Ordinarily, newly elected Israeli prime ministers are invited to Washington fairly soon after taking office. It is a tradition that has been carried on from US administration to administration as a symbol of the enduring ties between the two countries, regardless of leadership.
That was until Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was elected seven months ago and embarked on his controversial overhaul of Israel’s judiciary. That effort, which was a condition the right-wing parties had before joining the ruling coalition, has sparked outrage and demonstrations throughout the Jewish state and even led to threatened strikes by Israeli Defense Force pilots and other officers opposed to the changes.
Joe Biden didn’t like the judicial reform proposal either. His administration has issued repeated warnings about the weakening of Israel’s democratic institutions. In several phone calls, Biden advised Netanyahu of the danger of moving forward on such a controversial issue without a genuine national consensus. To demonstrate US concern, Biden went even further by postponing what had been almost ritualistic in US-Israel relations.
The invitation to the US was finally issued this past week, just a day before Israeli President Isaac Herzog was scheduled to call on Biden in the White House. The invitation was noteworthy because there was no mention of the traditional White House Oval Office tête-à-tête, only a meeting “in the United States.” Pundits have subsequently posited that Biden may meet Bibi at the September UN General Assembly meeting in New York, as the president typically does with visiting heads of state. Were that to happen, it would be tantamount to a slap in the face to an Israeli PM well-accustomed to more ceremonious confabs in the White House, including considerable media hoopla.
Israel’s external threats require consultation between the two allies
Why the apparent effrontery? Is it warranted for such a close US ally? That would depend on one’s perspective.
A pro-Israeli view would argue that Israel confronts heightened challenges from virtually all directions these days. Those include a threatening Hezbollah to the north, increasingly menacing military actions by Syrian forces and their Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp backers to the northeast, the worst rash of terrorism and violence in the West Bank since the Second Intifada and an Iran still apparently hell-bent on advancing its nuclear weapons program.
When an ally is under threat, it’s no time for its friends to play petty diplomatic games, least of all the US. Moreover, this view holds, the ostensible reason for the delayed invitation, Israel’s judicial reform proposal, is an internal Israeli matter in which the US has no right to interfere.
There is no argument from anyone in the US, including the Biden administration, about the threats Israel faces. White House and State Department statements have been categorical concerning America’s defense of and support for Israel. Moreover, US defense and intelligence cooperation has been as close and frequent as under any other administration. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, as well as CIA Director Bill Burns, have visited Israel and met with Netanyahu and their respective Israeli counterparts.
Israel’s enemies would be grossly mistaken to conclude from the Biden-Bibi tiff that US support for Israel is weakening in the least. Much to the contrary; the two nations’ diplomatic, military and intelligence officials confer regularly on the threats facing Israel, with discussions including potential joint measures to stymie Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Lastly, Joe Biden has a long and well-established record of unstinting support for the State of Israel, as a US senator, vice president and now as president. That is not changing.
But the internal threat within Israel is just as dangerous
The other perspective sees that the US administration is alarmed by the proposed judicial changes, viewing them as damaging to Israel’s democracy. This may, the argument goes, bring the US to reevaluate its interests in the region.
After all, the oft-touted justification for America’s decades of strong support for Israel has been its standing as the only democracy in the Middle East. US friends elsewhere in the region, e.g., Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and others, enjoy nowhere near the benefits Israel does. They aren’t democratic nations that the US judges especially worthy of American support and largess.
In fact, US support for Israel by any measure is among its greatest anywhere in the world (save for the recent emergency aid to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion): a $3 billion-plus check sent directly to the Israeli treasury at the beginning of every US fiscal year, access to its most advanced weapons, a virtually permanent veto of any anti-Israeli resolution in the UN Security Council and arguably the most fulsome intelligence sharing arrangement outside the Five Eyes alliance.
To be sure, the cooperation isn’t one-way. America is a top beneficiary of Israel’s vaunted intelligence-gathering apparatus and of its world-leading tech and health sectors’ developments.
However, it isn’t just about the attempted judicial reform. The reform is a political manifestation of the Israeli government’s pronounced movement toward autocratic, right-wing extremism. It is most apparent in the presence of two fanatics in Israel’s cabinet, Bezalel Smotrich as finance minister and Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister. Both represent the growing presence of “religious zealots, Jewish supremacists and homophobes” in Israel’s body politic. They have spoken out publicly on West Bank settlement expansion and even annexation and are among the principal backers of judicial changes to exempt Hassidic Jews from the military service required of all other able-bodied Israeli men and women.
Under the proposed changes, a newly-formed Israeli supreme court would likely overturn or void multiple indictments Netanyahu faces for corruption during his last stint as prime minister. These are the moves of an autocrat and patently inconsistent with Israel’s democratic traditions. Furthermore, some argue, they undermine the nation’s unity, something the recent rash of demonstrations appears to confirm. That is worthy of American concern in a region where its own vital interests are currently under threat by a host of malign actors, including China and Russia.
There is a final matter not often articulated in this discussion. In 2015, Netanyahu traveled to the US on the invitation of then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, to address a joint session of Congress on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran arms accord negotiated by the Obama administration and its P5-plus-one partners.
Netanyahu’s visit and speech were viewed as a serious breach of protocol for a visiting head of state. (He did not meet with then-President Barak Obama.) Speaking before Congress, he vigorously criticized the accord, which would have halted Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Many saw it as nothing less than an attack on the president, with whom Netanyahu had a frosty personal relationship, and his signature foreign policy achievement. Many Israelis, including senior military and intelligence officials, regret Netanyahu’s actions and former President Donald Trump’s subsequent decision to withdraw from the accord.
The shock of that discordant visit and speech cannot have been forgotten by Joe Biden. Throughout his 36-year Senate career and eight years as vice president, Biden made a practice of never making an enemy. In his view, an opponent on one issue one day might later become a valued ally on another issue. Bipartisanship was his byword and he clung to it as often as possible. Therefore, seeing the leader of America’s closest ally in the Middle East and among its closest in the world attack a sitting US president’s policy in the nation’s capital before a joint congressional session must have been unforgivable, an insult of the highest order.
The argument given by Netanyahu supporters at the time was that the JCPOA directly impacted Israel’s security, an argument with which no one would disagree. But if so, do not the current Israeli government’s rightward moves and the consequent threats to its democracy and unity directly impact US interests in Israel and the region? For nearly seven straight months, tens of thousands of Israelis have consistently taken to the streets in dozens of cities to make that very case. America, Israel’s closest and indispensable ally, cannot stand by silently and watch such an eventuality.
What’s really important
The above arguments aside, a meeting will take place. What is vital to both countries now is what is said in the meeting, as opposed to location and frivolous ceremony. Biden must warn Netanyahu of the treacherous path on which he’s embarked.
The American president stands as the head of state of a deeply divided nation. His predecessor exacerbated those divisions and caused immense damage to the country’s unity on so many fronts, for which America continues to pay a high price. And while the US faces serious external threats, it maintains the necessary wherewithal (for now) to confront them successfully.
Benjamin Netanyahu is risking taking his country down a similarly divisive path. His nation’s enemies are poised right on its borders, breathlessly eager for the first sign of disunity and fracturing. Whatever his or his coalition’s political stakes, the nation’s interests must prevail. That is the only way to ensure Israel’s continuing survival as a united democracy and America’s continued unflinching support.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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