By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg
A speech last week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the pro-peace, liberal Jewish American organization J Street encapsulated the dilemma the Biden administration is facing following the general election in Israel last month.
During the course of nearly 75 years since the inception of the Jewish state, the two countries have established one of the strongest alliances in world politics, built on common interests and values. Despite severe challenges over the years, it is an alliance that has never been in doubt.
Since 1967, the US has been Israel’s main political and military ally, backing it with unparalleled financial support, notwithstanding periodic disagreements between the two countries on how best to ensure Israel’s security and well-being.
Whereas Israel overemphasizes military might and retaining occupied land over diplomacy, successive administrations in Washington have perceived both Israel’s long-term survival and prosperity, and the maintenance of US interests in the Middle East, as requiring a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also a settling of Israel’s differences with its neighbors in the region.
It would be utterly disingenuous to argue that the policies of the new Israeli government-in-the-making will be a complete departure from those of its predecessors. As a matter of fact, they will be the product of the ill judgments of previous Israeli — and US — administrations.
Construction of Israeli settlements began nearly 50 years ago and has expanded under every Israeli government, as have the harsh measures of the occupation. Successive US administrations have been very reluctant to make their opposition to the settlements, and support for a two-state solution, count.
Yet, despite Israel always having been a struggling democracy there was enough of a commonality of values and a strong affinity with different segments of American society. As Israel evolved into a major regional military and later economic power, and with the US losing Iran as an ally after the 1979 revolution and the rise of radicalization in the region, the bond between the two countries was built also on common interests.
Yet all this time, the US has ignored the fact that democratic status has not been bestowed in full on Israel’s Arab citizens living within the Green Line, and even less so on those living under occupation in the West Bank or blockaded in Gaza.
Inevitably, an Israeli government dominated by the far right will immediately challenge the commonality of values and interests between the two countries. Wisdom should dictate that the Biden administration become a somewhat more introspective and critical ally, and distance itself from an Israeli government that will include antidemocratic, racist, homophobic and misogynist elements hell-bent on confrontation not only with the Palestinians but also with the wider Muslim world in their attempts to challenge the status quo of Haram Al-Sharif.
Blinken’s decision to share the administration’s views on political developments in Israel at a J Street conference was, in itself, a powerful message that the US is siding with the liberal elements in Jewish society and, in the specific case of J Street, with that organization’s strong commitment to a two-state solution.
But let us not confuse support for the principle of a two-state solution, something that many would argue is no longer viable, at least for now, with a readiness to embark on a US initiative to resume peace negotiations.
Under the current circumstances — in which the Israeli electorate has opted for a full-on right-wing government, the Palestinians are fragmented and their leaders increasingly authoritarian, and the US administration and the wider international community are either not interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or believe that reviving it amounts to no more than flogging a dead horse — any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is little more than a pipe dream.
However, there is a genuine worry in Washington that the new Israeli government will ignite another outbreak of full-on hostilities with the Palestinians. This would result in many casualties and make any future peace agreement even more difficult to obtain, while also destabilizing relations between the Jewish state and other Arab countries. That would include those with which America has diplomatic relations, and would therefore affect US relations with other countries in the Middle East and force it to confront Israel.
Blinken was careful not to prejudice the US administration’s stance on the new Israeli government, and not to be seen as interfering with the free and democratic decision of the country’s voters, let alone criticizing them.
His assertion that the Israeli government will be judged “by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities” was a case of not rushing to pass judgment on the new government but, rather, putting it on probation.
Respecting the democratic will of the Israeli people does not equate to accepting its consequences. It is vital for a US administration to reassess its relationship with a government if the foundations of those relations are undermined. From what has emerged so far from the current negotiations to form a coalition authority, that is precisely what is happening in terms of harm to Israel’s democracy, its pluralism and its relations with the Palestinians.
For now, as Blinken’s speech made clear, the Biden administration is at great pains to profess its commitment to Israel in all spheres of relations between the two countries, while at the same time signaling its concerns about what looks like being an inevitable confrontation with the new Netanyahu administration.
No one doubts America’s friendship with and commitment to Israel. It is Netanyahu and his potential partners in government who are displaying a careless attitude that is likely to affect the country’s single most important relationship with a foreign country, and undermine its own interests.
Netanyahu’s sole aim, to sabotage his corruption trial, has opened the door for the extreme right to hold him to ransom.
If there is any country in the world with the clout to contain, or at least mitigate, the damage caused by an extremist Israeli government, it is the US. The multi-layered nature of the bilateral relationship means that the action of one affects the other. But also, the near-blank-check support Washington provides — including the supply and financing of advanced weaponry and cutting-edge technology, and the US defense of Israel within international organizations such as the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice — means it has the power to discourage Israel from measures that would empty Israeli democracy of meaning, compromise any hopes for future peace, violate international law and conventions, and in the process also harm US interests.
For too long the US has not only been an unconditional ally of Israel but also an enabler of the very types of policies that it opposes. The current circumstances might be an opportunity not to completely withdraw from this alliance, but to shift it toward a more nuanced partnership in which Israel benefits from a true, but also a more critical, ally.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg