Biden faces Israel quandary with new Netanyahu government
WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government is little more than a week old, but it’s already giving the Biden administration headaches.
Just days into its mandate, a controversial member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Cabinet riled U.S. diplomats with a visit to a Jerusalem holy site that some believe may be harbinger of other contentious moves, including vast expansions of Jewish settlement construction on land claimed by the Palestinians.
And, Netanyahu’s government adopted punitive measures against the Palestinians that run in direct opposition to several recent Biden moves to boost U.S.-Palestinian relations, including restoring assistance to the Palestinian Authority that had been cut during the Trump administration and allowing Palestinian officials to visit the United States.
The new government is an unwelcome complication for a Biden national security team seeking to shift attention away from the Middle East and toward rivals like China and Russia. It also comes as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and are eager to cast Biden as unfriendly to Israel ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Bracing for more turmoil, Biden is dispatching his national security adviser to Israel in mid-January in a bid to forestall potentially deepening rifts between his administration and its top Mideast partner. That visit by Jake Sullivan may be followed by other high-level trips to Israel, including one by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to administration officials.
Their message goes beyond warnings about inflaming tensions with Palestinians: It’s also about not cozying up with Russia, particularly now that Moscow is relying on Israel’s main enemy, Iran, in its war on Ukraine; and not upsetting the delicate Middle East security balance.
Since Netanyahu won hotly contested elections last year with huge support from the Israeli right, U.S. officials have said they will judge his government on actions rather than personalities.
“I look forward to working with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been my friend for decades, to jointly address the many challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East region, including threats from Iran,” Biden said when Netanyahu took office Dec. 29.
Yet while Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for years, they are not close. Biden and former Obama administration officials who now work for Biden still harbor resentment toward the prime minister who, during his previous iteration as Israel’s leader, sought to derail their signature foreign policy achievement: the Iran nuclear deal.
Still, the administration is signaling it will engage with Netanyahu while avoiding more extreme members of his government. That approach wouldn’t be unprecedented: The U.S. deals with Lebanon’s government while shunning members from the Hezbollah movement, a designated foreign terrorist organization.
“We will be dealing directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said when asked about possible contacts with Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s, whose visit to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary prompted a major outcry.
The inclusion of Ben-Gvir, a West Bank settler leader, and other extreme right-wing figures in Netanyahu’s government who are hostile to the Palestinians and opposed to a two-state resolution has put Israel and the U.S. on opposite paths.
On Thursday, the deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Robert Wood, at an emergency meeting of the Security Council called by Arab states to condemn Ben-Gvir’s holy site visit, underscored Biden’s firm support for “the historic status quo,” especially the “Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount.”
Wood noted that Netanyahu pledged to preserve the status quo and he stressed that the administration placed a priority on preserving the possibility of a two-state solution.
But on Friday, Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet approved a series of punitive steps against the Palestinian leadership in retaliation for the Palestinians pushing the U.N.’s highest judicial body to give an opinion on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The Security Cabinet decided to withhold millions of dollars from the Palestinian Authority and transfer those funds to a compensation program for families of Israeli victims of Palestinian militant attacks. And it will deny benefits, including travel permits, to Palestinian officials who “are leading the political and legal war against Israel.”
Biden’s administration has reversed the Trump ban on aid and provided more than $800 million in economic, development, security and other assistance to the Palestinians and the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.
Despite a more-than-$3 billion annual assistance package to Israel and diplomatic backing in international forums, U.S. sway with Netanyahu appears limited.
The Biden administration has not yet followed through on its pledge to re-open the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which historically served as the main contact point with the Palestinians, and made no move to re-open the Palestinian embassy in Washington. Both facilities were shut down during the Trump administration.