The Coup in the Kremlin
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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series examining Washington's relationship with its allies after U.S. President Joe Biden's first year in office.
In early 2020, when it became clear that Joe Biden would win the Democratic presidential primary, senior Israeli officials breathed a sigh of relief. Donald Trump’s failed presidency was about to implode, and there had been real concern in Israel that the backlash against Trump might land Bernie Sanders, the progressive Vermont senator who had called for cutting U.S. aid to Israel, in the White House. A Biden presidency, however, sounded like good news for Israel. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the most pro-Israel ticket we can expect from the Democratic Party,” Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, would say later, arguing that the two politicians had a long record of supporting his country.
The early months of the Biden administration strengthened this view in Jerusalem’s corridors of power. The 46th president, who proudly tells audiences that he has known every Israeli prime minister from Golda Meir onward, publicly supported Israel during its May 2021 war with Hamas, stating that Israel had a right to self-defense and refraining from any public criticism of its actions in the Gaza Strip. After the fighting was over, he immediately promised to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system. Three months later, he warmly welcomed Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, to the White House, happy to host the man who had ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in power.
Biden and Bennett’s meeting was described in the Israeli media as friendly and productive. In early February, they also spoke over the phone, mostly about Iran, and a White House readout mentioned that Biden was planning to visit Israel later in the year. But despite a successful start to their relationship, Washington and Jerusalem could soon clash on a range of substantive issues, from Iran to China to the Palestinians. Unless, that is, the two sides find a way to do something they haven’t often managed to do over the past decade: handle their disagreements constructively.
As vice president, Biden was often tasked with managing the Obama administration’s frustrating relationship with Netanyahu. During the 2012 election, Barack Obama’s top advisers accused Netanyahu of actively campaigning against the U.S. president. Things got even worse after Netanyahu’s 2015 address to the U.S. Congress about Iran policy, a speech the White House viewed as a direct attack against Obama. Obama was not the first—or last—U.S. president to clash with Netanyahu. Bill Clinton had bitter fights with him in the 1990s. Even Donald Trump found him difficult to work with. In an interview shortly after he left office, Trump cursed the former prime minister and accused him of betrayal for recognizing Biden’s electoral victory.
Biden’s affinity toward Israel and his rich experience with previous Israeli prime ministers had made him one of the few people in Obama’s orbit who could maintain a good rapport with Netanyahu. Still, when Netanyahu was ousted, in June 2021, Biden probably shed no tears, recognizing that he would be spared the headaches that Netanyahu had caused his predecessors. As his staff briefed him on Bennett’s coalition, however, he could not have been enthusiastic: it consists of eight parties with contrasting ideologies and enjoys the slimmest possible majority in the Israeli parliament.
Biden understood how fragile the coalition was, and in the months that followed, he made a concerted effort to avoid any significant confrontations with Bennett. Consider the thorny issue of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which for decades had served as the U.S. government’s unofficial diplomatic mission to the Palestinians before it was shut down by Trump in 2019. Biden promised during his campaign to reopen it, but after more than a year in office, he has taken no steps in that direction. According to Israeli media reports, Bennett told Biden that reopening the consulate could heighten the tensions within his coalition, and so Biden, without saying so, has put his plans on hold. Causing internal frictions in Bennett’s government could pave the way for new elections in Israel and the return of Netanyahu. That, an Israeli official who works with the administration told me last year, is “the last thing Biden wants to do.”
Washington and Jerusalem may soon clash on a range of substantive issues.
In December, Bennett’s political standing improved when the government managed to pass a state budget. Passing the budget gave Bennett’s government stability for a year or two, an eternity in Israeli politics. But with the threat of a Netanyahu comeback neutralized for the foreseeable future, it also meant the end of the Biden-Bennett honeymoon. On a range of issues, from Iran’s nuclear program to Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories, clear disagreements are emerging, and patience on both sides is wearing thin. Israeli officials are still grateful that they’re working with Biden and not a more left-wing president, and the White House still prefers Bennett over his predecessor. But on some fronts, a clash between the two sides has become inevitable.
One area of disagreement, as always, is the Palestinian issue. Bennett’s governing coalition includes left-wing, centrist, and right-wing parties, making progress toward a two-state solution practically impossible in the near future. That part is obvious to the Biden administration, which has no illusions that Israel will dismantle settlements and redraw borders anytime soon. Israel’s current government includes parties that oppose a two-state solution, and the Palestinian political system is split between the aging Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and the extremist Hamas leadership in Gaza. The Biden administration, meanwhile, is focused on other issues in the region and globally. For Washington, then, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply not a top priority at the moment.
But in January, Israeli officials told me, the White House made it clear to Israel that provocative steps on the ground, particularly the recurring violence against Palestinian citizens by Israeli settlers, could drag Biden into an arena he would rather avoid. This is an important message that hasn’t been fully internalized by all the players in Bennett’s diverse coalition government, as evident by the unveiling in late January of a plan to construct a new settlement in the heart of the West Bank. Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, sent a letter to Bennett—which quickly leaked to the press—warning that if the plan was approved, it would cause a major crisis with the Biden administration. A source close to Lapid told me that the foreign minister is concerned that Bennett is “testing the president’s patience on this, in the wrong way.”
On Iran, both Biden and Bennett inherited a miserable situation. Trump’s decision in 2018 to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal—with Netanyahu’s strong encouragement—has been described publicly by a string of senior retired Israeli defense officials as a complete disaster. The withdrawal allowed Iran to get closer than ever to the status of a nuclear threshold state. That is why even Moshe Yaalon, a former Israeli defense minister who opposed the nuclear deal, said that in terms of Iran policy, Trump’s withdrawal from it was “the main mistake of the last decade.”
Biden and Bennett both realize that their predecessors left them with a mess, but they may not agree on how to clean it up. Biden, like Trump and Obama and George W. Bush before him, has no intention of starting a war with Iran. Danny Citrinowicz, a former Iran hand in Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, told me in November that Biden has only one real option on Iran: getting to a new agreement, which probably won’t be all that different from the previous one. Israel, he added, will have no choice but to live with it.
Biden and Bennett both realize that their predecessors left them with a mess.
Bennett and some senior figures in his government insist, at least in their public statements, that there are other options. They warn the United States and other world powers against compromising on a “bad deal” with Tehran, and they stress that Israel remains willing and able to act alone militarily if it has to. There is reason to take these threats with a grain of salt, since war with Iran would probably mean hundreds, if not thousands, of casualties in Israel, along with widespread destruction in the country’s largest cities. But the fact that the United States is speaking with one voice on this issue and Israel with another could create tensions between the close allies, regardless of how the nuclear negotiations pan out.
Shortly after entering office, Bennett said in background briefings to Israeli media that he believes in quiet coordination with the United States, even when there are disagreements. He promised not to follow in Netanyahu’s footsteps, telling the White House that under his watch, differences between Washington and Jerusalem would be handled discreetly behind closed doors, not aired openly in television studios or in public speeches to Congress. For now, he has mostly kept his word, but the real test will come if an agreement with Tehran is put back on the table. Netanyahu, who still haunts Bennett from the opposition, will surely describe any agreement as a calamity that endangers Israel’s existence. It remains to be seen how Bennett will handle that kind of political pressure and if he will keep his promise or go on the offensive against Biden to appease right-wing supporters in Israel.
China is another source of potential friction between Israel and the United States, and not a new one: the Trump administration was also unhappy with Israel’s growing economic ties to Beijing. The main U.S. concern has to do with Chinese involvement in strategic infrastructure projects in Israel, such as the renovation and management of a major port in northern Israel. Amos Harel, a military analyst for Haaretz, reported earlier this year that U.S. officials were so angry about China’s work on the port project that they threatened to prohibit the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet from docking in Israeli waters. Although they have yet to carry this out, the very issuing of such a threat emphasized to Israeli officials just how severe the problem was.
The bad news for Biden and Bennett is that none of these tensions will be easy to resolve. Bennett’s government includes too many right-wingers to satisfy even the most modest of the White House’s expectations on the Palestinian issue. China is too important and powerful for Israel to accept each and every U.S. demand regarding Beijing. And on Iran, the gaps between Biden’s and Bennett’s public statements seem only to grow with time.
The good news is that even disagreements that cannot be resolved can still be managed wisely, if both sides want to do so. Clashes over policy between Biden and Bennett will happen in 2022—that’s a given. But the important questions are how frequently they will occur, how much damage they will cause, and whether the two sides will handle them through quiet diplomatic channels or out in the open. Through their words and deeds, the two leaders can choose to have a productive relationship or descend into the toxic lows of the Obama-Netanyahu years.
In the long run, Israel’s relationship with the United States faces a problem larger than any specific disagreement with Biden: the declining relevance of the Middle East. The region is slipping in priority for Washington and seen as a distraction from more urgent problems, from competing with China to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, there was near-universal agreement among U.S. policymakers that the Middle East was an important region for the United States and that support for Israel helped advance U.S. goals there. Israel will have to brace itself for a future in which Washington no longer sees things this way.
But He Needs a Plan to Manage the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict