Jewish Currents / September 20, 2023
President Biden has answered Prime Minister Netanyahu’s extremist government with only the mildest of rebukes – critics say he is failing to meet the moment
On July 9th, in a televised CNN interview, President Joe Biden uttered his most pointed remarks to date on the current Israeli government. Asked by host Fareed Zakaria whether he planned to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington for a coveted White House visit, Biden deflected by pointing out that he was about to host Israeli President Isaac Herzog. But Biden did speak directly about Netanyahu’s cabinet, which he called “one of the most extremist” he had ever seen—an unmistakable reference to far-right ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. These members of the coalition were “part of the problem” in the occupied West Bank, believing Israel should establish settlements “anywhere” they want, Biden said, adding that his administration was “trying to tamp down what’s going on” in the region. Still, he expressed hope that Netanyahu would “continue to move toward moderation in changing the court”—a reference to the Israeli government’s anti-democratic judicial overhaul plan. One week after delivering this cautious rebuke, Biden invited Netanyahu to meet with him in the United States this fall. (The two eventually met during the United Nations General Assembly gathering on September 20th, rather than at the White House.)
This two-part dance step—mild criticism of Netanyahu and his coalition followed by walk backs and declarations of friendship—has become the Biden administration’s go-to move since the December 2022 ascension of Israel’s extremist right-wing government, which has expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank, elevated far-right politicians to influential ministerial posts, and advanced legislation to gut the power of Israel’s judiciary. In response to these blatant contraventions of long-standing US policy and public challenges to the bromide of “shared democratic values,” the administration has repeatedly voiced its displeasure—all while continuing to stress the importance of the US–Israel alliance, to send weapons to Israel, and to shield the country from pressure at the United Nations. Aaron David Miller, a veteran former diplomat who spent more than two decades advising six secretaries of state from both parties on Israel/Palestine, said Biden is “trying to create some distance” between the administration and Netanyahu’s coalition, but is “simply not willing to impose any sort of cost” for their behavior beyond the “passive-aggressive approach” exemplified by Netanyahu’s delayed invitation. Yousef Munayyer, a scholar at the Arab Center Washington DC, pointed to the disastrous effects of this strategy: “The Israelis are committed to doing what they’re doing to Palestinians in good part because there haven’t been any negative consequences for it,” he said. “They’ve only been rewarded for this behavior over time—particularly in Washington.”
Biden has long expressed a deep love for Israel. He often reminisces, publicly and privately, about his first meeting in 1973 with the chain-smoking former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. “It had a profound impact on me, one of the most consequential meetings I’ve ever had in my life,” Biden said during a 2015 Israeli Independence Day celebration. While he has boasted of meeting every single Israeli prime minister since, he has not shown the same empathy for the Palestinian cause. “His version of engaging with Palestinians was four hours in Ramallah, where you meet Abbas and hear him grumble and then leave,” said a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide who worked on the committee while Biden served there as a senator, and requested anonymity to discuss private meetings.
As president, this affection for Israel has largely dovetailed with an avoidance of major policy initiatives on the subject. Instead, the administration has focused on an “affirmative, practical approach [that] seeks to promote—through both private and public-facing diplomatic efforts—constructive, tangible steps that reduce tensions and bring the parties closer together,” a State Department spokesperson told Jewish Currents. In his memoir, former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren recalls that, while serving under president Barack Obama, the former vice president would often bring up a phrase he attributed to his father: “Never crucify yourself on a small cross.” In other words, don’t pursue initiatives with little chance of success and a high political cost. Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, underscored that Biden’s vice presidency taught him to apply this logic to Israel, convincing him that fighting with Netanyahu over settlement building would lead him to “hemorrhage domestic political capital.” Friedman cited right-wing attacks painting both Biden and Obama as hostile to Israel during their presidential campaigns, and noted the recent escalation of such tactics, with AIPAC’s unprecedented spending to defeat progressive candidates during the 2022 Democratic primaries. “Biden’s overarching priority is, understandably, ensuring that Democrats hold seats in Congress and the White House,” she said. “They know this is an issue that can be weaponized against them in elections.” Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and Obama’s special envoy for Israeli–Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014, added that the Biden administration wants to shift the focus of US foreign policy “to Russia and China, and avoid the Middle East dragging them back into another war.”
In interviews for this piece, more than 30 policy experts, scholars, former US officials, and human rights advocates painted a portrait of a Biden administration intent on sidelining the Israeli–Palestinian issue and defaulting to maintenance of a bygone US–Israel alliance—even as Netanyahu’s current government has exploded the terms of the relationship, attacking democratic institutions and stepping up violence against Palestinians. (Many of these sources requested anonymity to protect their relationships with administration officials or to report on off-the-record meetings and conversations.) “The fundamental objective of the Biden administration in the Middle East is to calm things down,” said Indyk. Dylan Williams, senior vice president for policy and strategy at the liberal Zionist lobby J Street, said that although the Biden administration has “paid some lip service to Israeli–Palestinian conflict issues” in its efforts to secure new normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries—especially Saudi Arabia—the president has still “broken from decades of American proactivity.” Biden “seems much more comfortable with a conflict management approach,” he said. “Unfortunately, realities on the ground are outpacing the administration.”
In February, Smotrich, a militant settler who was already Netanyahu’s finance minister, became a secondary minister in the defense ministry in charge of civilian issues for Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank—matters previously under the purview of the Israeli army. According to experts on international law, this transfer of governance from military to civilian control means Israel has officially—albeit quietly, without any grand pronouncements—begun annexing the West Bank. Smotrich’s reign has been characterized by Israeli settler rampages in multiple West Bank villages, the establishment of several illegal settler outposts, and an uptick in the demolition of Palestinian structures. Daily settler violence has led Palestinians to abandon a number of villages. “No administration that I have worked for, beginning with the Reagan administration, has ever confronted a situation that we confront right now,” said Miller. Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned that refusing to confront Israel about its human rights abuses will tarnish Biden’s legacy. “He’s going to be the president that ended Israel as he would like to believe it exists—Israel as a democracy, Israel as a country of shared values with the US,” she said.
Biden’s commitment to the Zionist cause is, in his telling, part of a family tradition. In a speech at the 2013 AIPAC conference, Biden described being introduced to the State of Israel around the dinner table, where his father told him that the only way to ensure that the Holocaust couldn’t happen again was to safeguard the existence of the Jewish state. First elected to the US Senate in 1972, Biden rose through the ranks of a Democratic Party whose members supported Israel axiomatically. “I did more fundraisers for AIPAC in the ’70s and early ’80s” than “just about … anybody,” Biden said in his 2013 speech to the group. From 1997 until he became vice president, he was the chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he served as the consummate Israeli ally. “I am a Zionist,” he declared in 2007. “Were there no Israel, America would have to invent one” because “you protect our interests like we protect yours,” he told a crowd celebrating Israel’s Independence Day in 2015.
In turn, pro-Israel figures have supported his rise. Between 1990 and 2008, Biden received $410,000 from Israel-advocacy groups and sympathetic individual donors for his Senate campaigns, according to the campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets. During his ill-fated 2008 presidential campaign, his financial director was Michael Adler, an AIPAC activist and former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council; the campaign raised about $200,000 from pro-Israel donors. During his successful 2020 presidential run, he raked in over $3.7 million in campaign contributions from the same constituency. Biden’s Israel politics did not, however, arise because of the need for campaign donations, according to Douglas Bloomfield, a former legislative director for AIPAC who worked closely with Biden during his time in the Senate. “He came to the Senate sympathetic and knowledgeable on the issue. He felt it in his guts,” said Bloomfield. “The [financial] support came because he was good, and because he was good, more support came in. It became a symbiotic relationship.”
In keeping with longtime American foreign policy, Biden has opposed Israeli settlements for decades, reportedly warning former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at a 1982 meeting that Israel was losing support in this country because of the settlements policy. Still, as Obama’s vice president, Biden “did more than any other cabinet-level official to shield Netanyahu” from US pressure over settlements, according to a report by Jewish Currents editor-at-large Peter Beinart. In March 2010, Biden visited Israel to push Netanyahu to advance negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). On the very day he began his trip, the Israeli government announced an expansion plan for an East Jerusalem settlement. Biden condemned the settlement plan and criticized it during a dinner with Netanyahu, but he did not cancel his meeting, as some Obama administration officials urged him to do. A few days later, Biden used a speech at Tel Aviv University as an opportunity to praise the US–Israel alliance, and said he “appreciate[d]” that Israel “is putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence” of similar expansions during Israeli–Palestinian talks. Unsatisfied with this response, the White House drew up a set of consequences for Netanyahu in the case that the Israeli prime minister refused to seriously discuss an end to Israel’s military occupation during planned negotiations with the PA. Biden in turn placed a call to Netanyahu that “gave Bibi a strong indication that whatever was being planned in Washington was hot-headedness and he could defuse it when he got back,” one Obama administration official told Beinart.
At other times during his vice presidency, Biden did express mild criticism of Israeli policy, though he preferred not to air such disputes publicly. “His ethos was to keep disagreements with Israel within the family,” said the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide. “In meetings with Israeli officials, he could be quite critical behind closed doors, but he kept it there.” When it made its way into the public sphere, his criticism was always couched in admiration for Israel. “We’re frank with our Israeli friends about the actions that we consider counterproductive: expanding settlement activity and construction,” he said in a 2014 address to the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum. In 2016, after a trip to the Middle East left him feeling pessimistic about the prospects for Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, Biden went so far as to express “overwhelming frustration” at Israeli policies during a speech to J Street. “The present course Israel’s on is not one that’s likely to secure its existence as a Jewish, democratic state—and we have to make sure that happens,” he said. The former Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide suggested that Biden’s public criticism of settlements was in fact “Obama speaking through Biden,” as Netanyahu had already dismissed Obama as hostile.
During Biden’s run for president in 2019 and 2020, he maintained his image as a close ally of Israel, albeit with some friendly critique. Speaking by recorded video at the AIPAC conference in 2020, he vowed to “always stand with and for a secure, democratic Jewish State of Israel,” while also criticizing Israeli plans to build more settlements and annex the West Bank. Meanwhile, he repeatedly denounced calls to use US military aid as leverage to pressure Israel, calling such proposals “bizarre”—even though the idea enjoyed majority support among Democratic Party voters, according to a Data for Progress poll, and had been embraced by Senator Bernie Sanders, his leading rival for the presidency. The split illustrated how, as his party has changed, Biden’s politics on Israel have remained the same. “Joe Biden has been in Washington for a very long time,” said Munayyer. “His policy is stuck in a bygone era. We have electric vehicles and streaming high-definition broadcasts, but Joe Biden’s Israel policy fits better alongside 8-tracks and Ford Pintos.”
On March 7th, representatives from an array of US-based Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim organizations arrived at the State Department for a meeting with Hady Amr, the Biden administration’s special representative for Palestinian affairs. According to three people who were at the get-together and who requested anonymity to share details of an off-the-record gathering, the meeting attendees came with a number of demands for the Biden administration. Two topics in particular dominated the discussion. The first was Biden’s support for Israel’s entry into the US Visa Waiver Program, which would smooth Israeli travel to the US—and which advocates oppose because of Israel’s unequal treatment of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim American travelers to Israel/Palestine. The second was the advocates’ request for official recognition of the Nakba, when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by Zionist militias during the founding of the Israeli state.
Amr was sympathetic to the group’s concerns about the visa program, and “was definitely interested in exploring the idea of what the administration might do” to recognize the Nakba, according to one meeting attendee. He grew visibly emotional as Palestinians shared harrowing personal experiences of life under Israeli rule, according to a second source who was present. Still, “there is a certain ceiling beyond which he’s not able to push things,” the first attendee said. A third person at the meeting said Amr “kept punting the conversation back to Congress,” repeatedly imparting the message that “everyone needs to go to Congress, to get Congress to pressure us more.” Ultimately, the administration said nothing about the Nakba, and has conducted an intensive, months-long process to secure Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, which is expected to be implemented this fall.
The March meeting was one of many that Amr has held with Palestinian human rights advocates and experts. The mid-level official has a reputation for being one of the most knowledgeable people in the administration about the realities of Palestinian life under occupation. “I believe that he’s frustrated that nothing good is happening, and yet he has to justify the policy,” said James Zogby, the head of the Arab American Institute. Zogby said there are times when Amr has been able to get “a little bit more out of a statement than would have been there otherwise, or a little more aid than would have been forthcoming. He’s in the room and that makes a difference. But can he change the policy? No.”
Amr started his Biden administration tenure as the deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian affairs. In November 2022, he was appointed to a brand-new State Department position: special representative for Palestinian affairs. One source who used to work with Amr said the change in position from deputy assistant secretary to special representative—which was cast as a promotion by some reporters—in fact undermined Amr’s ability to effect change. “As fancy as the title is, it basically sidelined him,” the source said. “He was in a more promising role when he was dealing with Israel/Palestine. He was meeting with the Israelis and telling them, ‘don’t do this, do this, these are the things that are important.’” By contrast, the former colleague said, making him special representative to the Palestinians narrowed his portfolio and left him pigeonholed. Beyond Amr, “there isn’t a deep bench of people who are known to work on the conflict,” said one Middle East policy expert. “Personnel is policy.” In another choice that indicates his downgrading of this issue, Biden did not name a special envoy to work on Israel/Palestine, a position that existed in every administration since President Bill Clinton’s.
Amr is one of several mid-level officials who would like to see the Biden administration do more on this issue. “A number of people working the file know the policy is inadequate,” said Daniel Levy, the president of the US/Middle East Project. “But they know the lay of the land at the most senior level, and therefore know that they’ve got no chance.” Human rights activists who have met with multiple mid-level administration officials echo Levy’s analysis. “I didn’t get serious pushback from any of them to what we’re bringing forward on the extent of the human rights violations and the complicity of the Israeli government. They all get it,” said one human rights activist. But, as one Washington civil society expert who has met with administration officials put it, “the people who agree with us inside the administration are not the ones who have the power to make decisions.” Shibley Telhami, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and a professor at the University of Maryland who was a senior adviser to Obama’s Middle East special envoy George Mitchell, said this dynamic is not unusual. “People at that level never really make policy. Even secretaries of state often don’t make policy on this issue. It’s a presidential issue.”
The disconnect between mid-level bureaucrats and the president can be felt, for example, in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), the office tasked with implementing the Leahy Law, which bars US aid from going to foreign security forces found to have committed gross human rights violations with impunity. “Leahy is the perfect example, where officials in DRL have great enthusiasm about the stuff we bring to them,” said one DC-based human rights advocate. “They’re also very candid. They only walk with this file so far, and it gets passed on to a political appointee who looks at it from a different lens.” Telhami said that “there are certainly people at the cabinet level who don’t believe a two-state solution is possible anymore. But of course, they’re not going to ever say that publicly when working for an administration that says that’s still the goal.”
At the most senior levels of foreign policymaking are two figures whose political instincts on Israel are closer to President Biden’s: National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Those who have met with Sullivan say he has a detailed understanding of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, but his focus is on the US’s strategic competitors—Russia and China—and not on human rights. “He has a very realpolitik sense of the world,” said the DC-based civil society expert. Blinken, too, is reputed to have a strong intellectual grasp of the Palestinian plight. But he is also a loyal Biden staffer, having worked for the president for over 20 years, and his public utterances on Israel mirror his boss’s, even if he takes a harder line in private. “Blinken brings up human rights in every meeting he has, and that is not the case for any other US official,” the civil society expert said. “But no secretary of state is going to come into the US–Israel relationship and blow it up.”
Perhaps the most significant marker of the Biden administration’s timidity on Israel/Palestine is its checkered response to a spate of Trump-era decisions, which were themselves a sharp break with long-standing US policy. When Biden entered office, he inherited policies that had moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, shut down a separate consulate for Palestinians, and slashed humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees, hospitals, and infrastructure projects. Though Biden planned to keep the embassy in Jerusalem, on the campaign trail he promised to restore aid to refugees, and to reopen both the consulate in Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington. Palestinian officials viewed the two offices as symbols of Palestinian sovereignty, and framed their reestablishment as a test of Biden’s commitment to turning the page on the Trump era and reviving a two-state solution. More than two years into his presidential term, Biden has kept his word only on the issue of aid. Questioned about the consulate in congressional hearings and press conferences, administration officials have noted that Israel, as the “host government” in control of Jerusalem, has refused to grant permission for the reopening. But the Carnegie Endowment’s Hassan questioned why the White House has allowed this to be the last word on the matter. “We have some leverage here. Why not link our credentialing of Israeli diplomats with Israel’s credentialing of our diplomats? That’s reciprocity 101,” she said. “Such basic deployment of US soft power is not even on the table.”
Biden has even maintained some Trump-era shifts that softened US opposition to settlements. Though the administration reversed a decision permitting US government funding to go to scientific projects conducted in settlements, it has not undone two other policies that broke with decades of precedent: the rescinding of a State Department memo declaring that the US views settlements as “inconsistent with international law,” and the allowance of Israeli settlement products sold in the US to be labeled “made in Israel,” rather than “made in the West Bank.” Hassan said that during the previous Israeli government—a fragile anti-Netanyahu coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid—the Biden administration argued that rolling back these policies might have risked the coalition’s collapse. “Now, we have an extremist Netanyahu government. Why aren’t we rolling those things back?” she said.
The Biden administration has also doubled down on the Trump-era normalization agreements with Arab states, known as the Abraham Accords, and has invested considerable energy in trying to secure the biggest normalization prize of all: official diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. “Biden belongs to the school of thought that holds that the fundamental root of the Arab–Israeli conflict is the inability of Arab states to come to terms with a Jewish state in their midst rather than the continued dispossession and occupation of Palestinians. If that’s your view, then normalization is the top priority,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the director of the think tank’s program on Palestine and Israeli–Palestinian affairs. “They’ve allocated real political capital toward normalization. That is very, very different from their approach to a two-state solution, which is a talking point and nothing more.”
The Biden administration’s balancing act on Israel—voicing concern or even condemnation of specific actions while not upsetting the broader relationship—has been repeatedly tested by its ally’s worsening conduct. In October 2021, Bennett’s government declared six leading Palestinian human rights groups to be “terrorist” organizations. Though the Biden administration resisted pressure to put the groups on the US terror watch list, it also “didn’t want to stand up publicly and say, ‘No, we think this is stupid.’ They didn’t want to take the political heat for that,” said Hadar Susskind, the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now. A few months later, in May 2022, the renowned Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while reporting on an Israeli military raid on Jenin. (Abu Akleh was the second American citizen to be killed in the West Bank that year; 78-year-old Omar Assad had recently suffered a heart attack after being handcuffed, gagged, and blindfolded at a checkpoint.) Amid deflections by Israeli officials, who raised the possibility that Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian gunmen, the State Department sent mixed messages: They called for whoever was responsible for her death to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law,” but also said that Israel, which has rarely held soldiers accountable for such acts, had “the capability to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation.” Though the State Department also called for Israel to review its open fire policies, it eventually backtracked, saying “it is not on us or any other country” to tell a foreign military what to do; in November, the White House also distanced itself from an independent investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing opened by the FBI. (A department spokesperson told Jewish Currents in August that “senior US officials, including the secretary” had “engaged with Israel” on “introducing policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.”) “It’s just unbelievable the extent to which the president has failed to speak out even when American citizens are involved,” said Telhami. “It is shocking for an administration not to have a high-level statement coming from the president, saying ‘no, this is not acceptable.’”
On December 29th, 2022, Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in for his sixth term as prime minister, replacing the Lapid–Bennett government with the most far-right cabinet in recent Israeli history. For national security minister, Netanyahu tapped Ben-Gvir—a disciple of extremist Israeli American rabbi Meir Kahane and a settler who distinguished himself on the campaign trail by calling for the expulsion of “disloyal” Palestinians from Israel. Smotrich, the finance minister and secondary defense minister, supports segregation between Arabs and Jews in maternity wards and once lamented that Israel didn’t “finish the job” of expelling Palestinians in 1948. Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, has made it his priority to advance legislation gutting the power of the Israeli Supreme Court, which is the only check on the authority of the Knesset. In exchange for their support of his premiership, Netanyahu promised Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party and Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power Party that he would expand settlements and pursue annexation of the West Bank, subject to “timing” and Israel’s “international interests.”
Faced with this extreme juncture, the Biden administration stuck to typical bromides. Biden congratulated Netanyahu upon his November election victory; after Netanyahu formed his cabinet in December, Blinken said he “[looked] forward to working with the new Israeli government to promote peace, security, and prosperity in the region, and to advance the interests and values that have been at the heart of our relationship for decades.” But behind the scenes, the administration attempted to control the damage. Smotrich initially demanded to be made defense minister, a post that involves high-level and frequent contacts with the Pentagon; the Biden administration pressured Netanyahu to deny him the post. When Netanyahu countered by promising Smotrich a newly created position within the defense ministry, handing him responsibility for the civil administration of West Bank settlements, the Biden administration warned Netanyahu that they would see the transfer of West Bank authority from military to civilian control as an escalatory step toward annexation. Netanyahu went ahead anyway, and Smotrich assumed the role in February. When asked about the move at a press briefing, the State Department said that it remained deeply concerned about annexation and any unilateral steps that increase tension.
In private meetings, Biden administration officials claim to have reined in some of Israel’s bad behavior, according to an Israel/Palestine-based human rights attorney who has attended such meetings. “When we’ve raised the issue of settlements, the message is, ‘Yes, thousands of new housing units were announced, but there were going to be so many more’” absent US pressure, the attorney said. The attorney heard a similar message regarding the fate of two West Bank areas—Khan al-Ahmar and Masafer Yatta—that Israel has targeted for demolition and forcible transfer. “US officials indicated that there’s a reason that neither of those have gone down—that they’re pushing the Israelis in the background,” the attorney said. (While Khan al-Ahmar has remained standing for now, in Masafer Yatta, Israel is gradually demolishing structures, pressuring Palestinian residents to leave.) Another human rights activist who has met with officials in the US embassy in Jerusalem told Jewish Currents that “the general sense from the embassy is, ‘There are too many fires, we’re only going to address specific issues that we feel we have an ability to turn off.’” In January 2023, one day before Blinken made his first trip to Israel since Netanyahu’s reelection, Zogby of the Arab American Institute met with the secretary of state and offered his advice on what Blinken should tell Israeli officials. “There have to be red lines, and there have to be conditions,” Zogby said he told Blinken, specifically naming the administration’s ability to withdraw favorable Trump-era policies. “He nodded so much. He had a serious ‘I’m really listening to you’ look on. But I didn’t for a minute think anything would change.”
As the Biden administration feared, the elevation of far-right extremists has increased strain in the region, imperiling both the White House’s ability to keep the issue on the back burner and Biden’s ambitions to expand the Abraham Accords. Ben-Gvir’s repeated visits to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, an Islamic holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount, has angered neighboring Arab states. Tensions have also run high over the near-nightly military raids that Israeli forces conduct deep inside Palestinian cities and villages in the West Bank, killing civilians and weakening the PA that is tasked with serving as Israel’s security contractor in the territory. Though the Biden administration partnered with Jordan and Egypt in February to bring Israeli and Palestinian officials together at a summit in Aqaba, Jordan—where Israel committed to temporarily refraining from discussing new settlement building in the interest of restoring stability in the West Bank—even this did not halt settlement expansion in practice. Israel carried on with a previous decision to recognize nine outposts—settlements built without government approval—and to approve plans for 9,500 settlement units, leading some observers to declare the summit meaningless. In the weeks leading up to the summit, the State Department said it was “deeply troubled” by the moves, while blocking an anti-settlement resolution from being considered by the UN Security Council. A person knowledgeable about the administration’s Israel/Palestine policy traced its opposition to the Security Council resolution to the “fallout” from an episode during Biden’s vice presidency, when Obama decided not to veto an anti-settlement resolution at the council, sparking protests in Israel and the US. “The administration’s operating assumption was that handling these issues privately would yield more influence than doing so publicly, particularly in the context of the UN given the Israeli perception that it is a hostile institution,” the source said.
In a particularly bold dismissal of US policy in the region, the Knesset passed a law in late March that led to the reestablishment of an Israeli presence in Homesh, one of four northern West Bank settlements that Israel pulled out of in 2005. The measure also prepares the ground for the reestablishment of an Israeli presence in three other settlements that Israel abandoned as part of a US-backed plan. On this occasion, in addition to the usual reproach from the State Department, the administration summoned Israel’s ambassador to a meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for the first time during Biden’s presidency—a much more serious diplomatic rebuke. But even that move was calibrated to avoid a larger diplomatic crisis, as it was only the deputy secretary who summoned the ambassador, rather than the top-ranking diplomat, the secretary of state. Regardless, the escalating tensions have forced the administration to pay more attention to the issue than it did under the previous Israeli government, according to the person with knowledge of the administration’s thinking. “The Israeli–Palestinian issue is not a global priority like China or Ukraine, but within Middle East policy, it’s getting more attention at the State Department and the [National Security Council]”—in part due to rising levels of violence in the region, the source said. But the increase in attention, and high-level visits, has not convinced the Israeli government to change course.
In Congress, some Democrats have reacted to the Netanyahu government by calling for a reassessment of the US–Israel relationship. In April, Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Sen. Sanders co-wrote a letter signed by 12 other Democrats urging Biden to investigate whether Israel is using US weapons to commit human rights abuses against Palestinians, in violation of US law. The letter came shortly after a call from Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy for the Biden administration to consider conditioning aid to Israel in response to the new government’s entrenchment of the occupation. Calls to leverage US military aid to Israel have even been echoed by former US diplomats: In a November 2022 Washington Post op-ed published shortly before the Netanyahu government took power, Aaron David Miller and Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, urged Biden to tell Israel that the US “will not provide offensive weapons or other assistance for malign Israeli actions in Jerusalem or the occupied territories,” and that the US’s defense of Israel in international forums “has its limits.”
But in an interview with Jewish Currents, Miller said the chances that Biden will adopt this policy shift are “slim to none,” explaining: “The administration does not want to get caught between a Republican Party that is going to hammer it for any pressure on Israel on one hand, and members of its own party, who are divided and conflicted, on the other.” Indyk, the former Obama envoy, similarly said there was no chance that Biden would heed the calls of those who want to leverage aid to Israel. “President Biden doesn’t subscribe to that theory. His approach is to put his arm around Israel’s leaders and try to nudge them forward,” he said. This is in part, Indyk says, because Biden sees military assistance to Israel as “important to building deterrence power to counter the Iranian threat. Why would you get into a fight with your ally on whom you depend to help maintain regional stability?”
Throughout the escalating disputes over West Bank settlements, Biden himself has largely stayed silent, save for the CNN interview with Zakaria in which he lamented the extreme positions of Netanyahu’s ministers. The one issue he has spoken out on personally is the Israeli government’s plan to curb the independence of the Israeli judiciary. As J Street’s Williams pointed out, “The concern with the judicial overhaul has reached the center-right of the organized Jewish community, which inherently creates a lot more operating room for anyone, including the president, to voice those concerns.” On March 28th, Biden pronounced himself “very concerned” about the judicial overhaul, adding that he hoped Netanyahu would “try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.” In July, when Netanyahu’s coalition began to push for a vote on a measure that banned the Israeli Supreme Court from overturning government decisions on the basis of “reasonableness,” Biden sent a statement to Axios saying that “the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less,” and that “given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this—the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus.” But when, on July 24th, Netanyahu’s government passed the law despite opposition from diaspora Jews and Israelis alike, the White House said only that it was “unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority.” The administration has otherwise declined to impose any costs on the Israeli government for its anti-democratic measures. Speaking at the Aspen Institute in July, Blinken said Biden’s comments on the judicial overhaul emerged from a “unique partnership with Israel. President Biden, more than anyone I know, is, in his gut, committed to Israel’s security, and that will never change.”
The question for those who work on the issue is whether Blinken is right that Biden cannot be swayed. Americans for Peace Now’s Susskind cautioned that the president’s legacy “remains unwritten.” “I think the events that are happening on the ground could push him somewhere different,” he said. But if Biden indeed stays the course regardless of the Israeli government’s radical agenda, experts say that history will remember it as a failure. “In the absence of a major shift in policy, Biden’s legacy in Israel/Palestine will be apartheid,” said Matthew Duss, executive vice president at the Center for International Policy and a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. Sanders. “That’s something that everyone involved will have to contend with for a long time.”
Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents