columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Netanyahu is right to reject vassal-state etiquette

The prime minister broke protocol by calling out the Biden administration for slow-walking arms shipments. Washington’s real goal, however, is appeasing Iran and toppling him.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony at Nachalat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv for victims of the 1948 “Altalena” ship incident on June 18, 2024. Photo by Shaul Golan/POOL.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony at Nachalat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv for victims of the 1948 “Altalena” ship incident on June 18, 2024. Photo by Shaul Golan/POOL.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As far as the White House and Democrats are concerned, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing it again. Similar to multiple occasions during the presidency of Barack Obama, Netanyahu is not playing by the rules Washington and the foreign-policy establishment believe are laid down to govern the behavior of client states.

Rather than assume the role of the loyal and pliant vassal to his nation’s superpower ally, there have been several times when Netanyahu has talked back in public to Obama and now President Joe Biden. Washington’s angry response to the video the prime minister released this week in which he spoke of the way the administration has been slow-walking arms deliveries made it clear that—assurances of goodwill from both sides notwithstanding—U.S.-Israel relations have reached a crisis point.

In the 49-second video posted on the YouTube page of the prime minister’s office on June 18, Netanyahu said the following:

“When Secretary Blinken was recently here in Israel, we had a candid conversation. I said I deeply appreciated the support the U.S. has given Israel from the beginning of the war. But I also said something else. I said it’s inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunition to Israel. Israel, America’s closest ally, fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and our other common enemies. Secretary Blinken assured me that the administration is working day and night to remove these bottlenecks. I certainly hope that’s the case. It should be the case. During World War II, Churchill told the United States, ‘Give us the tools, we’ll do the job.’ And I say, give us the tools and we’ll finish the job a lot faster.”

Washington’s anger

In reaction, Washington expressed shock and anger. According to U.S. officials, Netanyahu’s claims were both fictional and a sign of ingratitude after all that Biden had done for him and Israel since Oct. 7, and throughout the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Their story is that despite Biden’s talk of potentially refusing to continue to send arms and ammunition to Israel if it doesn’t obey him and not attack the last Hamas strongholds in Rafah, there have been no such cutoffs. The only exception, they assert, is a review of whether the United States should send a special kind of 2,000-pound bomb that might cause too many civilian casualties in urban areas.

Beyond the details of the dispute, in which the administration claims it is guiltless, this has resurrected the charge that Netanyahu doesn’t know his proper place.

That’s the line we’re hearing from the American foreign-policy establishment and its leading media spokesman, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has recently accused Netanyahu of being the moral equivalent to Hamas senior leader Yahya Sinwar. He’s also called Netanyahu an extremist who is trying to destroy the alliance as well as an open supporter of former President Donald Trump (a point on which Trump doesn’t concur because Netanyahu congratulated Biden for winning the 2020 presidential election). It’s also echoed by the Israeli opposition, such as Haaretz columnist Alon Pinkas, whose latest anti-Bibi diatribe in that far-left newspaper bluntly described the prime minister as hostile to the United States.

Unlike other Israelis, like President Isaac Herzog, who has stuck to continual praise of Biden’s post-Oct. 7 aid with no mention of Washington’s unhelpful actions, Netanyahu differs. He has come to believe that while it remains crucial for any Israeli premier to stay as close to the Americans as possible, there are times when it’s necessary to break protocol and state the truth. Given the enormous help that the United States has given Israel over the past few decades, those who characterize the relationship as one between a great power and a client state aren’t wrong. That’s why the diplomats at the Israeli foreign ministry and those who share its mindset think that there is virtually no circumstance in which Jerusalem should openly challenge Washington.

Given the power imbalance between these two countries, there is a strong argument for this point of view. There’s also the danger that open opposition to the last two Democratic presidents is hastening the process by which support for Israel is rapidly becoming a partisan dispute between America’s two major parties. Although the Republicans have become a lockstep pro-Israel party and the Democrats are now, at best, deeply divided on the issue, that’s not a development any friend of the Jewish state should welcome.

Aid dies via the bureaucracy

As with Netanyahu’s past challenges to Obama, the prime minister is right to believe that those concerns must be set aside. Indeed, just as he was right to refuse to go along with Obama’s commitment to pushing Israel back to the 1967 borders and the appeasement of Iran, Biden’s arms shipment slowdown at a time when the Jewish state is fighting an existential conflict with Hamas, as well as facing the prospect of an even more frightful war with Hezbollah and its Iranian allies on its northern border, constitutes a fundamental breach in the alliance that cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

The point here is that Washington is flatly lying about there being no slow-walking of arms to Israel or holdups.

As Michael Doran recently wrote in Tablet magazine, the Israelis have been aware since January that something has gone wrong in the pipeline by which arms and ammunition are sent to Israel. While Biden, Blinken and others in the administration are correct to claim that there has been no absolute cutoff, what they are doing is using the federal bureaucracy to slow down the flow to a standstill. Under normal circumstances, the bureaucratic logjam involved with shipments can involve the departments of State and Defense, the U.S. House and Senate, as well as arms manufacturers. However, when Washington deems it necessary to send arms expeditiously, the impediments can magically disappear just as quickly as they arise when the powers that be want to send a message to those waiting for American supplies.

Ukraine treated differently

Indeed, there is no better example of how an administration can manipulate this process than the contrast between the way Ukraine and Israel are currently being handled.

Ukraine has received more aid from the United States in the last two years than Israel has in decades. Their funding is less accountable, and unlike with Israel, not all of it is spent in the United States. But Kyiv continues to publicly complain about not getting everything it wants from American taxpayers, who have sent them hundreds of billions of dollars. They’re also unhappy that Washington has placed some limits on their use. Biden is aware that it is madness to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a blank check to fire them into Russia since doing so could start a nuclear war.

In spite of that, Ukraine gets priority over every other American ally, including Israel, and due to Biden’s insistence, there have been no bureaucratic logjams to slow the shipments down.

That’s not the case with Israel. Not only have American officials done everything to slow down and second-guess the effort to eradicate Hamas, but they are also openly pushing to end the war before the terrorists are completely defeated. As Doran also wrote, they’re equally concerned to prevent Israel from doing something to silence the nonstop firing on northern Israel from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Biden is determined at all costs to prevent a war that might involve Iran coming to the defense of its Lebanese auxiliaries, even if that means up to 200,000 Israelis continue to be refugees in their own country because they were forced to flee their homes. In other words, Biden is not only willing to let Hamas remain a genocidal threat to Israel but seems perfectly willing to allow parts of the Jewish state to be effectively depopulated in the north as well as the south.

Given the stakes of the current conflict, Netanyahu is not only right to speak out in an effort to shame the Americans to stop slow-walking arms deliveries. He is obligated to do so.

Pushing back pays dividends

The claim that Netanyahu’s outspokenness is damaging the alliance misses the point. Israel may be an American client state, but given the existential nature of the conflict that was reignited by the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, it simply cannot afford to behave like a docile vassal.

Indeed, if there is anything that Netanyahu has learned in his long tenure as prime minister it is that those who always counsel caution and silence in the face of American betrayal don’t succeed. It is only by speaking up and making Israel’s case to the world, and most specifically, the American people, that it can maintain the alliance.

Obama seethed when in 2011—with him sitting right there—Netanyahu lectured him about the unacceptability of a forced Israeli retreat to the 1967 borders at a public White House media availability a day after that was the substance of a presidential speech. Later, the Obama White House depicted Netanyahu’s 2015 address to a joint meeting of Congress in which he urged Americans to reject the Iran nuclear deal as an unprecedented insult to the United States, the presidency and Obama personally. In both cases, Netanyahu’s behavior was denounced as destructive to the relationship and beyond the pale.

But he was right to understand that talking back to Obama strengthened dissent against policies aimed at undermining Israel and strengthening Iran, both in the United States and abroad.

By demonstrating a willingness to defend Israel’s vital strategic interests, even at the cost of being depicted as an extremist or the dispute being a function of his own partisan interests and personal animus for Obama, Netanyahu achieved real results. Given Obama’s determination to make it his signature foreign-policy accomplishment, he couldn’t stop the Iran deal from being adopted. But his speech emboldened the GOP to move further towards Israel. It also showed the Arab world that while Obama was leaving them to the tender mercies of the terror-funding Shi’ite tyrants of Tehran, they could count on a strong Israel as an ally against it. In retrospect, Netanyahu’s speech must be seen as the first step in developing the 2020 Abraham Accords.

Who is playing politics?

Biden came into office claiming that he would be different from Obama and keep disputes with Israel private. That changed once Netanyahu won the November 2022 Israeli elections and returned to the prime minister’s office. Since then, the hostility that Biden and the rest of the Obama alumni running American foreign policy have for Netanyahu has not been kept under wraps. The administration has not merely undermined the Jewish state but has openly conspired with the Israeli opposition, and even members of the military and intelligence establishment, in an effort to topple Netanyahu’s government both before and after Oct. 7.

At this point, Netanyahu has nothing to lose by not allowing Biden to get away with slowing down the flow of arms to pressure Israel to stand down at its borders on the north and south.

There are plenty of cogent criticisms to be made about Netanyahu, including those involving Oct. 7 happening on his watch and the dysfunctional nature of his governmental coalition. Regardless of how long Netanyahu lasts in office—and right now, it is not the prime minister but Biden who, in appeasing the anti-Israel intersectional left wing of the Democratic Party, is playing politics over the war—or what you think of his character, policies or tactics, he needs to use every form of leverage to counter U.S. pressure that could ensure victories for Hamas and Iran. With so many lives at stake, client-state etiquette should be the last of his concerns.

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

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