A crisis is coming in the U.S.-Israel relationship. It may be one of the greatest foreign policy challenges Joe Biden faces during the next two years. It will certainly test, and may possibly irrevocably alter, the uniquely close ties that have endured many challenges since Israel’s founding.
The U.S. was the first country in the world to recognize Israel. President Harry Truman’s administration did so 11 minutes after the birth of the new country was declared on May 14, 1948. U.S. support for Israel has been vital to that country’s survival ever since. But, thanks to the recklessness of both Benjamin Netanyahu—soon to become the next Israeli prime minister—and his supporters on the far right in both Israel and the U.S., it is now fair to ask whether that special relationship will endure much beyond its 75th anniversary next spring.
Certainly, President Biden has sought to send a message that what once was seen as one of the most important strategic partnerships the U.S. had in the world was still in robust shape. In July, he stated emphatically that it was “deeper and stronger” than ever. In the wake of Netanyahu’s recent electoral success, Biden stated that the U.S. commitment to Israel is “unquestionable.”
Netanyahu repeated the “strong as ever” language. But then he set about making a series of decisions that now have close observers deeply concerned about the plans of the man who is Israel’s seeming prime minister-for-life and their implications for Israel, the Palestinian people, and what U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has cited as the “unbreakable bond” between Washington and Jerusalem.
Among the most disturbing of Netanyahu’s decisions was his selection of the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party, Itamar Ben Gvir, to the role of National Security Minister in his forthcoming Cabinet. This role will include oversight of both Israel’s police and of Israel’s settlements on the West Bank.
Netanyahu wooed the Israeli far right in his effort to return to power and Ben Gvir was one of the most consequential and disturbing beneficiaries of that effort. Ben Gvir was convicted 15 years ago of racist incitement against Arabs and support for a group considered a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Israel.
While Ben Gvir has been seen as seeking to moderate some of his most extreme views in the weeks leading up to and since the formation of the coalition, concerns about him flared again this week as it was reported that he would announce another extremist activist as his chief of staff.
Israel newspapers called Chanamel Dorfman “the most likely candidate” for the job. This is despite the fact that Dorfman, who has been deeply involved in efforts to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank, has called Israel’s police forces “antisemitic” and “a mafia.”
Another extremist appointee to the new administration, Bezalel Smotrich, appears likely to be put in charge of the agency that oversees settlement construction projects. He has been deeply critical of past Israeli efforts to demolish illegal settlements and has promoted their expansion, even against the wishes of past Israeli governments.
In addition, the upcoming coalition government has committed to giving a senior government post to another far-right leader, Avi Maoz, whose party is both anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ. This prompted the outgoing prime minister, Yair Lapid, to describe the composition of the new government as “full-on crazy.”
U.S. officials have been deeply concerned about these appointments. One described them to me as “potentially destabilizing” to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Others have stated that they will not meet with them, regardless of the seniority of the positions to which they are appointed.
The LA Times quoted former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer as saying, “We provide nearly $4 billion a year to the (Israeli) Defense ministry… and do we want to put our money in the hands of these guys? I’d say no.” Another former US ambassador, Martin Indyk, suggested the two countries were headed for a “rocky” period in the relationship.
Former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas said to me, “The relationship may reach a point of inflection in the next 12 months… What is at stake is not a particular policy vis-à-vis Iran or the Palestinians but the core concept of “shared values” that is undermined by the composition, nature and expected policies of the new administration.”
The challenge is exacerbated in the eyes of Pinkas, who served as Israel’s consul general in New York and as a senior adviser to multiple Israeli prime ministers, because “Netanyahu, consciously and deliberately, with the help of politically expedient Republicans has politicized the issue of Israel in the U.S. and transformed it from an ostensibly bipartisan issue to a hyper-partisan issue by aligning himself unequivocally with the MAGA GOP, alienating both Congressional Democrats as well as grassroots Democrats and the majority of American Jews.”
There is no doubt about this last point. Netanyahu long ago chose sides in U.S. politics, allying himself closely with the American right and, in particular, Donald Trump. The degree of Netanyahu’s closeness to Trump and the right may be seen in his complete silence in the wake of Trump’s recent dinner with outspoken anti-Semites Nick Fuentes and Kanye West.
That silence is particularly striking even as Republicans like former Vice President Mike Pence and former Trump ambassador to Israel David Friedman condemned the former president. Netanyahu, like others in the GOP who have remained silent on the issue, apparently seeks support from the U.S. right at any cost—even if that comes at the expense of the well-being of American Jews. He, like Trump, is more interested in winning power than in principles, and for now that includes building support among white supremacists and Evangelicals, Jewish interests be damned.
As Pinkas put it in a recent column for Haaretz, “News Flash to American Jewish Friends: Israel Just Doesn’t Care About You Anymore.”
Another leading Israeli, history professor Yuval Noah Harari, suggested where one crucial test of the U.S. relationship with Israel is likely to come. He argued during an interview with CNN that many in Israel, the base for Netanyahu’s support, have switched from a “belief in the two-state solution to an implicit belief in the ‘3 classes solution’” which included “Jews, who have all the rights, some Arabs, who have some rights; and other Arabs who have very little or no rights.”
Taken with a more aggressive stance toward expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, the leadership of officials who are more comfortable with violence and discrimination toward Palestinians, and the erosion of the idea of shared values cited by Pinkas, the shift Harari describes can only lead to further and deepening tensions between the U.S. and Israel.
The concern about this drift can be sensed in recent State Department statements, such as that of Nides that “our position is quite clear: We do not support annexation. We will fight any attempt to do so.” The State Department also reiterated support for the two-state solution and said in the wake of the recent Israeli elections, “We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”
Hopes, of course, are not effective policies. The Biden administration is therefore also already actively working both to mitigate the likely rising tension and at the same time to make it clear where they stand on these issues. A notable recent example of this is the decision by President Biden to name a special representative for Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr.
Whatever steps may be taken now, however, the months and weeks ahead are likely to prove increasingly contentious. Platitudes about the past nature of the relationship are unlikely to be an effective countermeasure. That is not due to a lack of sincerity on the part of those who articulate them in the U.S. Rather, the core problem is that Netanyahu does not seem to care about the opinion of the administration in much the same way he does not mind being viewed as choosing sides in U.S. politics.
He has committed Israel to a collision course with its most important friend. That is because that relationship is secondary to his own desire to wield power. If that kind of political narcissism means getting in bed with crazed and dangerous extremists, embracing racist policies, and blowing up vital relationships worldwide, so be it.
Americans should be able to understand that phenomenon better than most.
The questions that lie ahead will cut the essence of what kind of friendship the U.S. and Israel have. Do we truly have shared values? Are we confident enough in our bonds that we are willing to speak out if our friend is acting recklessly or worse? Are we willing to distance ourselves from the relationship in order to preserve it? Can we recover from what is likely to be the gravest test the relationship has ever faced?
No one knows the answer to these questions but it is certain they are likely to test the creativity and resolve of even the most experienced diplomats and policymakers on Biden’s very capable foreign policy team.