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columnIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Netanyahu’s still in charge. Can Biden say the same?

The president’s latest shot at the Israeli government as “extreme” is hypocritical and inaccurate. The Palestinians remain the obstacle to peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In an interview this past weekend with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, President Joe Biden painted a dismal picture of one of America’s closest allies. Following up on previous statements damning Israel’s leaders, Biden claimed that the Jewish state was being run by “one of the most extreme governments” he’s ever seen. He went on to characterize the goings-on in the Israeli cabinet as a coalition with “problems” and one where Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu is struggling to maintain control by “moving toward moderation.”

The answer was a response to a question about why Biden hadn’t invitedNetanyahu to Washington, though ironically, China—America’s chief geostrategic enemy—has asked him to visit Beijing. Biden answered by simply saying that Israeli President Isaac Herzog will soon be coming to Washington. That’s all well and good, but Herzog, despite his periodic attempts to intervene in politics, has a purely symbolic role in the country’s governance. The question of denying Netanyahu the courtesy of a visit is mere optics. What matters is that Biden has spent 2023 doing everything in his power to undermine the prime minister and aid those seeking to topple his government.

A major feature of that effort is the administration’s open opposition to the government’s legislation that seeks to reform Israel’s out-of-control Supreme Court and judicial system. The backing for the “anti-Bibi resistance” that has spent the last six months trying to overturn the results of Israel’s November 2022 election is highly ironic given the Democratic Party’s attitude to supporters of former President Donald Trump, who regard Biden as an illegitimate president. The Israeli effort has been influenced by the success of the anti-Trump resistance that spent his four years in office seeking to delegitimize his victory in 2016 while promoting conspiracy theories about the Russian collusion hoax.

Clearly, Biden is hoping that Netanyahu’s opponents succeed, though the chances of that happening are receding with each passing month. And they are fading precisely because Biden’s evaluation of that government, coupled with the implication that Netanyahu is not in control and at the mercy of its most right-wing elements, is completely false.

It’s true that this current coalition, unlike Netanyahu’s previous governments, lacks any left-wing or supposedly centrist parties. Still, the notion that the prime minister is a hostage to the so-called extremists in the cabinet, like Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, is simply untrue. It is Netanyahu who is very much calling the shots in Jerusalem. Given Biden’s own clear problems in asserting control over his own administration and his daily problems in expressing himself in a way that doesn’t call attention to his age, can he say the same?

The very same day that Biden’s interview was airing on CNN, Netanyahu gave a clear demonstration that he—and not Ben-Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich or the haredi parties—is in charge.

Faced with a tottering Palestinian Authority on the verge of collapse due to its corruption, incompetence and refusal to accept responsibility to prevent terrorism, mainly, to fight efforts by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to turn Judea and Samaria into another Gaza, Israel’s Security Cabinet acted. It voted 8-1 to take emergency measures to help save it. The one “no” vote was Ben-Gvir.

The argument about what Israel should do about the P.A. is complicated. Mahmoud Abbas, its 87-year-old leader, is a big part of the problem, and the same is true for the rest of the Fatah Party kleptocracy that he leads. The P.A. works against peace in international forums. It foments violence and hatred of Israel and Jews in its official media and schools. It subsidizes terror in the form of a “pay-for-slay” program that rewards those who injure and murder Israelis and Jews. And its sheer ineffectiveness has turned the areas under its control into a worse mess than it would otherwise be. 

But the alternative to its continued existence is for Israel to reassert direct control of all of Judea and Samaria—something that few in Israel want. In essence, it would mean resuming an actual “occupation” of all of the West Bank that ended decades ago after the Oslo Accords, although the international community and Israel’s critics and enemies like to pretend that never happened.

Yet Netanyahu is prepared to offer it financial assistance to keep Abbas’s corrupt regime afloat. Abbas formally rejected the Israeli offer but, as has often been the case in the past, it’s likely the Palestinian leadership will quietly take the help it publicly refused.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that although his right-wing and religious partners are unhappy about the proposed assistance, Netanyahu easily pushed it through anyway. Though Washington speaks of his government as if the prime minister is being held hostage by his allies, the reverse is closer to the truth. They need Netanyahu if they are to remain in positions of influence or if they wish to continue doing so in the future. He needs them, too, but on matters of importance where they are squawking, Netanyahu gets his way.

The reporting about the current coalition done by a hostile Israeli and international media has focused on every rift (or hint of one) and depicted it as forever on the brink of dissolution. The same could be said for virtually every parliamentary coalition that has governed Israel in its history. There are differences within its ranks on security issues, like the one just voted on, as well as about how fast or hard to go in pushing judicial reform.

Yet because of the absence of a party in the coalition that fundamentally disagrees with the others on the most important issues, this government actually is more united than most Israeli governments, including all of the previous ones that Netanyahu led. 

Moreover, despite Biden’s arguments to the contrary, the government’s support of the right of Jews to live and build throughout Judea and Samaria doesn’t make it extreme. Their views on territorial issues and the conflict are far more mainstream than the parties of the left that Biden would prefer to be in power. 

Biden’s obsession with a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and his claim that Israel’s lack of enthusiasm for the idea is “a security risk” is completely out of touch with the reality of the conflict. Even he knows that the Palestinians have no interest in peace, which is why his administration has the distinction of—unlike all of Biden’s recent predecessors—not having put forward its own peace plan.

Though Biden pays lip service to Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism, his belief that the surge in Palestinian terrorism is a reaction to internal Israeli politics is absurd. Hamas and PIJ  seek to duplicate their Gaza terror base in Abbas’s territory. And Fatah is so afraid of its rivals that the P.A. has virtually abandoned parts of the region, which is what made Israel’s recent anti-terror operation in Jenin necessary.

Bashing Israel and Netanyahu won’t fix that. But Biden isn’t really interested in peace. He may want an Israeli government that will, like the “anybody-but-Bibi” coalition that ran the country from June 2021 to December 2022, neglect the security situation in the territories. What he really wants is one that will do his bidding when it comes to American efforts to appease Iran and its nuclear ambitions. And that is something that Netanyahu will never do.

It is because Netanyahu remains a strong leader who is very much in charge of things that Biden wants him out. The same applies to Israeli leftists who fear that judicial reform will end the juristocracy that effectively prevents the right from governing no matter who wins elections. They are determined to destroy Netanyahu by fair means or foul.

It is also worth noting that Biden is guilty of doing exactly what he claims is going on in Israel. 

Though elected as a moderate who would return normalcy to America after Trump, Biden has governed as if he is in thrall to the extreme left wing of his party. From his imposition of the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) on the federal government, to his Department of Justice treating parents protesting the education system as “domestic terrorists,” to its embrace of extreme environmentalism and its creation of a virtually open border with Mexico, Biden acts as if he is a hostage of progressives. That is only accentuated by his physical decline, which raises serious questions about his ability to continue in office even as he runs for a second term.

Biden’s war on the Netanyahu government isn’t promoting peace or strengthening U.S. interests in the Middle East. By fighting a losing battle aimed at ousting a Democratically elected government, he is drawing attention to his own weaknesses. 

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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