Netanyahu-Biden meeting illustrates the political madness of the U.S.-Israeli relationship

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  September 21, 2023

Biden continues to shower Netanyahu with gifts while his government continues to slight U.S. wishes — proceeding with the judicial overhaul and escalating Israeli military and settler aggression against Palestinians.

The long-awaited meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took place on Wednesday. It hardly looked like what one might have expected years ago, but the tone and tenor should be cause for concern for many reasons.

Meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session, both leaders were trying to balance the reality of significant differences over policy and their desire to maintain a strong U.S.-Israel relationship despite the fact that many of their constituents have lost faith in that relationship.

Netanyahu leads a far-right Israeli coalition that wants to continue receiving the lavish gifts of military aid and other means of financial support, as well as defense cooperation and strategic alignment with the world’s sole military superpower. But that sector of the Israeli right only wants the gifts if they are completely free, and chafes at paying even the nominal price — often merely rhetorical, symbolic, or, at best, window-dressing “concessions” — Biden and his Democratic party demand. 

Biden, for his part, is leading a party that has grown increasingly disillusioned with the Israeli government and has increasingly recognized that the Palestinians are being treated very badly, and that this is happening with full American backing. Yet his party mainstream is desperately courting pro-Israel political PACs ahead of a 2024 presidential election, which they have, through their own choices, imperiled despite likely facing a twice-impeached opponent who will be fighting numerous indictments stemming from treasonous behavior while trying to get back into power. Despite the distaste with which many Democrats view the current Israeli government — including many who still define themselves as “pro-Israel” — Biden and the rest of the Democratic leadership continue to court Israel’s favor.

While the two leaders spent most of the time at their meeting talking in private, their public statements give some sense of the flavor of their conversation. Netanyahu made his usual empty declarations about Israel’s cherishing of “democracy,” a concept that has never held in the Jewish state. And, to the extent that democratic structures exist for Jewish citizens, they are under constant attack by Netanyahu and his cronies.

“I want to reassert here before you, Mr. President, that one thing is certain, and one thing will never change,” Netanyahu said. “And that is Israel’s commitment to democracy. We will continue to uphold the values that both our proud democracies cherish.”

That statement stood in stark contrast to the words he uttered as he was leaving Israel, when he used the worst epithet he could against the protesters he knew were waiting for him in the United States. “But this time, we see demonstrations against Israel by people that are joining forces with the PLO, with Iran, and with others.” For an Israeli or supporter of Israel, there is nothing worse than being called a Palestinian or an Iranian. Such is the racism in play, and Netanyahu knows it very well. 

But this is typical of Netanyahu, who speaks very differently in Israel than he does when talking to an American audience, as he was on Wednesday. Of greater importance were his words regarding the Palestinians in the context of the desperate attempts by the Biden administration to broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel for normal relations between the two U.S. allies.

Back to Israeli-Saudi normalization

Netanyahu spoke of a “genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” but steered very clear of anything remotely hinting at a significant increase in Palestinian autonomy, let alone a state. Instead, his use of the word “peace” — a term long since rendered useless in the context of Israel’s domination and dispossession of the Palestinians — implies some accommodation that essentially codifies full Israeli control over the West Bank.

A senior Israeli diplomatic source said that Netanyahu believes that “the Palestinians have to be part of the [normalization talks], but they should not have a veto on the process.” Essentially, what that means — since, by definition, the sovereign states of Israel, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia would all have “veto power,” as there can be no agreement without all of them — is that Netanyahu is ever so generously willing to allow the Palestinians to tell the Saudis what their price for not raising a ruckus over a normalization deal would be. Otherwise, however, they will have to accept whatever crumbs they are offered. In fact, what the Palestinian Authority is said to have asked for as the price for acquiescence to a normalization deal is little more than crumbs itself. 

The Saudis, for their part, continue to play the long game, a game they can play as they are the only party that has no need to see this deal get done soon. Over the weekend, Saudi media reported that the kingdom was suspending talks with the U.S. on normalization. Then, on Wednesday, Fox News aired an interview with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) where he said that “every day we get closer” to a normalization agreement. 

The mixed signals are part of the Saudi strategy to find a deal on normalization that will allow them to appear to have significantly moved the Palestinian cause forward and also bring them the other prizes they want: a defense pact with the United States, the ability to enrich uranium in their own country, and the ability to purchase more advanced U.S. weapons than they can now. 

All of that seems like far too much for the United States to pay for what will actually do very little, if anything, to advance U.S. interests. American officials claim that this would pull the Saudis away from China, but there is no reason to believe that is the case. On the contrary, it incentivizes both Saudi Arabia and Israel to cultivate their relationships with China in order to get the benefits of that relationship and also even more gifts from the U.S.

Biden officials also claim that such a deal would enhance the stand against Iran, but that is already happening, as all of the Gulf states, the U.S., and Israel already work together on that front. All it would do is increase tensions with Iran. 

Biden and his team are also convinced that this would represent a significant foreign policy win and a big boost for the 2024 presidential election. As I have explained, that is a wildly mistaken assessment. 

Separating the Palestinians

The two-paragraph White House readout of the Biden-Netanyahu meeting offered a sharp separation of the Palestinians from all other issues. The first paragraph was filled with the usual platitudes and self-destructive vows that the United States will continue to fund, arm, and support Israel unquestioningly, no matter how authoritarian, even criminal, Israel might be or become. “President Biden reaffirmed the unbreakable bond between the two countries…and the United States’ iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security,” the readout reported. There was also an ambitious listing of planned new ventures. Interestingly, these included an expectation that there would be a reconvening of the so-called “Negev Summit,” which was canceled (Israel likes to say it was merely “postponed,” but it was canceled) because of the difficulties Israel’s repeated and escalating violence against Palestinians was causing the Arab participants, particularly Morocco and Jordan. 

That mention highlighted the separation of the Palestinians from all other projects the U.S. and Israel are pursuing in the region. It’s a convenient fantasy, but that is all it is. The Palestinians have not disappeared from the Arab agenda, however much Arab dictators might wish it would. MBS is not keeping this question in the middle of normalization talks out of devotion to Palestine, but because he has to contend with the political realities in his country and region. 

In the second paragraph, the White House addresses the question of the West Bank in typical fashion, consistently employing “both sides” language and eliding the fact that it is Israel that has massively stepped up the violence. The attacks this week in Jenin and near Jericho served to emphasize that point, yet it remains lost in Washington. Laughably, the readout talks about the “agreements” made at Aqaba and Sharm al-Sheikh, agreements which Israel publicly abrogated as soon as those meetings were over

In both cases, it was Israel that made the U.S. look like fools as they demonstrated in word and deed that they were never going to uphold the agreements struck at Aqaba and Sharm al-Sheikh. But in the readout, Biden calls on “all parties to fulfill their commitments made during meetings held earlier this year in Aqaba, Jordan and Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, to include refraining from further unilateral measures.” The idea that the Palestinians even have the ability to take a unilateral measure is far distant from reality, but that has never stopped the United States, and Biden is more delusional than most of his predecessors. 

Biden said at the meeting that he “hoped” he and Netanyahu would meet in Washington before the end of the year. The readout goes further and commits the U.S. to that meeting, saying, “President Biden invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington D.C. before the end of the year to continue direct collaboration on this broad range of issues.”

That should make it all clear. Biden is giving Netanyahu the one thing, the only thing he has withheld, despite the fact that Netanyahu has not backed off one bit in his government’s assault on Palestine, and has only increased his military’s protection of settlers as they assault and harass Palestinians. He is showering him with gifts despite the fact that Netanyahu has not backed off of the “judicial reforms” that supposedly angered the president and brought out protesters in Israel and the U.S.

Is it because of domestic political concerns? That would seem to be the only answer, but if that is what is motivating him (or that along with Biden’s own romantic delusions about an Israel that is half a century in the past and was not, even then, what he seems to think it was), he is selling out his own country’s interest for something that will not help his electoral cause. The political madness that is the U.S.-Israel relationship has reached unprecedented heights.

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