Biden’s New Focus Regarding Israel Is Exactly Right
Up until this week, most people who asked about the current tension between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—embodied by the ongoing and glaring absence of an Oval Office invitation—would have pinned it primarily on the Israeli government’s proposed judicial overhaul. The overhaul has been the subject of repeated friendly notes of caution and less friendly warnings from Antony Blinken, Tom Nides, and a variety of administration spokespeople, and Biden has sent a few direct signals on the same topic.
When Biden first commented on the issue in February, he focused on the commonalities between American and Israeli democracy and the need to make any sweeping changes through consensus. When he said in March that Netanyahu would not be invited to Washington in the near term, he tied it directly to the proposed overhaul and the lack of any compromise between the Netanyahu government and the opposition. That is not to suggest that the administration has punted on other stressors, whether it be settlement expansion, retroactive legalization of illegal West Bank outposts, or the increase in settler violence. But the message has been that what makes this Israeli government different from previous ones—many of which irritated U.S. officials to varying degrees over West Bank policies—are the judicial overhaul and the threats it poses to Israeli democracy and thus the shared-values foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The inconvenient truth as this has unfolded is that the judicial overhaul is indeed a threat to the uniqueness of U.S.-Israel ties, but it is also the wrong threat for the U.S. to elevate to the top of the list of its concerns. The fate of Israeli democracy is the primary interest of Israeli citizens, as it should be, and the existential dread many Israelis are feeling has been on full display this week in Israel’s streets. But there is a reason that the U.S. has for decades focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli policies in the West Bank. The lack of a resolution impacts all manner of U.S. security and diplomatic interests, which is why every administration since 1967—including the Trump administration at various points—has chafed against Israeli settlements and the ways in which Israeli governments have made separation and a two-state outcome less likely and less implementable.
And as radical as the Israeli government’s plans to remake the judiciary may be, its plans for the West Bank are even more radical and are well into being implemented. Whether it be more settlement units approved in six and a half months than any previous government approved in a year; eliminating all but one of the defense minister’s opportunities to check settlement approvals in the face of security or diplomatic concerns; creating a new settlements administration designed to civilianize Israel’s presence in the West Bank as much as possible; allowing new illegal outposts to mushroom while refusing to honor commitments to dismantle existing ones; or ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir not only turning a blind eye to settler vigilantism and illegal actions but tacitly—and in some cases, expressly—encouraging it, this Netanyahu government is racing ahead as fast as conceivably possible to challenge U.S. policy priorities in the West Bank and fundamentally destroy any possibility for two states.
If Biden was inclined to bring the hammer down on Netanyahu for what is gross negligence at best and insultingly and directly flouting U.S. wishes at worst—all while Netanyahu wants the U.S. to make far-reaching concessions to Saudi Arabia so that it will normalize relations with Israel, protect Israel in international institutions, grant Israel entry into the visa waiver program, coordinate potential military activity against Iran, and fulfill a host of other asks—it should always have been over the extreme revanchism unfolding in the West Bank rather than over the extreme revanchism targeting the Israeli Supreme Court’s authority.
When Biden sat down last weekend with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria for his most extensive comments to date on Netanyahu and the Israeli government, he unambiguously put the focus squarely on where it should be. When asked whether Netanyahu is going to get that elusive White House invite, Biden led by talking about two states. He discussed the extremism among Israeli ministers that is contributing to a loss of Palestinian Authority control and legitimacy, specifically pointing to ministers who say that Palestinians have no right to be in the West Bank and that Israel can build settlements anywhere and everywhere without restriction. After getting through all of that, and making it clear that he holds Netanyahu responsible for the words and deeds of the government that he selected himself and not only for his own comments and actions, he threw in a line about the judicial overhaul in closing almost as an afterthought.
It is understandable why Israelis have implored visiting Americans for months to make their voices heard on the judicial overhaul, knowing that American pressure on Netanyahu to take a step back is one of the best sources of leverage they have. It is understandable why American Jewish organizations have focused on the judicial overhaul, given the importance of Israeli democracy to American Jewish values and the deep threat that a significant erosion of that democracy will pose to American Jews’ connection to Israel and their own Zionism. It is understandable why the Biden administration and Congress have focused on the judicial overhaul, but less understandable why they have highlighted it over the revolution taking place in Israeli policy towards the West Bank. While the interests of protesting Israelis and of American Jews may dovetail with American strategic interests in the region, they are not identical and the hierarchy of priorities is different.
The risk of the approach taken over the last six months was that it sent Netanyahu the message that if he made the extreme version of the judicial overhaul go away, the rest of what he and his government were doing would not be a barrier to improving his ties with the U.S. Following Biden’s Sunday interview, it should be crystal clear that is not the case. The judicial overhaul will erode U.S.-Israel ties in a deep and potentially irreversible way if it is rammed through, and no responsible administration would ignore it or minimize the dangers. But if Biden were to link a White House invite or anything else only to the judicial overhaul, it would be a grave mistake.
U.S. interests go beyond the overhaul threat, and while the Biden administration should give its support to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting to safeguard Israel’s checks and balances, it cannot sideline what is being done in the West Bank, which threatens not only shared values but shared interests as well. Biden should continue to push for a compromise approach to Israel’s institutional crisis, but not at the expense of downplaying that Netanyahu is ignoring a half-century’s worth of American preferences regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an unprecedented—and unprecedentedly dangerous—fashion. Whatever happens, going forward, Netanyahu’s extremism, and the extremism of his partners that he has enabled, should not be rewarded.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.