Israeli settlements or annexation in the West Bank but promised to judge Netanyahu’s incoming government by actions and not personalities.
“We will gauge the government by the policies and procedures, rather than individual personalities,” said Blinken.
Blinken also warned that the US would object to policies that marginalize the Palestinians, diminish their “horizon for hope,” or make a two-state resolution more difficult.
“We expect the new Israeli government to continue to work with us to advance our shared values, just as we have previous governments,” he said.
This is not just an image problem for Israel.
Miller says another reason why Netanyahu entered into a coalition with figures like Ben Gvir and Smotrich, is because of his legal troubles; Netanyahu is currently on trial on several corruption charges.
“He needs them for leverage to defer or cancel his indictment,” according to Miller.
Ziad AbuZayyad, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, told The Media Line that President Biden’s administration lacks the political “courage and will” to confront the next Israeli government.
“Despite this fanatic, extremist ultra-religious fascist nationalist government, I don’t think that there will be any drastic change. The administrations are always biased to Israel and will defend Israeli positions,” AbuZayyad said.
There are strong ties and the US-Israel relationship is so important to Israel that I expect the professionals in the military, in the Intelligence agencies, in the business community and to some extent in the diplomatic community to remain very much in charge of the day-to-day issues
President Biden reinstated funding to the UNRWA Palestinian refugee agency, and USAID has resumed major projects in the Palestinian territories since arriving in office in January 2020.
Former President Donald Trump had cut off financial aid to the Palestinians.
During his visit to the region in the summer, President Biden pledged $100 million in financial aid to Palestinian hospitals in east Jerusalem, while giving his public support to the two-state solution. His administration also appointed Hady Amr, the deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, as the Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs.
However, Palestinians aren’t pleased with these steps, saying that President Biden has reneged on his promises to the Palestinians to reopen the PLO office in Washington or the US consulate in east Jerusalem.
“I expect the situation between Palestinians and Israelis to deteriorate even more. I expect more killing of Palestinians because Ben Gvir will be responsible for the border police, and Smotrich will be responsible for the civil administration which is in charge of the Palestinian territories,” says AbuZayyad.
AbuZayyad said that “except for some statements expressing concern about what’s going on,” he does not anticipate any major steps from Washington.
“Of course, they can do something, but the question if they want. Whether they will have the will to exert pressure and take actions is doubtful,” he said.
The Republican Party, which considers itself to be a loyal friend of Israel, regained control of the House of Representatives after the midterm election last month.
Netanyahu has close ties with the Republican party.
Biden was vice president under former Democratic President Barack Obama, who has a history of cold relations with Netanyahu, particularly over Obama’s political efforts around the Iran nuclear agreement.
In 2015 Netanyahu visited the US and used a controversial speech in Congress to criticize President Barack Obama’s signing the nuclear deal with Iran.
“Biden doesn’t want to be caught between a Republican Party that will hammer him if he criticizes Israel, and add to that members of his own party, which is split; the majority still supports Israel but there’s a small growing number of Democrats or even more centrists who want more accountability [of Israel] and want the administration to take Israel to task,” Miller said.