President Joe Biden and his aides have a plan for how to deal with the far-right, anti-Palestinian tilt of the incoming Israeli government: make it all about Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Biden administration will hold the presumptive Israeli prime minister personally responsible for the actions of his more extreme cabinet members, especially if they lead to policies that endanger a future Palestinian state, two U.S. officials familiar with the issue told POLITICO.
Netanyahu is the person U.S. officials will publicly turn to, refer to and rely upon for any remotely serious talks on issues ranging from Israeli settlements in the West Bank to Israel’s relations with Arab states, the officials said. The Israeli politician has, after all, stressed that he’ll be running the show.
“Bibi says he can control his government, so let’s see him do just that,” said one of the U.S. officials, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
The Biden team’s approach underscores the complexity and the growing fragility of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Israel’s role as a security partner, as well as its role as a haven for the Jewish people, means any serious break is not feasible, no matter how radical its government. But the rightward trend in Israeli politics is also eroding what was once strong bipartisan support for the country in Washington, especially among Democrats who are increasingly willing to criticize Israel despite blowback on the campaign trail.
To keep the relationship with Israel robust, Biden aides say they need to limit its far-right excesses, and they see Netanyahu as their best conduit to exert such influence.
Netanyahu is expected to unveil his new cabinet by Wednesday, although he could request a few days’ extension. Neither U.S. official would say what leverage aside from rhetoric they would use to pressure Netanyahu, especially because Biden has ruled out cutting U.S. military aid to Israel. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the topic involved sensitive diplomatic talks.
Still, despite skepticism from some analysts, the U.S. officials insisted that they have options in the works and that Netanyahu can expect much more than sharply worded news releases from the State Department.
The second U.S. official pointed out that the Israeli leader has certain goals, from reining in Iran’s Islamist government to normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia, with which he will need U.S. help.
Netanyahu — who previously held the prime minister role for a total of 15 years — has known Biden for decades, but the two have had their differences as the Israeli leader has swung ever more rightward, meaning he can’t count on the U.S. president to let him off easy.
In a speech this month to J Street, the left-leaning Jewish organization, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security remains “ironclad” and that America respects the “democratic choice of the Israeli people.” But the fact that Blinken chose to speak to J Street — a group despised by many on the right who are pro-Israel — was itself a signal of the administration’s concerns about the incoming government, some of which Blinken alluded to.
“We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities,” Blinken said. “We will hold it to the mutual standards we have established in our relationship over the past seven decades. And we will speak honestly and respectfully with our Israeli friends, as partners always should.”
Netanyahu won Israel’s November elections — the country’s fifth in four years — by linking himself with some of Israel’s most extreme politicians, ones known for racist, homophobic, misogynistic and ultra-religious views. The general outlines as reported by Israeli media suggest his incoming government will be exceptionally far-right.
One of the people in the mix for a top slot is Itamar Ben-Gvir, set to be named national security minister — a job that could include overseeing some police activity in the occupied West Bank, which is home to millions of Palestinians. Ben-Gvir has previously been convicted of racist incitement against Arabs and of backing a terrorist group.
Another far-right figure who may get a top position, minister of finance, is Bezalel Smotrich. Among other things, Smotrich has called for Israel to annex the West Bank, land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. Smotrich wanted to lead the defense ministry, but the Biden administration — in a veiled manner — made its discomfort with that clear, according to one of the U.S. officials. Still, Netanyahu may give him an additional position that oversees matters such as Palestinian work permits.
Netanyahu has also promised a deputy minister role to Jewish fundamentalist leader Avi Maoz, who opposes LGBTQ rights and women serving in the military. Maoz’s responsibilities will reportedly include an office that aims to strengthen Jewish identity among Israelis.
One mystery is who will be foreign minister, although one of the names rumored is Ron Dermer, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.
The makeup of the potential Israeli government was a topic of a recent meeting of deputies of various agencies and departments under the umbrella of the White House National Security Council.
“Everyone, without exception, understood that these guys are fundamentally different” from even past right-wing Israeli governments, the first U.S. official said of the gathering, which was first reported by Axios.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington did not provide a comment, and neither did the State Department.
In private with Israeli counterparts, U.S. officials have avoided direct statements about their preferences for Israeli cabinet slots, but they’ve emphasized the Biden administration’s commitment to supporting women’s and LGBTQ rights, as well as a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ultimately, “what’s relevant is Netanyahu — he is the prime minister,” the second U.S. official said, stressing that when it comes to all the attention being given to the more far-right figures, “people are making a strategic mistake by building these guys up.”
Some analysts are skeptical that the pressure on Netanyahu will lead to policies that further U.S. aims. They note that the Israeli politician, who is nothing if not a survivor, is likely to find ways to use the far-right politicians to further his own political goals.
“It’s all relative, isn’t it?” said Khaled Elgindy of the Middle East Institute. “Netanyahu will be able to use the radicals as cover — ‘If you don’t like what’s happening now, you should see what I stopped the crazies from doing.’ … And it will probably work.”
The second U.S. official noted that Netanyahu will need American support on certain priorities, and that those are potential points of leverage.
For instance, Netanyahu wants to expand the diplomatic normalization deals with Arab states, known as the Abraham Accords, and he wants such a pact with Saudi Arabia in particular. But that’s unlikely to happen without significant U.S. backing.
Likewise, Netanyahu wants to rein in the Islamist government in Tehran, which has threatened to destroy Israel and is a foe of the United States, as well. While the details of Netanyahu’s plans for Iran will matter, especially if they involve sabotaging the country’s nuclear program, he may nonetheless need U.S. backing for them.
“Netanyahu wants a bunch of stuff from us,” the second U.S. official said. “It’s a two-way street. … We’ll work with him on the things he cares about, and he’ll work on the things we care about.”
Netanyahu opposed the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated under President Barack Obama but abandoned by President Donald Trump. Although Biden has sought to revive that agreement, which curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, it’s effectively dead.
And recent protests that have gripped Iran and threatened the government there have meant the odds of restoring the agreement are lower than ever, removing an irritant in the Biden-Netanyahu relationship.
The U.S. officials also insisted that American rhetoric toward Israel matters. Israelis, after all, face many hostilities in the Middle East and they highly value being able to tout their strong partnership with the United States. Criticism from Washington undermines that ability.
“Right now, we’ve been very measured,” the second U.S. official said, noting that the incoming Netanyahu government has yet to be formed, much less impose any policies. “We could turn up the criticism very quickly.”