Netanyahu’s ‘hands are on the wheel’ again – and Joe Biden is just fine with that!

(screenshot from Netanyahu video)

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  December 23, 2022

The Biden administration is giving Israel’s new radical right government the thumbs up.

Coming in just under the wire, the once and future right wing prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu officially declared that he had formed his new governing coalition. The new government has already raised questions and concerns from sectors inside Palestine and Israel as well as around the world.

Partnering with Netanyahu’s Likud party will be a collection of far-right and ultra-orthodox religious parties: Religious Zionism, Jewish Power, Noam, Shas, and United Torah Judaism. Even Israel has never had a government this radically right wing. So, what does this mean for its likely behavior?

Israeli journalist Amir Tibon suggested that two men named Tom—U.S. Ambassador Nides and long-time New York Times columnist Friedman—symbolized the two likely possibilities. Nides, whose advocacy for Israel is perhaps the clearest example of the heavy pro-Israel tilt of Joe Biden’s administration, remains optimistic that the incoming government will not pose insurmountable obstacles to absolute U.S. support for Israel, saying, “There are going to be areas of disagreement, I’m sure, but there were areas of disagreement with the former government.”

Friedman, on the other hand, wrote in mourning tones that “The Israel We Knew Is Gone,” positing that this new far-right government is a sharp departure from what’s come before it.

Neither Tom is getting it right. In fact, Tibon’s decision to create this dichotomy obscures the reality of Netanyahu and his central role in not only pushing Israel to the right but in spearheading the global right-wing movement. Netanyahu has embraced Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, and the global right in general. He is a hero at the Conservative Political Action Conference  (CPAC) even more than Orban is.

It is this misapprehension that leads publications like Politico, and even some mid-level functionaries in the United States government, to misunderstand the Biden administration’s plans for dealing with Netanyahu.

Nides, in his interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, makes Biden’s oft-repeated attitude toward the new far-right government in Israel very clear. “Bibi Netanyahu is in charge of this government, okay? My point of contact is the prime minister and the Prime Minister’s Office, okay? He’s made it very clear to all of us that he wants to be the prime minister of all of Israel, okay? He’s made it very clear that his hands are on the wheel, and we’ll work with him. And most importantly, Joe Biden has a strong working relationship with Bibi Netanyahu.”

Based on talking to some U.S. officials, Politico takes that to mean that the U.S. will hold Netanyahu responsible for the behavior of his coalition partners. It’s the wrong read, and you can see how wrong it is just by looking at what the anonymous U.S. officials told Politico. “The second U.S. official noted that Netanyahu will need American support on certain priorities, and that those are potential points of leverage,” they report.

But the examples the official sites are simply off base. One is Iran, and certainly it’s true that Israel relies on the U.S. to increase the misery of the Iranian people, to cover for covert Israeli actions against Iranian scientists, and to maintain a level of threat on the Islamic Republic. But the U.S. has been in front of Israel on all these matters ever since Trump tore up the Iran nuclear deal.

There has been no need for Israel to push on sanctions or on U.S. maneuvers to strengthen military alliances confronting Iran. The U.S. has very much pursued failed strategies on Iran on its own initiative, and some of those strategies, like the now-moribund attempt to revive the JCPOA, were done despite Israel’s objections. Biden has needed no more pressure from Israel for his policies than Trump did for his, and Biden has his own agenda for Iran, one which he isn’t using to either pressure or reward Israel. No matter how far right Israel goes, the U.S. has made Iran its own security issue, and while Israel is a factor, the charting its own course. While that has happened in part because of Israel’s concerns, the new Israeli government won’t change that status. The United States has not and will not use Iran as a lever against Israel.

The other example the official cites is getting Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel. Again, this is something that the U.S. cannot possibly use as leverage against Israel. If Washington had its way, Saudi Arabia and Israel would already be the best of buddies quite openly. The main problem is that the Saudi King Salman still wants the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to be the basis of Saudi normalization with Israel. Any attempt at getting around that objection will be undermined by the treatment the new Israeli government metes out to the Palestinians. Even Mohammed Bin Salman, should he succeed to the crown, would have to take these concerns into account because of Saudi Arabia’s leadership position in the Muslim world, a concern that countries like the UAE and Bahrain don’t have. Plus, if 2022 has proven anything about Joe Biden and the Middle East it is that his influence in Riyadh is microscopic compared to past U.S. presidents.

Biden has made it clear, both in his own words and in those of his anti-Palestinian Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that he prioritizes the “unshakeable” bond between the United States and Israel. He may not intend to deal with Kahanist newcomers like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, but he has had no problem dealing with Netanyahu himself in the past, despite Netanyahu’s prickly, sometimes outright insulting treatment of Biden. The idea that this paragon of the global right who has presided over the death of diplomacy with the Palestinians and has actively worked to interfere in U.S. politics against Biden’s Democratic party is the moderating force is ridiculous.

Equally ridiculous is the idea of Biden holding Netanyahu’s feet to the fire. Blinken noted in his recent speech to J Street that he and Biden see aid to Israel as “sacrosanct,” and thus beyond even congressional monitoring, let alone reduction or discontinuation. Biden has done little to reverse any of the previous administration’s actions, and has broken his promises to Palestinians to restore their consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO office in Washington (both of which Biden must have, and certainly should have known were going to require congressional support, and thus were never likely to happen).

We should not lose sight of the fact that Netanyahu’s government is not representing even the full spectrum of the Israeli right wing. The opposition has plenty of right-wing elements in it. Of the 56 seats in the opposition, 18 are held by National Unity—the Blue and White party of Benny Gantz, who counts his merits in the number of Arabs he’s killed, and his partner Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope party who once challenged Netanyahu from the right in Likud—and Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman who has called for stripping citizenship from Palestinian citizens of Israel and demanding loyalty oaths from them.

But Netanyahu’s right-wing opponents are all secular parties. The parties Likud has partnered with are all religious and nationalist, with all the danger that combination represents. This is not an accident; it’s a direction Netanyahu has encouraged for years. These parties don’t embrace the pretense of rule of law that other parties do, and that is reflected in their animosity toward Israel’s High Court and willingness to change Israel’s Basic Law to allow a criminal twice convicted of corruption—Aryeh Deri of Shas—to serve as a Cabinet minister.

Deri is not a newcomer, not one of the new generation that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir represent. He has been a leading figure in Shas since 1992, though due to his criminal activities he has not had official positions in the party or the government for years at time over the last three decades. He is a known quantity and is a reliable ally for Netanyahu.

Nor has there ever been any doubt about Netanyahu’s willingness to work with the extremists like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, the latter being another person for whom a new law is being written in order to give him what he wants. Netanyahu openly courted Smotrich in the prior election after Smotrich rose to the top of what was then the Jewish Home party, and he facilitated Ben-Gvir’s rise to a partnership with Smotrich that broke the decades-old taboo against open Kahanists serving in the Knesset (however many there might have been over the years who didn’t speak openly about their faithfulness to the spirit of Meir Kahane).

The United States has turned a blind eye to Israeli crimes as a matter of course, from Deir Yassin to Shireen Abu Akleh and so many horrific acts of murder, violence, and dispossession in between, while making sure to document, respond to, and dock Palestinians for not only any act of violence, but even efforts to pursue their liberation outside of those few tracks acceptable to Israel. The latest iteration of the Israeli government does present certain problems, but not the kind either Tibon or Politico suggest. (And while it’s true the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing last May, both the White House and State Department made every effort to bury this issue and have made it clear they have nothing to with the investigation, meaning they will not pressure Israel to cooperate, rendering even the best intentions of DoJ largely moot).

As Israeli excesses have become more visible due to the use of video and social media over the past decade or two, support for Israel among liberals is harder to maintain. Proud racists like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich make it even harder. Netanyahu, whose views are just as toxic and have a more global reach, cloaks his own bigotry enough to maintain a façade. That is what Biden means when saying he will deal with Netanyahu directly. It’s cover against the obvious racism of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, but in practice, it’s a distinction without a difference.

That is very different from the way The Times of Israel interpreted this policy. They wrote, “US President Joe Biden’s administration reportedly plans to hold expected incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally responsible for the actions of the far-right lawmakers…”

That is not what Biden is saying, nor what he is planning. Of course, Biden will have to “strongly object” if Israel pursues the policies Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and some of the other partners are suggesting. Biden will object to any anti-LGBTQ* legislation that Noam head Avi Maoz might push. He’ll voice some concern over attacks on Israel’s judiciary, although he will also make it clear that these are internal Israeli matters. He’ll object to retroactively “legalizing” settlement outposts that are illegal under Israeli law (settlements are all illegal under international law, of course). And if Ben-Gvir’s proposed new authority over the police leads to a sharp uptick in both Israeli brutality and Palestinian self-defense or acts of reprisal, he will tell both sides to “exercise restraint.”

None of this is new. Nor would it be new if Netanyahu takes some action that draws enough of a response from Washington that he backs off. It’s not that common, but it does happen from time to time. That’s all that Biden is talking about.

But the reality on the ground for Palestinians, and for some of the more marginalized sectors in Israel, is about to become much more difficult and dangerous. What Biden is suggesting he will do is voice some objections without taking action. In other words, business as usual, and no accountability for Netanyahu or Israel. That’s what it means to deal directly with the prime minister, as Biden and Blinken have repeatedly said, and as Nides confirmed.

Thus, Tibon’s dichotomy is a false one. Nides’ vision is exactly what Friedman sees. For Friedman, he is seeing that, after nearly half a century of defending Israel and pretending it was something it wasn’t, it may become too difficult for him to do that any longer. For Nides, there is no excess Israel can ever go to that would mean a breaking point for him in his work shilling for the state.

Biden shares that view.

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