Mondoweiss / November 26, 2022
At the beginning of November, when Israel and the United States held elections within days of each other, it seemed clear that the pull in opposite directions embodied in the disappointing showing for the American far-right and the strong showing for their Israeli counterparts portended tension in the “unshakeable” alliance between the two countries. Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t even formed his government yet, but already we are beginning to see how that new government will make things difficult for the White House.
And the early indications from Joe Biden’s administration indicate a continuation of the weak responses that have characterized his policy toward Israel for decades.
The hand-wringing was frantic as the vote count in Israel was finalized and it became clear that, while Netanyahu’s Likud was once again going to be the largest party in the Knesset—as it had been in the previous six elections—the Religious Zionism bloc would be the second biggest in the incoming governing coalition. The two main parties in that coalition were led by Bezalel Smotrich, whose blatantly racist policies are reminiscent of the late radical Meir Kahane, a man so honestly racist he was banned from the Knesset; and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who openly espouses his admiration for and adherence to Kahane’s ideology.
The first concern Washington had was Smotrich’s ambition to be the Minister of Defense. Biden administration officials immediately told Netanyahu that this wasn’t going to work for them, and Netanyahu made it clear that he wouldn’t give Smotrich that post, prompting some faux outrage from the head of Religious Zionism. But Smotrich never really had a chance at the Defense portfolio. He has much less military experience than most Israelis, which made him a highly dubious choice even for his fellow right-wingers. And Netanyahu wanted to keep Defense for Likud anyway.
But it was a welcome opportunity to craft a performance for Washington, suggesting that Netanyahu would “listen to reason.” With that illusion cast, the provocative steps began to coalesce. Ben-Gvir got the Public Security ministry he wanted. That puts him in control of Israel’s police and border patrol, two entities that interact a great deal with Palestinians in 1948 Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. It also controls firearms licenses, and Israel’s International Homeland Security Forum, meaning Ben-Gvir will have an enormous influence all over the world on such matters as cybersecurity and so-called “counter-terrorism” procedures.
Another prominent feature that has emerged from the coalition talks is that Netanyahu has apparently conceded to Smotrich’s demand that he be given control of the so-called “Civil Administration,” which is the military regime that administers both the Palestinian areas (except for those meager powers doled out to the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo-designated Areas A and B) and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Religious Zionist platform calls for dismantling this administration and reverting authority to the relevant Israeli ministries and authorities, no different than in 1948 Israel.
As Shaqued Morag of Peace Now put it, “Smotrich sees Area C as Israeli territory and he is going to implement his vision of Jewish supremacy there, meaning he will allow settlements to take Palestinian land and do everything in his power to suppress the minority of Palestinians living in Area C, meaning the de facto annexation of the territory.”
Yet thus far, there has been little buzz from the Biden administration over this possibility, a stark contrast with the uproar over the question of Israeli annexation of West Bank that we witnessed just a few years ago. While Israel would not make a formal declaration of annexation if Smotrich has his way—at least, not immediately—de facto annexation would be the result.
The potential fault lines between even the meek Biden administration and Israel don’t stop with Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. Netanyahu remains under indictment, and there’s a good chance that if his trial is ever completed, he will face severe penalties, including prison time. Fortunately for him, much of Israel’s right wing, including some in the opposition, support a law that would severely curb the power of Israel’s judiciary, by allowing the government to bypass the court with a vote.
Netanyahu has a clear personal interest in such a law, but the ramifications would be far wider. The High Court of Justice is a tool of the Israeli apartheid regime, but part of the role it plays is to offer a small modicum of democracy and the rule of law to the state. It usually sides with the Israeli military when Palestinians bring cases before it (which is very difficult for Palestinians to do, as the first judicial line for them are military courts), but sometimes they do not, creating a veneer of fairness and angering the Israeli right. If the court becomes subordinate to the government, that veneer will disappear and will weaken even further the frequent arguments in support of Israel of its being the “only democracy in the Middle East” and its having such symmetry and “shared values” with the United States.
While these moves remain speculative—the government hasn’t been formed yet, and the potential backlash from Europe, the United Arab Emirates, and even the U.S. has yet to be measured with any certainty—there can be little doubt that they will serve to further damage the perception of Israel among liberal Americans, American Jews, and Democrats. But what will matter most will be the response of the Biden administration, particularly the reactions of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Biden himself.
Their track record, of course, suggests they will bend over backwards, even beyond the breaking point, to try to maintain business as usual with Israel. Recent events give us some clues about where Biden might want to go in facing Israeli actions that are obviously contrary to the wishes of the Democrats, and those clues don’t paint a promising picture.
The most high-profile event was the Justice Department deciding to open an investigation into the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. Both the White House and State Department were very quick to declare that the decision to have the FBI open this investigation had nothing to do with them, and that they were unaware of it. This last is almost certainly untrue. DoJ had decided several days before the announcement was made to launch this investigation. It beggars belief that they made such a potentially explosive decision and sat on it for days without telling the White House or State Department. Still, the fact that Biden and Blinken probably knew about the decision but apparently did nothing to change it, despite their obvious discomfort with it, reflects the considerable political downturn Israel’s image has taken within the Democratic party.
They clearly did not want to be seen as interceding with DoJ on Israel’s behalf in this matter. In part, that has to do with Biden’s need for DoJ to be seen as politically independent as it pursues investigations around the corruption of his predecessor. But it also reflects the pressure that was brought by the Abu Akleh family, their supporters and advocates, and the response to that from leading Democrats in Congress, such as Senator Chris Van Hollen. Biden would have a hard time defending an intercession with DoJ to members of Congress regarding an investigation into the killing of an American citizen.
The investigation into Shireen’s death is not likely to go anywhere as Israel refuses to cooperate and Biden and Blinken have made it clear that they are not going to press Israel on this matter. On the contrary, they are trying to figure out how to work with this far-right Israeli coalition. They have already dropped a strong hint to Netanyahu about one familiar face they’d like to see come back, and it’s none other than former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer.
That would be the same Ron Dermer who snuck past the White House of Barack Obama and engineered the infamous 2015 address by Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress that attempted to undermine Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal. It’s the same Dermer who called that his “proudest moment.” It’s the same Dermer who defiantly accepted an award from the Center for Security Policy, an Islamophobic hate group and, in his defiance also stood up for extremist anti-Muslim figures including Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes, Maajid Nawaz, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Yet a Biden administration official told Axios, “We had our differences with Dermer, but we would be happy to work with him in the next government.”
In other areas, the U.S. is putting genuine pressure on Israel. Bowing to pressure from Washington, the outgoing Israeli government decided to tighten government oversight of their investments. It’s a move the Biden administration has been demanding for some time, as a response to increasing Israeli cooperation with China. Israel had been reluctant to give in to this demand as it sees China as a great source of potential investment in the coming years, but finally relented under pressure from the United States.
The decision shows that the United States is capable of moving Israel when it wants to. It simply doesn’t care enough about Palestinian rights to push Israel in that regard. Of course, the politics are very different. China is seen very negatively in the United States, and pro-Israel forces here are not eager to defend growing Israeli-Chinese cooperation any more than they want to try to defend Israel’s relative lack of support for Ukraine. Still, if the Biden administration wanted to make an argument against Israel’s increasing legal discrimination against Palestinians or potentially annexing West Bank settlements, they could certainly do so within the bounds of political viability.
But the dedicated Zionists Biden and Blinken seem to have no intention of doing that. Instead, they will try to buy Palestinian acquiescence by promoting their Palestinian interlocutor for all occasions, Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr, to the post of special representative for Palestinian affairs. It’s not an ambassador-level position, but Biden and Blinken hope that this will somehow soften the blow of their unwillingness or inability to deliver on their promises to the Palestinians of reopening the PLO office in Washington and the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
It won’t soften the blow. And as Israel takes bolder steps to consolidate its possession of West Bank land and dispossession of Palestinians, Palestinian anger and frustration will continue to grow, alongside increasing Israeli fascism. It’s an explosive combination into which Biden and Blinken are pouring gasoline. The coming explosion, which is entirely avoidable with the simple application of a modicum of justice, will be as tragic as it will be bloody.
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