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Bibi is back and providing fresh political land mines for US

Critics want Biden to cut off ties with members of Israel's new far-right government. But is he in any position to do that?

Analysis | Middle East

Benjamin Netanyahu, already Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is back. His coalition won 64 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, a smashing victory in an era when governments have typically enjoyed narrower, wobbly majorities. 

To secure this majority, he has included a trio of radical right wing politicians: Itamar ben Gvir, leader of the Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Tzionut HaDati (Religious Zionism) party, and Avi Maoz, who helms the Noam (“Nice”) party.  

Benjamin Netanyahu’s bold, or, depending on one’s viewpoint, cynically audacious move to include these parties in his winning coalition, secured a 64-seat right wing majority in the 120-seat Knesset. This is a government with staying power, unless, as some speculate, Netanyahu intends to ditch the ultra-right parties from his coalition by luring the center-right leaders of the outgoing team — Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, and Naftali Bennett — into a national unity government. On this view, they’ll suppress memories of Netanyahu’s penchant for gamesmanship for a chance to escape the cold winds of opposition into the warm tent of national unity, especially if they can claim to be rescuing the state from the ultra-right.

Ben Gvir opposes Arab-Jewish intermarriage and backs expulsion of “disloyal” Israeli Arabs and troublesome Palestinians. Smotrich, who represents a burgeoning sector of Israeli society that blends Zionist ideology with Orthodox faith, shares these views. They would also restrict Jewish immigration to Israel to those whose parents were Jewish or who were converted to Judaism by an Orthodox rabbi. 

Their popularity grew as a result of a wave of riots and demonstrations in Arab majority towns within Israel’s borders during 2021. The violence, which caused casualties among both Jewish and Arab Israelis, was marked by a wave of vandalism against Jewish targets, especially synagogues. The violence was triggered by a mix of Palestinian grievances: discrimination, lack of social services, and anger over Israeli measures to evict Arabs from homes in Jerusalem and expand access for Jewish Israelis to the Temple Mount for worship — a popular cause in Israel –— and an escalation of hostilities between Hamas and Israel. The violence sent tremors through Israel’s electorate.

Under the coalition agreement now taking shape, Ben Gvir will be given a new ministerial portfolio for national security that will give him control over the national police and border guard. In this capacity, he will be able to make life difficult, if he so chooses, for Arab Israelis and residents of Jerusalem as well as West Bank Palestinians moving back and forth across the Green Line. Command of a significant guard force on the West Bank — which has been part of Central Command, the IDF component responsible for the West Bank — will be transferred to Ben Gvir. As one critic points out, this will give him his “personal police in the territories.”

Bezalel Smotrich had asked for the Defense Ministry, but Netanyahu turned him down, offering instead a position as one of two finance ministers. Noam, the other extremist party in the new government, whose main preoccupation is reversing rights that LGBTQ+ Israelis now enjoy, will be awarded a new ministry called the Israeli Identity Authority.

For the Biden administration, this new dispensation must be somewhat uncomfortable. The natural response, given Israel’s strong support in Congress, was to avoid trouble. The last thing Biden needs is a squabble with Netanyahu when he has his own challenges to cope with at home, despite the Democrats’ strong showing in the midterm elections. 

Accordingly, U.S. Amb. Tom Nides tweeted, “Good call just now with Benjamin @Netanyahu. I congratulated him on his victory and told him I look forward to working together to maintain the unbreakable bond.”

President Biden followed up, calling Netanyahu “to congratulate him on his party’s victory and commend Israel’s free and fair elections. The President reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Israel bilateral partnership, based on a bedrock of shared democratic values and mutual interests, and underscored his unwavering support for Israel’s security.” 

The State Department was somewhat less anodyne, but still cautious. The spokesman, Ned Price, said “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.”

Two former American diplomats who were involved in the golden age of the peace process have since published an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the Biden administration to confront the new Israeli government regarding its composition and policy program. The authors, Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron Miller, acknowledge that the two-state solution is “moribund,” and that Biden can ill afford to concede any ground to Republicans on the question of which party is more supportive of Israel. 

They nonetheless argue that the new government will likely take actions in Jerusalem and the West Bank that will be destabilizing and should therefore be blocked if at all possible. In the authors’ view, this government will spur Palestinian violence and destructive Israeli responses that willy-nilly suck Washington into a diplomatic vortex. 

Thus, Kurtzer and Miller propose that Washington halt the supply of “offensive” weapons used in “malign” Israeli activities. This suggestion is problematic because there is no easy way to differentiate between “offensive” and “defensive” weapons, and the definition of “malign” is in the eye of the beholder.  Such a move would ignite a firestorm on Capitol Hill that would consume a great deal of the administration’s political capital. 

The recommendations that follow this one are easy: warning Israel not to change the status of Jerusalem or build settlements that would foreclose a two-state solution that the authors have conceded is pretty much dead; and banning interaction between U.S. officials and Gvir and Smotrich. For symmetry (and political cover), warnings would extend as well to the Palestinian Authority, which has put off elections again and again. Lastly, they propose that Israel be put on notice that U.S. support in international forums “has its limits.” 

It’s hard to imagine Biden threatening to halt Israeli use of US weapons — especially since the costs of laying low in the near-term might never be felt, while the political penalties of declaring these policy initiatives would be incurred in the here and now.

Apart from issues relating to Palestinians and LGBTQ+ Israelis, the new government will oppose Biden’s quest to revive the Iran nuclear deal.  But the previous center-right government fought the JCPOA tooth and nail, so in this respect the new government would not likely represent a new approach.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) receives operational updates from the IDF Chief-of-Staff Aviv Kochavi and commander of the Israeli Air Force Amikam Norkin. May 12, 2021. (Deutsche Presse-Agentur/Reuters)
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