As far as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid are concerned, this week has brought a perfect storm of circumstances that threaten to complicate their hopes for a better relationship with the United States. Both men, each for their own reasons, see establishing a good rapport with President Joe Biden and his administration as one of the main goals of their coalition government that took office in June. But blistering criticism was issued by the U.S. State Department on two issues: its renewed commitment to reopening a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and settlement building in the West Bank. On top of that is the news that Iran is returning to nuclear talks in Vienna. They were body blows to hopes that their ousting of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is viewed by Biden’s team as the devil incarnate, would ensure the president’s goodwill and protect them against the kind of hostility that was the hallmark of U.S. attitudes towards Jerusalem the last time Democrats were in power.
Perhaps they knew that the announcement that a few thousand new homes would be built in existing West Bank settlements, as well as the designation of six Palestinian non-governmental organizations as terror groups, would provoke Washington’s ire. The two are also painfully aware that their attempts have failed to persuade the Americans to back off their determination to renew efforts to appease Iran and bring it back into a nuclear deal that Israelis believe is a disaster. All the sappy rhetoric Bennett and Lapid could muster in public about their affection for Biden and their belief in his friendship for Israel flopped, as did their strong arguments and warnings about the folly of engagement with Iran that they delivered in private.
On top of that the president’s clear determination to reopen a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem to serve as an embassy to the Palestinians, even if he is willing to wait until after the Israeli coalition passes a budget in November, puts their government in peril of collapsing if they fail to stop something that undermines Israel’s sovereignty over its capital.
However, more important than the longevity of their rickety alliance of right, left, centrist and Arab political parties is something else. The question Bennett and Lapid need to be asking themselves is whether, even without having Netanyahu as their antagonist, this administration is really prepared to return to the situation between the two countries that existed in December 2016. If so, the Jewish state is in for a rough ride in the coming years. And no amount of eyewash about a belief in a bipartisan consensus in America supporting the U.S.-Israel alliance will be enough to cushion the damage that an openly antagonistic administration could do.
The arguments for a worst-case scenario for a rapid and steep decline in amity between the two nations are strong.
The first concerns the personnel in place in the State Department and the White House.
Much was and continues to be made of the warm feelings of Biden Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan for Israel. And as much as the trio has had many disagreements with Israeli leaders over the years, especially during the Obama administration, in which they all served, the claim isn’t false. Unlike Obama, all three have a certain degree of affection for the Jewish state, and in Biden’s case, the professions of friendship date back to the beginnings of his half-century of public office-holding.
But his friendship has always been conditional. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates admirably summed up his career, Biden has been wrong about every important foreign-policy issue for 40 years. He always tells listeners how much he loves Israel but also thinks he knows better than its leaders and its people about what is in their best interests. He believes in applying “tough love” to naughty Israelis who need American guidance. Biden also doesn’t take kindly to criticism. His self-esteem is such that he regards challenges to his diktats as insults. Netanyahu learned this when the announcement of home-building in Jerusalem in 2010 during a Biden visit led to a major incident between the two countries because of the then-vice president’s allegedly hurt feelings.
If anything, Biden has grown even more thin-skinned since then as his consistently short-tempered responses to non-sycophantic questions from citizens and journalists alike have shown in the last two years.
Biden and his chief advisers are not complete fantasists, so unlike former President Barack Obama, they don’t actually expect to miraculously bring about a two-state solution that the Palestinians don’t want. But should Bennett summon up the spine to resist Biden’s will on the consulate or find the temerity to publicly challenge him on Iran, the blowback may have serious consequences.
While the three men at the top are conditional friends of Israel who think they should save the Jewish state from itself, Biden’s appointments at the next level of authority aren’t quite so affectionate. Some, like Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Robert Malley, the special envoy for Iran, are veterans of both the Clinton and Obama administrations and have a far less favorable view of the relationship. Sherman was the architect of disastrous nuclear agreements with both North Korea and Iran, and has learned nothing from her mistakes. Malley was, among other things, an apologist for Palestinian leader/terrorist Yasser Arafat and a leading advocate for a rapprochement with Iran.
Just as troubling is the fact that throughout the federal bureaucracy, there are people, like, for example, Hady Amr, Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, who reflect the views of the Democratic base on the Middle East. Younger and more in tune with the intersectional ideology and critical race theory ideas that dominate the academy and left-wing activist discourse, they view Israel with a degree of hostility absent among older peace processors and diplomats.
No less important a factor is Biden’s need to be in sync with congressional progressives whose side he has taken on domestic issues. Rather than stand up to the leftist “Squad” and its anti-Semitic and pro-BDS members, Biden prefers to court them. This is not so much a matter of ideological affinity as it is of political necessity. He knows the left not only represents the future of his party, but has far more energy and influence with the Democrats’ cheering sections in the media and pop culture than the aging pro-Israel moderates, even if the latter outnumber them.
That means that any defiance of the administration from Israel will serve to provide an opportunity for the left to become even more assertive in their attacks on Israel under the guise of defending the president.
It makes for a daunting prospect for those in Israel or the United States who hold onto a belief that the coming years won’t be a rerun of the nonstop battles between Washington and Jerusalem that characterized the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu from 2009 to 2016.
Yet Bennett and Lapid are not without hope that they can keep the situation from getting out of hand.
First, they can seek to hold Biden to his promise about keeping disputes with Israel private, rather than letting them play out in public as Obama did. If so, even the most bitter of disagreements won’t seem quite so bad.
Second, they can hope that Israel’s enemies will, as they have so often in recent history, overplay their hand and force Biden’s team back into Israel’s corner. Palestinian rejectionism and support for terror, and Iran’s will to achieve its nuclear ambitions—as well as its assessment that Biden is too weak to stop them from achieving any of their goals—could ultimately prove decisive.
Lastly, they may also count on the dysfunction of the Biden administration. In the past nine months, the Democrats have made a muddle of a host of challenges, including the disaster in Afghanistan, the crisis at the southern border, the collapse of the supply chain for products and economic malaise that, along with the coronavirus pandemic, won’t go away. These issues have sent Biden’s polling numbers deep underwater, despite beginning his presidency with a vast store of goodwill and support from those who hoped he represented a calming influence and competence.
Unlike Obama, who had political capital to burn on futile Middle East policies and a pointless feud with Netanyahu, Biden has none to spare. Israelis can only hope that he is wise enough not to waste any on equally foolish spats with whoever is running Israel in the coming years—whether Bennett, Lapid or Netanyahu—that will do nothing to ensure American security priorities or the political prospects of the Democrats. Whether such hopes are vindicated is up to Biden and not his Israeli interlocutors.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.