President Biden Is Turning The Heat On Netanyahu – OpEd
By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
Officials in Washington are running out of euphemisms to express their dismay with the current Israeli government and the person who leads it.
It is quite a novelty, and a welcome one too, that criticism of the reckless anti-democratic moves by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies is no longer coming from so-called anonymous sources, but straight from the horse’s mouth — that of US President Joe Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for instance.
Disagreements between Washington and Israel are not without precedent, and there have been previous moments of crisis, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s demand that Israel withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula after the Suez crisis of 1956, or President Jimmy Carter’s less than subtle pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to make the necessary concessions to reach a peace agreement with Egypt in 1978, and the threat to take action with financial implications should Israel not stop building new settlements when the US was focusing its efforts on convening the 1991 Madrid Peace conference. In all these cases, as in others, Israel adjusted its behavior in line with the senior member of this close alliance.
However, in all previous crises no American administration has questioned the bond between the countries, and all have made it clear that the disagreements were between friends. Nevertheless, there is presently a clear denunciation by President Biden himself and very senior people in his administration of the attempts to weaken Israel’s judiciary, to the extent that their critique questions the very nature of the relations between the two countries should this policy become a reality, and this is a fundamental change in approach. It is also as much the frequency and the source of the disapproval, as it is the actual words that are used to express it that typifies the rift opening between these two allies over the efforts to compromise the liberal-democratic nature of Israel. Moreover, it seems that American denunciations of Netanyahu and his government are becoming bolder as the protests across Israel against the so-called judicial reforms gather momentum, which is bound to give the protesters a tailwind to continue their just struggle to preserve their country’s democracy.
Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps mentioning his more than 40 years of acquaintance with Biden, and that the current occupant of the White House is a long-standing friend of Israel. Two genuine facts, not to be taken for granted when it comes to anything Netanyahu says these days, but this also explains why Biden is extremely concerned for the future of Israel as a democracy. Biden trusts neither Netanyahu personally, nor his motivation behind the legislation his government is pursuing. Last month in a phone conversation between the two leaders, Biden urged Netanyahu to seek a compromise over his planned judicial reforms, but instead of heeding this advice Netanyahu carelessly announced the sacking of his defense minister for suggesting he halt the proposed legislation for a few weeks, prompting tens of thousands to spontaneously take to the streets in protest. This was another a clear indication that Netanyahu is ready to risk the security of the country in an attempt to cling on to power, and by that not only to put Israel’s interests at risk but also America’s interests in the region.
Netanyahu is continuing with this irresponsible behavior while appearing to ignore the fact that no country is able to use its influence on Israel in the same way that America can, as a result of the web of close relations between the two countries.
Moreover, it has become apparent that the Biden administration is ready to do just that and pressurize Israel for the sake of preserving its democratic system.
When asked recently whether Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, Biden expressed his frustration with the Israeli government by plainly and succinctly stating “not in the near term.” Not only was this a clear, painful and public diplomatic slap to Netanyahu, but it also established clear blue water between the US approach to the unfolding events in Israel and that of some of Europe’s leaders, who are “happy” to welcome Netanyahu and pay mere lip service to disapproving the anti-democratic path his government is taking. The very fact that they greet him in their official residencies reduces the impact of their expressed reservations about his behavior, and plays into the Israeli right’s narrative that regardless of what they do to rip apart Israeli democracy or entrench the occupation, the country will remain part of the Western-democratic world and continue to enjoy the advantages that come with that but not the obligations.
In diplomacy, appearances can sometimes be as powerful, if not more so, than rhetoric. Moreover, as was put to me by a former senior official in Israel, whatever the world says or thinks about his country, is at best received politely, but is hardly taken much notice of. However, this is not the case with Washington, on which Israel relies for its security and prosperity. Despite some flippant remarks from certain right-wing quarters in Israel calling on Washington to refrain from commenting on internal Israeli affairs and “mind its own business,” as one Israeli politician put it, conveniently ignoring the massive military, economic and political support Israel enjoys from the US, Israel ignores Washington at its peril. Moreover, the US is home to Israel’s largest and most supportive Jewish community, the vast majority of whom vote Democrat. One of the main reasons for this unwavering support through the years has been the liberal-democratic nature of Israel, including its acceptance of different strands of Judaism. But all of this is being severely jeopardized in the hands of a far-right-messianic government, and with it also the state’s bond with America’s Jews.
In preparation for last’s month’s second annual Democracy Summit, an initiative of the current US administration, President Biden reiterated that the “struggle to bolster democratic governance at home and abroad is the defining challenge of our time. That is because democracy — transparent and accountable government of, for, and by the people — remains the best way to realize lasting peace, prosperity, and human dignity.”
To emphasize the earnestness that the administration sees adhering to these principles, Hungary and Turkiye were not invited to this summit, although Israel and India were. It begs the question: For how long can the US afford on the one hand, as President Biden did, to express grave concern with the anti-democratic policies of an Israeli government that ignores the will of the people, and continues to deprive Palestinians living under it occupation of almost all their rights, yet on the other still give it preferential treatment?
- Yossi Mekelberg is a 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