Can the U.S.-Israel relationship survive a far-right government ?

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2016 (Haim Zach - GPO)

Mitchell Plitnick

+972 Magazine  /  November 30, 2022

Israel’s new coalition and growing hostility toward AIPAC are straining the countries’ ‘unbreakable’ bond. But don’t expect major U.S. policy change.

The results of the recent Israeli and U.S. elections raised significant questions about the future of the so-called “unbreakable” relationship between the two countries. In Israel, the country’s most radically right-wing elements are set to take on powerful roles in the next government. The U.S. election, meanwhile, saw the most prominent pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States become the very face of money in U.S. politics. And then a new source of tension between the two countries arose when, shortly after the midterms, the United States finally gave in to relentless pressure and opened an official investigation into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist whom Israeli forces shot dead in Jenin last May.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party will return to lead the incoming government. Netanyahu brings with him the Religious Zionist bloc, which includes the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party and the fanatically homophobic Noam party. Bezalel Smotrich, leader of Religious Zionism, and Itamar Ben Gvir, head of Otzma Yehudit, are far-right figures who will undoubtedly alienate liberal Americans, and liberal American Jews in particular. But as their joint election slate comprised the second largest bloc in the coalition before they split into separate parties after the election, they will undoubtedly be given prominent ministerial roles.

Perhaps all this wouldn’t matter so much if the U.S. actually had been swept by the much-anticipated “red wave” — a supposed backlash against the incumbent Democrats that, pundits and strategists persistently warned, would hand the Republican party firm control of the House of Representatives and at least a slim majority in the Senate. But that’s not the way it turned out.

Instead, Democrats held on to the Senate and Republicans managed only a razor-thin majority in the House. While that means Republicans will be able to frustrate some of President Joe Biden’s plans, their ability to do so will be weaker than they had expected, especially regarding international affairs, where the executive branch of government holds more power than Congress does.

Problems for the White House

Biden’s foreign policy has been at best indifferent, and at times even hostile, toward Palestinian rights. He is not merely inclined to bend to political forces and long-standing U.S. policy toward Israel; he is a true believer in the Jewish state, a self-proclaimed “Zionist.” It is, for Biden, at least as much a personal and ideological position as a political one.

But Netanyahu, who is slated to return to the prime minister’s office, has a close relationship with the Republican party, which aligns much more closely with the incoming Israeli government than that of even the most pro-Israel Democrats. Where Smotrich and Ben Gvir present a problem for Democrats, Republican politicians find common ground with these exemplars of the extreme Israeli right.

This is not just an image problem for Israel. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, one of the most steadfast of Israel’s supporters in the Senate, warned Netanyahu back in September that, if he won the upcoming election, entering a coalition with Otzma Yehudit would have “negative consequences” for Israel’s relationship with the United States. According to reports, Menendez stood firm on this warning despite Netanyahu growing visibly angry with the senator.

The problem for Netanyahu is a thorny one. Republican control of the House of Representatives is only a very minor victory for him. The White House has most of the authority on foreign policy, and without the Senate, Republicans will be limited in how much they can obstruct Biden and the Democrats on foreign affairs.

Netanyahu’s difficulties with Democrats are not solely based on Smotrich and Ben Gvir, but also stem in large part from his own decision, while Barack Obama was president, to spurn Israel’s traditional pursuit of bipartisanship by embracing the Republicans and actively undermining Obama. The notorious episode in which Netanyahu worked behind the president’s back with then-Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, to arrange an address to a joint session of Congress to speak against Obama’s signature foreign policy goal — the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — remains a sore point among Democrats, despite Biden’s attempts to move forward in his relationship with Netanyahu.

The new Israeli government will also have to contend with an increasingly negative view of Israel and its role in U.S. domestic politics. Last year, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC decided to get into the field of campaign financing. Despite its name, AIPAC had not been a political action committee (which is what “PAC” normally signifies in U.S. politics), a body which is legally allowed to raise and spend money directly on partisan electoral campaigns. But last year, it formed two new political action committees and established partnerships with others in order to directly finance individual political campaigns. In prior years, they could neither endorse candidates nor finance campaigns, although their commentary and lobbying on behalf of Israeli interests gave clear signals to other PACs as to where their contributions should go.

While the decision to get involved directly in political campaigns and financing allowed AIPAC to capitalize on its many deep-pocketed contacts and unquestioned skill at political campaigning, it also made their work much more visible and, therefore, a much greater focus of public debate. Numerous Democratic politicians, including some long-time AIPAC allies, criticized AIPAC for targeting some of their candidates.

Perhaps the most shocking AIPAC target was Democratic Representative Andy Levin of Michigan. The son of long-time pro-Israel stalwart Carl Levin, Andy is an observant Jew, a leader in his Jewish community, and a self-proclaimed Zionist. But he also submitted a bill in Congress that would have made the two-state solution official U.S. policy and would have implemented some small measures to try to promote that solution.

This was too much for AIPAC, which worked hard to ensure the victory of Levin’s primary opponent, Haley Stevens, a more centrist Democrat who, though not Jewish, takes a harder line on support for Israel in its occupation of the West Bank and siege on Gaza. AIPAC targeted numerous progressive candidates, funneling money to their opponents and running advertisements criticizing them. Notably, those ads never mentioned Israel, instead finding other ways to attack the progressive candidates, usually by focusing on domestic issues.

Most damaging of all to AIPAC’s reputation was its decision to back dozens of Republicans who denied the validity of Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. In response to severe criticism over these endorsements, AIPAC argued that it is solely focused on the U.S. relationship with Israel, which struck a hollow note with many American Jews and others.

With this growing partisan divide over Israel and amid a period of transition to a new Congress and Knesset, the announcement from the U.S. Department of Justice that the FBI will open an investigation into Israel’s killing of Shireen Abu Akleh created a new source of tension between the two allies. Abu Akleh’s killing, unlike most Palestinian deaths at Israeli hands, has remained a sore point for many around the world and even some in Washington. That she was an American citizen and a prominent journalist might not have made much of a difference in the past, but now, with Israel’s image among Democratic voters starting to diminish, Abu Akleh’s cause was taken up by prominent members of Congress.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen has been leading the call in the Senate for this investigation, in a rare instance of a mainstream Democrat applying consistent and ongoing pressure on the White House to take action over Israeli objections. In June, Van Hollen took the lead on a letter from 24 senators calling for full U.S. involvement in an investigation. In September, he explicitly questioned the veracity of Israel’s conclusion about Abu Akleh’s death, which, at that time, was that an IDF soldier was returning fire from Palestinian militants and accidentally shot her, although no such activity was reportedly present. Van Hollen’s continued pressure bolstered a letter that had been sent from the House of Representatives in May led by Reps. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), Lou Correa (D-Calif.), and Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and signed by 54 other House Democrats, nearly a quarter of the Democratic caucus, calling for an independent FBI investigation.

The investigation, with which Israel has adamantly refused to cooperate, is creating tension even before Netanyahu’s new government takes over. Once the coalition is fully assembled, the tensions are likely to get worse. If Smotrich gets the finance portfolio, as is currently expected, alongside Ben Gvir as national security minister, they won’t necessarily interact all that much with the United States. But by even further escalating Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, they may dramatically affect how Americans see Israel.

Mild threats, but little action

A measure of how concerned Biden is about this state of affairs came to light earlier this week, when Axios reported on the administration’s hopes that former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer will get a senior post in the incoming Netanyahu government. Dermer, whose ties to the Republican Party are almost as deep as Netanyahu’s, was seen by Democrats as a key figure in turning Israel away from its traditional bipartisan path in Washington and tilting heavily toward the Republicans.

There’s no reason to believe that view of Dermer has changed, yet now the Democrats in the White House — many of whom held positions in the Obama administration — want Dermer back because they can at least communicate with him in diplomatic language. They obviously do not believe that will be the case with new members of Netanyahu’s team, which will inevitably include some representatives from Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit.

The concern from Washington is warranted and will gain ground in the coming weeks as the Israeli government is formed and takes hold. Netanyahu will likely ensure that Smotrich does not get the defense portfolio he initially demanded, but Smotrich and Ben Gvir will still project an all-too-clear fascist image to the West.

Netanyahu will also certainly move to diminish the power of the Supreme Court, in order to mitigate his own criminal indictment. This will seriously harm Israel’s already dubious claim to being the “only democracy in the Middle East.” And it is looking increasingly likely that the government is going to accommodate Smotrich’s demand that Israeli settlements in the West Bank be removed from the authority of the Civil Administration and placed under the jurisdiction of the government like other Israeli towns and cities. That means Israel would be de facto annexing the settlements there.

It remains to be seen how Washington will respond to such consequential Israeli steps, but the Biden administration’s record to date suggests they will object and may make some mild diplomatic threats but will ultimately acquiesce by taking no concrete action.

Instead of confronting Netanyahu directly on these matters, the Biden administration is taking subtler steps. It has appointed Hady Amr, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, as the Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs. This upgrades the contact between the State Department and the Palestinian Authority, although to a much lesser degree than appointing a full ambassador to Palestine. The move is likely meant to offset the fact that the Biden administration will be unwilling or unable to fulfill its promises to the Palestinians to reopen the PLO office in Washington or the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

The timing of the FBI’s decision to investigate Shireen Abu Akleh’s death could also be seen as a partial response to Israel’s electoral shift toward the far right. While the White House denies it had anything to do with the Justice Department’s decision to open the investigation, reports say that the decision to launch the investigation was made just before the Israeli election, but Israel was not informed about the decision until three days after it. The idea that the Department of Justice had made such a diplomatically impactful decision and sat on it for days without notifying the White House or the State Department is far-fetched, to say the least.

Still, while these steps may be annoying to Israel, they hardly amount to a deterrent. There is little reason to believe that the United States will take significant steps in response to the sort of actions the new Israeli government seems poised to take. But the discomfort that a growing number of Democrats feel with the blind support the U.S. gives an increasingly illiberal and anti-democratic Israel is only going to expand. And that growing discomfort could very well expose the myth that the bond between the U.S. and Israel is “unbreakable.”

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer; he is the author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, published in February 2021 by The New Press