Biden’s response to Israel’s far-right government: avoid confrontation

Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  January 11, 2023

As Netanyahu takes an aggressively anti-Palestinian line, the White House will seek to avoid the humiliations heaped on Obama

The more things change in Israel, the harder Joe Biden is working to make sure they stay the same.

The new far-right government of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, which includes openly anti-Arab racists, is already causing concern in the White House with commitments to expand illegal settlements in the occupied territories and annex Palestinian land.

The finance minister and leader of the Religious Zionist party, Bezalel Smotrich, who repudiates establishing a Palestinian state, quickly set up a confrontation with the Palestinian Authority by seizing some of its funds and calling it an “enemy”.

The security minister and leader of the Jewish Power party, who has called for the expulsion from the country of “disloyal” Arab citizens of Israel, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has begun a crackdown on Israeli anti-government protesters while ordering the police to tear down Palestinian flags as “identification with terrorism”.

Netanyahu’s own Likud party has already instigated laws to limit the authority of the judiciary to block government policies.

Aaron David Miller, who worked for six US administrations including as an adviser on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said Biden was in uncharted territory.

“No administration has ever encountered an Israeli government like this,” he said.

Miller said that while there are red lines for the White House – including if Israel exploits the growing weakness of the Palestinian Authority in order to annex territory – the administration’s immediate response is containment.

“They are going to go to extreme lengths to avoid a sustained confrontation with the Israelis,” he said.

Already there is a flurry of diplomatic activity. Netanyahu’s point man with the US, the Israeli minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, arrived in Washington for talks earlier this week. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is expected to visit Israel next week ahead of the arrival of the secretary of state Antony Blinken, in Jerusalem at the end of the month. Then Netanyahu is scheduled to travel to Washington in February.

Where once the Palestinians were the focus of discussions, now they feature alongside Iran’s nuclear programme, Israel’s reluctance to stand with the US against Russia on Ukraine, and the Jewish state’s relations with the wider Arab world.

But the Palestinians still figure in the talks, at least to the extent that the White House does not want Israel to do anything that would force Washington to make a stand. As Sullivan told NPR last week, US policy is predicated on maintaining what some say is the illusion of a “peace process”.

“We continue to support the two-state solution, and we will oppose policies and practices that undermine the viability of the two-state solution or that cut hard against the historic status quo in Jerusalem. And I will be clear and direct on those points,” he said.

Miller recently co-authored an article calling on Biden to threaten to cut weapons supplies to Israel if the new government uses them to annex Palestinian land, expel Arabs or finally kill off the diminishing possibility of a Palestinian state. But he does not see the president taking such steps.

“Biden is preternaturally pro-Israel. Biden knows Netanyahu, he’s been humiliated by Netanyahu. But at the same time he’s got a deep, deep sense of commitment to Israel,” said Miller.

“Number two, I think Biden understands that this is bad politics. The last thing he needs is to get sandwiched between the Republican party that’s hammering him as to why he’s criticising Israel and his own Democratic party, which is increasingly divided on the subject.”

Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations with Israel, agreed that Biden has no stomach for a fight in part because of President Obama’s humiliating retreat after he tried to force a settlement construction freeze on Netanyahu in 2009.

“Obama tackled the Palestinian issue, immediately got burned and then backed away. This White House is very risk averse and it’s pretty clear that they don’t want to invest any real political capital on the Palestinians. They’ve made it clear from the beginning that they were going to be in a holding pattern,” he said.

“They see it as a losing issue because it doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions. Any progress would require some pretty heavy political lifting. They’re going to have to be prepared for confrontations with the Israeli government and with Republicans in Congress – and also with the current establishment within their own party.”

Elgindy said the White House was laying down some red lines about upsetting the status quo, “although they’re not very bright red”.

“At the same time, they’re continuing with this approach that the administration has had all along of expressing any serious disagreements privately,” he said.

Miller describes the Palestinian issue as “not ready for primetime”.

“It’s a mess and the best Biden can do is to prevent bad things, very bad things, from happening,” he said.

“But it’s hard for me to see this whole thing being managed for the next few years. There are just too many moving parts.”

High on the list of concerns is a surge in violence and the potential for the outbreak of a third Palestinian intifada. Then there is the collapsing power of the Palestinian Authority.

Some Israeli leaders regard the PA as a useful tool in administering the major Palestinian cities and acting as an arm of the Israeli occupation. But others on the right, such as Smotrich, are instinctively opposed to anything that smacks of Palestinian nationalism or state-building.

Then there is the agitation on the Israeli right to annex parts of the occupied territories.

Elgindy said any of those events could force Biden to confront Israel but he suspects they are more likely to happen by stealth and so allow the White House to avoid action.

“The collapse of the PA isn’t something that will happen overnight … It will be a slow, piecemeal disintegration,” he said.

“It’s similar with, with annexation. It’s not going to be a formal declaration in favour of annexing the West Bank. De facto annexation is happening every day with every road, every settlement. It’s going to happen much more piecemeal. So I don’t see Biden doing much at all.”

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem