Biden has the tools to deter Netanyahu, he just needs to use them

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  March 6, 2023

The United States bears a responsibility to rein in Israeli violence against Palestinians. The only real question is whether the Biden administration will use the leverage it has.

In an analysis for Haaretz last week, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas asks a pertinent and important question: “When will the U.S. stop pretending that things are normal in Netanyahu’s Israel?” It’s a rhetorical question, but nonetheless crucial after the United States embarrassed itself yet again by touting a completely phony “agreement” reached in Aqaba, Jordan, between the far-right Israeli government and the quisling Palestinian Authority while Jewish settlers were burning the town of Huwwara. But Pinkas addresses this question, ultimately, with an equally empty line: “Friends don’t let friends rescind democracy.”

The sub-headline on the article, taken directly from the piece itself, is the beginning of where Pinkas goes wrong. “It is not the U.S.’ responsibility, moral duty, or place to alter the authoritarian trajectory of Israel. But it is equally negligent of the Americans to act as if nothing is happening.”

Pinkas’ view is representative of many who are currently criticizing Israel either for the first time publicly or in harsher tones than they ever have before, in light of Israel’s assault on its democracy for its Jewish citizens. But it elides a broader, more incisive view of the trajectory Israel has been on since the birth of the Political Zionism movement and how the seeds of the current government were not only planted long ago but have been evident in the treatment of Palestinians by that movement all along. Indeed, that misguided view is intrinsic to much, though not all, of the protest movement in Israel, the criticisms from some of Israel’s more liberal supporters, and, especially from American and Israeli opposition leaders. 

Ultimately, of course, Israel is responsible for its own behavior and policies. But the notion that the United States bears neither responsibility nor moral duty to change Israeli behavior for the better is thoroughly misguided. The only real question is whether the Biden administration would use the leverage it has to, if not bring Israel fully to heel, then at least to rein in Israel’s violence against Palestinians, attempts to subvert the status quo in Jerusalem, ongoing efforts to annex the West Bank, and its ongoing strangulation of Gaza.

U.S. responsibility

The United States, because of its unconditional support for Israel, no matter the latter’s crimes and violations of international and U.S. law, bears enormous responsibility for Israel’s behavior. Moreover, the U.S. has, with Israel’s full cooperation, established itself as the only acceptable “broker” between Israel and the Palestinians, and as such, is the only body in the world with enough influence, power, and leverage with Israel to credibly press the Jewish state to change its policies. The U.S. is, therefore, absolutely obliged as both a moral and practical matter to “alter the authoritarian trajectory of Israel.” 

In fact, for most of Israel’s existence, the United States has supported it financially, and, at significant diplomatic cost, in international arenas, writing a blank check to Israel and creating the cancerous “special relationship” and “unbreakable bond.” This does not make Israel act as it does, but it does give it the ability to act with impunity. That is an enormous incentive for Israel not only to maintain its harsh and illegal policies, but to consistently push the envelope of its brutal treatment of the Palestinians. That gift of impunity is what establishes U.S. culpability and creates not just the moral responsibility that Pinkas denies the U.S. has; it also, and more importantly, creates the practical need for the U.S. to act if the situation is not to deteriorate further and faster. No other country or international body can rival the United States in the array of options it has at its disposal to incentivize Israel to change, even if Washington refuses to use them. 

This isn’t new. It has been the case, certainly since before the 1967 war and arguably even before the state of Israel was established through the devastation of Palestinian society, the nakba, from 1947-49. And that’s one of the problems with Pinkas’ thinking.

U.S. abdication

By asking when the U.S. will recognize the current government as “abnormal,” Pinkas implies that the new Netanyahu government is unique. In terms of domestic Israeli politics, that’s true. The assault on the Israeli judiciary is certainly new, even if Netanyahu has been building toward it out of fear of prosecution for his massive corruption for years. Rhetorical attacks on the Israeli legal system are as old as the state itself, but actual structural changes meant to rob the judiciary of its power relative to the rest of the government are new, and the protests throughout Israel are the result. 

But while Benjamin Netanyahu’s new partners, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, have escalated the size and scope of routine attacks on Palestinians, they are not doing anything new. These incursions by both the army and the settlers are regular practices, and they were escalating long before this government came into power. It’s worth remembering that 2022 saw the largest number of Palestinians killed by Israel since 2005. That was not under Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir, but the supposedly more “moderate” and centrist governments of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. 

Similarly, while Netanyahu flirted with an accelerated annexation of the West Bank in 2020, the process of gradual annexation of the occupied territory has been underway since 1968. By putting the West bank under Bezalel Smotrich’s civilian authority, a line was crossed, and, as Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard put it, it amounted to “de jure annexation of the West Bank.”

In the face of all this, the United States is silent. Pinkas talks about some words of rebuke from Washington but what mild rebukes have been issued have been overwhelmingly directed at the Israeli assault on its own judiciary. There was no rebuke of the Israeli army for its routine practice of protecting settlers as they assaulted Huwwara, for instance.

Three letters to President Joe Biden are circulating in Congress. One by Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) is unusually direct in its criticism of the Netanyahu government, and the other two, whose contents are not yet public, are also firm in calling on President Biden to save the two-state solution. And therein lies the problem. The fact that Welch is justifiably considered bold for bluntly stating that “as far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, the two-state solution is dead” reflects the desperate clinging of American officials, elected and otherwise, to a two-state solution that is neither politically nor physically feasible any longer is a big part of the problem. 

An even more serious problem is that none of the letters express any more concern for the wanton attacks on Palestinians than the Biden administration has shown. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s statement of concern about the harm to both Palestinian and Israeli civilians was the only such statement from any member of Congress expressing concern about the assaults and killings of both Palestinians and Israelis. 

What the U.S. could do

Pinkas argues that a U.S. president could confront Israel without any political cost. While this is not exactly correct, it is closer to reality than is generally believed. The myth of the political cost of criticizing Israel—although based on very real factors like an exceptionally effective lobbying apparatus and a huge imbalance in campaign contributions between pro-Israel PACs and those that support Palestinian rights or even just a more even-handed U.S. policy—has taken on a life of its own, growing far bigger than the reality. 

Pinkas’ piece omits any recommendations for American action, only a defense of the idea that the U.S. could act if it wanted to. He refers to a “menu” of actions the United States could take if it wished but never specifies any items on that menu. Similarly, Americans for Peace Now spoke of the “large toolbox” the U.S. has to show its displeasure with the current Israeli government but didn’t go on to recommend any specific actions. 

It should be clear by now that the Biden administration does not want to confront Israel, regardless of the depth of its crimes. But it is also becoming clear that he is soon going to have to do something. It might be nothing but theater, or it might be something substantive. But the pressure from within his own party is growing, and Biden will, correctly, look extremely weak if he tries to maintain his silence on Israel’s actions, no matter how many chummy pictures of Chuck Schumer kissing up to Netanyahu circulate. 

The idea of ending military aid to Israel remains impossible, but conditioning it on compliance with U.S. law and human rights norms is an idea that is no longer outside of all discussion in Washington. Still, it will still be a long while before even that obvious step is taken if it ever is. But that is not Biden’s only option.

One alternative is to halt work to expand the so-called Abraham Accords, the deals the United States has brokered between Israel and various Arab dictatorships to normalize relations even without any agreement with the Palestinians. Without robust U.S. involvement, it will be very hard to expand the Accords, since the real prize for the Arab autocrats is access to Washington, especially to its weapons market. This is not a small thing, as international investors are already starting to feel nervous about investing in an increasingly illiberal Israel. That makes expanding the Abraham Accords an even higher priority for Netanyahu. 

Biden can also slow other business cooperation that the U.S. government facilitates, which will certainly fuel concerns in Tel Aviv that are already starting to boil about the potential of Israeli tech companies and leaders in the field leaving the country as it moves too far to the right for their tastes. There is also the loan guarantee program, currently approved to run through FY 2023, which provides a big boost to Israel’ credit rating. A loss there, amid so much financial uncertainty, would certainly impact Israel. 

Taking any of those steps would send shock waves throughout Israel, because, even if they are not devastating by themselves, they would imply that the U.S. may take even more steps, as the blank check has been rescinded. And any of them are politically feasible for this administration. 

Biden still won’t want to take such steps, but with enough political pressure, he may have to. It will be crucial, if such pressure does build, that advocates for Palestinian rights not allow them to focus only on the issues for Jewish democracy. They must include an end to the U.S. ignoring Israeli escalations, at the very least. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics