Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy
The Flawed Logic That Produced the War Is Alive and Well
These are trying times for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which the U.S. government often defines as ironclad. Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to power as Israel’s prime minister in a governing coalition that is the country’s most right-wing and religious in history. He is facing off against Joe Biden: a Democratic U.S. president who, although a true friend of Israel, remembers Netanyahu’s fraught relations with former U.S. President Barack Obama. At home, Netanyahu is legalizing outposts and building in settlements in the West Bank and undermining Israel’s independent judiciary, actions that the Biden administration has strongly criticized. Internationally, Netanyahu has hesitated to clearly support Ukraine in its fight against Russia, much to the consternation of U.S. officials. And during his previous terms, Netanyahu fostered closer Chinese-Israeli ties.
Within Netanyahu’s first month of taking office, Israel hosted a succession of senior U.S. officials, all of whom reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, visited on January 18 to discuss the main issues on the countries’ joint agenda, such as how to coordinate policy against Iran. William Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, arrived on January 26 to discuss operational issues, most likely with regard to Iran and the Palestinians. Secretary of State Antony Blinken followed just four days later. Netanyahu, then, has had many opportunities to get Washington’s help advancing his top two international priorities: stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia.
But these U.S. officials made it clear that Biden did not agree with Netanyahu’s stances on the Palestinian territories, on internal Israeli politics, and on Ukraine. Indeed, Blinken made lodging the president’s objections a central part of his visit. Such disagreements could greatly complicate Netanyahu’s life. Biden is the only world leader who is capable of taking steps that will stop Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon, and he is the only leader who can give the Saudis the security guarantees they demand to normalize ties with Israel. But the U.S. president will not be able to dedicate substantial time to these two issues when the Palestinian theater is aflame, and he will struggle to convince his administration to help the Israeli government when Israel is distancing itself from the West (by not firmly supporting Ukraine) and weakening its democracy (by passing judicial reforms that will politicize the judiciary and undermine the rule of law).
In order to make headway on his top security and foreign policy goals, then, Netanyahu will have to make tradeoffs. He will have to compromise on aspects of Israel’s domestic and foreign policy and make goodwill gestures in order to get Biden’s full partnership.
In his speeches, Netanyahu has made his international priorities readily apparent. The prime minister wants to create as much pressure on Iran as he can to force the country into compromising on its nuclear program and curtailing its regional aggression. He also wants to fully normalize ties with Saudi Arabia, building on the Abraham Accords that he signed in 2020, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain, Israel and Morocco, and Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Just two years ago, Netanyahu may have struggled to advance this agenda, especially when it came to Iran. When Biden entered office, he was determined to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal—a step that would have required loosening sanctions. But times have changed. Given Iran’s refusal to return to the nuclear agreement, its decision to provide Russia with weapons, and its violent suppression of antigovernment protests, Biden is willing to take a harder line against the country. Netanyahu knows this, and he hopes he can now coax Biden into helping him coordinate a better campaign of maximum pressure, including by credibly threatening military action against Tehran.
It is easy to see why Netanyahu is so keen on obtaining U.S. support. If both states formally declared that the nuclear deal was dead and that stronger penalties were coming, they might be able to jointly convince Iran to stop advancing its nuclear program and agree to the kind of “longer and stronger” deal that Blinken has said the administration wants. They might deter Iran from escalating, for instance, by making it clear they will use military force if Tehran crosses certain redlines, such as enriching uranium to 90 percent, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or taking steps to militarize its nuclear program. Washington might also exert more economic pressure on Iran to change Tehran’s calculus, including by significantly increasing the enforcement of existing sanctions.
Washington is still maintaining some distance from Israel’s Iran strategy.
The United States could also work with Israel to internationally isolate Iran. Israel and the United States, for example, might point to Iran’s cooperation with Russia to get the European Union to extend its conventional weapons embargo on Iran. The two allies could also form a broad coalition of states to help and encourage the domestic protests in Iran. Together, Israel and the United States could even establish the foundations of a new Middle East security architecture in which participants share intelligence, air defenses, logistics, and other resources to protect freedom of navigation and coordinate additional steps against Tehran.
The Biden administration has recently signaled that it is willing to adopt a harder line on Iran, which coincides with Netanyahu’s vision: both agree that they want to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and on the need to deter it from doing so. Israel and the United States, for example, conducted joint military exercises earlier this year, indicating their combined resolve. But Washington is still maintaining some distance from openly embracing Israel’s strategy. The United States has denied having any involvement in the late January drone strikes on an Iranian drone factory in Isfahan or on Iranian weapons convoys at the Iraqi-Syrian border. It clearly remains anxious and concerned that Iran will retaliate, and this anxiety undermines Washington’s ability to deter Iran from attacking U.S. forces, partners, and allies—and to deter Iran from seeking nuclear weapons.
Washington is not as worried about promoting Israeli-Saudi ties. But even there, the Biden administration’s positions could complicate Netanyahu’s efforts. There are considerable—and growing—tensions between Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, which Biden once deemed a “pariah.” The Abraham Accords were dependent on support from Washington, which was willing to provide the United Arab Emirates with advanced weapons such as F-35 jets (the Biden administration halted that deal because of the United Arab Emirates’ ties with China) and change U.S. policy on Western Sahara (a self-governing territory that Morocco claims) to get the participating states to establish relations with Israel. Frosty U.S.-Saudi relations will make the path toward normalization with Riyadh harder and perhaps put it out of reach. Before signing off on any agreement with Israel, for example, the Saudis will likely want the Biden administration to provide solid security guarantees, unhindered supplies of advanced weapons, and an agreement to help build the country’s civilian nuclear infrastructure. Unless Netanyahu becomes more flexible and generates goodwill with Biden, it is hard to see Washington making such promises.
Netanyahu understands that preventing a nuclear Iran is a herculean task that requires American support. He is also well aware that the clearest road to Israeli-Saudi relations runs through Washington. Netanyahu should therefore know that if he wants the United States to invest its capital in support of his policies, he will have to align his own policies with Washington’s interests and values.
He can start with China. The United States’ great-power rivalry with Beijing is at the top of Biden’s international agenda and is one of the few issues on which there is bipartisan consensus within the United States. Although Netanyahu advanced pro-Chinese economic policies during the last decade, he clarified in December 2022 that Israel’s economic ties with Beijing are subject to national security considerations. It is a statement that suggests his government may be willing to constrain Israel’s relations with China to better address U.S. concerns. Indeed, Israel’s economic policies are already moving in a more pro-Western direction, including by reducing the country’s technological exposure to Beijing, establishing an oversight mechanism for foreign investment, and increasing public awareness about the risks of working with Chinese entities.
Netanyahu should still maintain productive economic ties with China, especially given Israel’s own national security concerns and unique characteristics. But Netanyahu can and should create better partnerships with U.S. friends in the West and in Asia—especially India, Japan, and South Korea. He should deepen relations with these governments and offer incentives for businesses in these countries to work more closely with Israeli firms.
Netanyahu understands that preventing a nuclear Iran is a herculean task.
Netanyahu will have a harder time aligning with Washington over its other main international priority: supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia. To ensure that Israel’s military campaign against Iran and its proxies in Syria (where Russia is active) can continue unhindered, Israel has sought to avoid confronting Moscow. It has also been preoccupied with preventing Russia from bolstering the Iranian military. And it wants to protect the Jewish Agency for Israel’s activities in Russia, including the agency’s efforts to allow Russian Jews to come to Israel.
But the purported policy benefits of staying neutral are not worth the costs. Moscow is far too busy in Ukraine to start attacking Israeli aircraft in Syria, even if Israel helps Ukraine protect its civilians and infrastructure from Iranian drones. Given the high tempo of combat in Ukraine, Russia does not have many weapons it can sell to Tehran. And although Moscow might disrupt the work the Jewish Agency is doing, this loss would be more than made up for by Israel’s reputational gain. If Netanyahu condemns the invasion and starts providing Ukraine with defensive weapons, he could acquire some capital with the Biden administration, which he could then expend to advance priorities that are far more important.
Still, Israel may have to do more than just cooperate over China and Ukraine if it wants renewed support from Washington. During his visit to Israel, Blinken made it clear that Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians was the greatest threat to the U.S.-Israeli relationship. This needle will be extremely difficult for Netanyahu to thread. The prime minister, like his predecessors, has a duty to protect Israel from terror, and the level of terrorism in the Palestinian territories has been on the rise since March 2022. Netanyahu’s government is also awash with far-right ministers who want to annex more Palestinian territory, expand Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, collapse the Palestinian Authority, and inflict a decisive victory over the Palestinian enemy. Yet Netanyahu can help improve ties with Washington by engaging in a quiet dialogue with the White House, away from the public eye, in which he clarifies his policies, explains the limits on the power of his ministers, and demonstrates that he is willing to improve the lives of the Palestinians while still countering rising terrorism in the Palestinian territories and in Israel.
Moscow is far too busy in Ukraine to start attacking Israeli aircraft in Syria.
And ultimately, Netanyahu should avoid taking many of the measures that his far-right allies advocate, including allowing Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, supporting the de facto annexation of new land, and legalizing outposts in Judea and Samaria and creating new settlements there. Avoiding these measures may antagonize Netanyahu’s coalition, but allowing them inflames the Palestinians and thereby diverts international attention and U.S. and Israeli resources away from his top foreign policy aims. Last month, for example, just as the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that it found weapons grade-level uranium in Iran enriched to 84 percent, Israel and the United States had to discuss how to prevent a UN Security Council resolution against the Israeli decision to legalize nine West Bank outposts—instead of on Tehran’s march to the bomb. The following weeks saw Egypt, Jordan, and the United States meet with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to avoid further escalation, but lethal terror attacks on Israelis were followed by a settlers’ rampage in the Palestinian village of Hawara, where the settlers torched homes and attacked civilians. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich supported calls to raze the village, only to recant them. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and traveled to Israel in early March and discussed how to prevent escalation. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is following suit. Clearly, if Netanyahu wants to focus both Israeli and the U.S. attention on Iran, he should not let his right-wing partners fan the flames in the Palestinian arena.
Following through on right-wing provocative and escalatory measures would also infuriate Western leaders. Biden may even interpret these steps as a personal insult, damaging his commitment to confronting American critics of Israel. Such anger would build on Biden’s existing displeasure with Netanyahu’s proposed judiciary reforms, which would allow the Israeli parliament to override Supreme Court decisions—eliminating a critical check on Netanyahu’s power. Biden expressed opposition to the changes in a statement to the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and during Blinken’s visit to Jerusalem, the secretary of state warned that the reforms would undercut the shared democratic values on which U.S.-Israeli ties rest.
Weakening the judicial system will also impair the already tense relationship between American and Israeli Jews, encourage divestment and emigration from Israel, and damage Israel’s credit rating—as leading credit-rating agencies have recently warned. Netanyahu must, at a minimum, ensure that any judicial reform enjoys broad agreement within Israel and broad support in the Israeli parliament (including from the opposition) and does not jeopardize Israel’s democratic nature. Otherwise, the changes could fracture ties between Israel and the United States and polarize Israel’s own society, degrading the country’s national resilience and undermining its national security.
Netanyahu does not have to join with Biden on every issue. The two politicians lead different countries with varied interests: sometimes their paths will diverge. Yet such differences are at play in almost every alliance based on shared values, and they usually do not preclude close cooperation. If Netanyahu can make tradeoffs with Washington, his and Biden’s disagreements do not have to impede their partnership.
Some of these tradeoffs could be reciprocal. Netanyahu’s government, for example, could decide that Israel will increase its contribution to the United States’ innovation base, improving Washington’s position in its technological competition with Beijing even if Israel itself does not begin competing with China. Israel could also denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and help the latter protect against Russian attacks and Iranian arms. In exchange, the United States and Israel could work jointly against Tehran’s regional aggression and weapons proliferation, including by building a plan for military action if deterrence fails. Israel’s new policies on Beijing and Moscow would have to be carried out carefully in order to protect Israel’s economic ties with China and its interests in Syria and elsewhere. Yet the course correction would be worth it should it result in help from Washington.
And in many cases, the agreements between Israel and the United States would be mutually beneficial. By expanding the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia and making the agreements more durable, Washington could provide better regional security while also fostering a pro-American coalition that would be less amenable to Chinese and Russian influence in the Middle East. By avoiding more escalation with the Palestinians, Netanyahu could decrease the danger to Israel’s own population and help Washington (and other countries) focus on Iran instead of the Palestinian territories.
None of this will be easy. Netanyahu is faced with a political and strategic Rubik’s cube. To achieve his international goals—containing Iran and normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia—he will need strong support and understanding from Washington, which in turn requires taking steps opposed by his radical coalition partners both domestically and on the Palestinian front. But ultimately, to solve the most critical face of the cube, Netanyahu must prioritize coming to terms with the United States. No matter how angry Israeli officials may be with Washington’s overtures to Iran or criticisms about Israeli domestic politics, the United States is indispensable to Israel’s safety and security.