Biden’s message to Netanyahu: normalization is more important than democracy

Naim Mousa

+972 Magazine  /  September 27, 2023

At a meeting on the UN sidelines, many anticipated Biden would pressure Netanyahu to halt his anti-democratic agenda. But the U.S. has other priorities.

In a Manhattan hotel, amid the resounding echoes of hundreds of protesters outside, U.S. President Joe Biden held a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. It was the first time the President had sat face-to-face with Netanyahu since his return to power in Israel, leading the most extreme right-wing government in the country’s history. While many assumed the meeting would be cold, citing Biden’s and Netanyahu’s increasingly conflicting political views, both leaders set their personal differences aside and made it clear that U.S.-Israeli relations were as strong and stable as ever.

However, it is the topics discussed during the meeting that truly shed light on the state of these relations. In its summary of the meeting, the White House highlighted the leaders’ discussions on the threat of Iran, normalization with neighboring states, and macro-economic projects; the Palestinians, the two-state solution, and concerns over “fundamental changes to Israel’s democratic system” were secondary issues. Notably, the summary of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office referred only to the first cluster of topics, and made no mention of the latter.

To understand the implications of the meeting, it is important to first understand the White House’s perspective. Biden’s foremost foreign policy priorities are addressing the war in Ukraine and countering China’s ascent as a global economic, military, and geopolitical leader. The latter is especially important given that the Middle East is no longer under America’s hegemonic influence; and in addition to Beijing’s growing influence, Russia’s intervention in Syria has given Moscow a major foothold in the region, with both powers often viewed more positively there compared to the United States.

More recently, the growing significance of alternative forums and projects, such as BRICS and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, are further eroding Western hegemony in international affairs. In the Middle East, this was most strongly felt by the China-brokered reconciliation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in May 2023, with both countries becoming members of BRICS just three months later (in addition to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt). A day after the Biden-Netanyahu meeting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad landed in Beijing for an official state visit just months after the Arab League reinstated Syria’s membership in May 2023, ending its decade-long diplomatic isolation.

Consequently, Israel’s importance to American interests in the region has taken a backseat, with countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey now assuming equal or even greater importance in the eyes of the U.S. establishment. Meanwhile, Israel has been making increasingly unilateral decisions in its Middle East policy, deviating from its historical practice of close coordination with the United States.

This trend was exemplified when Netanyahu publicly and vehemently opposed President Barack Obama’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran, culminating in his infamous 2015 address to a Republican-controlled Congress, despite the deal enjoying support from Israel’s major Western allies. The speech epitomized the strained relations between Netanyahu and the Democratic Party, and may have influenced the Obama administration’s rare rebuke of Israel the following year, when it abstained from a UN resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied land.

Domestic shifts

The Israeli government may have grown accustomed to its “special relationship” with the United States, believing that its political and strategic status would exempt it from having to consider U.S. input on its actions, especially on its treatment of Palestinians. Indeed, members of Netanyahu’s current coalition have expressed frustration with the need to appease Washington. In July, National Security Minister and leader of the Jewish Power party, Itamar Ben Gvir, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, “President Biden needs to realize that we are no longer a star on the American flag.”

However, a crucial domestic development in the United States is also impacting the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu: the rise of an alternative Israel-focused lobbying force within the Democratic Party. While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) historically held a bipartisan monopoly on such lobbying, its attention has shifted more to the growing far-right wing of the Republican Party, which largely supports Israel without question. Meanwhile, opposing organizations have aligned themselves with Democrats, often advocating for an approach that adheres to the party’s emphasis on “democracy” and “human rights” (when it is convenient for their interests), with many groups echoing the liberal Zionist discourse of protecting Israel’s status as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

In contrast with AIPAC, for example, the “center-left” J Street openly criticizes various Israeli policies and has regularly taken a commendable — though often insufficient — stance on the occupation and the oppression of Palestinians inside Israel and in the occupied territories. Most notably, J Street staunchly opposes Netanyahu’s coalition and actively supports progressive Democratic candidates, while AIPAC has countered by supporting more right-wing Democrats and Republican candidates in elections (including many who deny that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election). Thus, while AIPAC still maintains bipartisan support, its influence among the Democrats is gradually being challenged by more progressive representatives. 

In addition to J Street, organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who back the “Squad” — a small but prominent bloc of progressive Democrats in Congress that include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — have also managed to make inroads in the ranks of the party when it comes to speaking out on Palestinian rights. Still, their impact on the White House’s actual policies have yet to yield serious results, as the party’s traditional leadership and the wider U.S. bureaucratic establishment remains firmly in control of decision-making processes.

Taking these developments together, we get a more nuanced perspective on Biden’s perceived “snub” of Netanyahu by not extending an invitation to the White House, nearly three years after the president took office. Such an invitation is largely ceremonial, with substantive discussions usually taking place on the sidelines of events like the UN General Assembly, as former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren has noted. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is still eager for the invitation to bolster his statesmanlike image amid the political instability back home, namely the mass protests against his coalition’s plans to overhaul the Israeli judiciary.

A diplomatic tightrope

So, what was the point of the meeting in New York, but not in the White House? It is possible that Biden is trying to send a message to Netanyahu that the Prime Minister has to fall in line with his international agenda. One of Biden’s primary concerns is preventing Saudi Arabia from rapprochement with Beijing, seeking instead to strengthen U.S. military ties with the kingdom. As reported in the New York Times, Biden is hoping to establish a “mutual defense treaty” with Riyadh, similar to American agreements with South Korea and Japan, aimed at countering China.

In addition to providing greater military support, the deal would reportedly enlist Israel in establishing a civil nuclear program in Saudi Arabia in exchange for diplomatic normalization between the two countries. However, despite the prospect of regional integration and profitable weapons exports, Israel is not keen on seeing other Middle Eastern countries expand their military capabilities, which would reduce Israel’s “qualitative military edge” — a fear evidenced by the Israeli government’s stalling in the sale of American-made F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, despite the Abraham Accords.

At the same time, the far-right Israeli government’s aggressive policies in the occupied territories pose a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for Saudi negotiators, who would almost certainly demand concessions to the Palestinians that senior ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition have ruled out (at least publicly). Hence, not only will normalization be extremely unpopular among Arab and Muslim publics globally, but the inability to secure meaningful gestures to the Palestinians may make it almost impossible to legitimize the deal.

On top of all this, the Israeli government has not followed the United States in its sanctions on Russia due to the war in Ukraine, nor has it cut off ties with Moscow; on the contrary, Russian-Israeli relations are warming. This is the more likely purpose of the show Biden put on with Netanyahu: to send a message that the White House is displeased with Israel not toeing the U.S. foreign policy line.

Given these tensions, why did numerous analysts and pundits anticipate that Biden would focus on pressuring Netanyahu to halt his anti-democratic initiatives and restore “democracy” in Israel? Despite appearing deeply concerned by Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms, Biden’s decision not to press firmly on the issue in his meeting suggests it is not really a priority of his administration; Israel’s recent acceptance into the U.S. waiver program, despite much criticism and pressure to prevent the move, further demonstrates this fact. It’s likely that his strong rhetoric on the issue may simply be aimed at appeasing more progressive voices and lobby groups in his party without meaningfully addressing it — a tactic he and his administration have used in countless other contexts.

Indeed, the protests against Netanyahu outside the New York hotel last week reflect rather well the general consensus within the American bureaucratic apparatus, and arguably among many liberal pundits, on the Israeli far-right’s agenda. The protesters were almost exclusively focused on the government’s judicial overhaul, brandishing Israeli flags, with little, if any, place given to Palestinian voices. The question of the occupation was largely ignored, and the assertion by Palestinians, including those with Israeli citizenship, that “real democracy” had never actually existed in Israel went unheard. In other words, most of the protesters, much like the Biden administration, seemed more concerned with Israel looking like a democracy than actually being one.

Naim Mousa is a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Nazareth currently based in New York; he is a fourth year student at New York University and works in the International Department at the Mossawa Center – The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel.