There is no crisis in US-Israel relations – yet

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  March 28, 2023

It has never been politically safer to be “tough” on Israel, but so far the Biden administration is working overtime to avoid a diplomatic crisis with Israel.

As the dramatic protests and strikes in Israel seem to have forced Benjamin Netanyahu to reassess how to accomplish his goal of eliminating democracy in Israel, even for Jews only, there has been some discussion about these upheavals causing a “crisis” in U.S.-Israel relations. Such language, however, is very premature. 

Aaron David Miller, who advised six different U.S. Secretaries of State on diplomacy with Israel has a better grip on what’s happening. “Media is bubbling with reports of [a] crisis in US-Israeli relations,” Miller tweeted. “But there’s no serious crisis with only one hand clapping. [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s policies are aggravating Biden and damaging US-Israeli ties. But Biden is really not pushing back hard. If/when he does, we’ll have a real crisis.”

Several factors are coming together to create the “damage” Miller refers to. The most attention, by far, is being paid to the so-called “judicial reform” in Israel. This threat to the myth that Israel is a democracy has caused great consternation in the United States, but the truth of the matter is that this is a problem—albeit a very big one—only for Israeli Jews. 

For Palestinians, it matters little, as the courts have been unjust even for Palestinian citizens of Israel, supremely biased against Palestinian resident non-citizens in Jerusalem, and actively hostile to Palestinians under military occupation. Israel’s new Arab BFFs in the UAE, Bahrain, and elsewhere, brutal authoritarians all, are only concerned about the eroding status quo in Jerusalem. 

And while the U.S. is doing a lot of complaining and pearl clutching at the prospect of the façade of democracy falling away from its close ally, of all the issues the U.S. could be concerned with in Israel, the judiciary is the one with the strongest case that it’s not anyone’s business outside of Israel. But other matters involving people who are not citizens of Israel are inarguably the concern of the international community and often the United States in particular. These are coming together with the so-called “judicial reform” to cause what some are too eager to call a “crisis” between Israel and the U.S.

Israel piling on the Biden administration

The last Israeli election brought in the latest version of Israel’s “most right-wing government ever,” an appellation that has been affixed to most of the recent Netanyahu-led governments. But this one includes extremists that are not concerned in the slightest with a pretense of diplomacy just to please Washington, and, as we’ve seen, are very prone to overreach and impatience. After only three months, this has brought home some inconvenient realities for the administration of Joe Biden.

Biden’s initial policy—to do “business as usual” with Netanyahu while avoiding contact with the more extreme elements of his government led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir—has utterly failed, as the administration should have known it would. That failure demonstrates Biden’s and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s lack of understanding of Israel, the nature of the country, and the people they are dealing with. It is a failure rooted in Biden’s persistence in viewing Israel through lenses he bought in the 1970s. 

Dangling an invitation to Washington … is just another example of how badly Biden and Blinken misunderstand Israel in 2023.

Ironically, that persistence could undermine the U.S.’ efforts to dissuade Netanyahu from this suicidal “judicial reform” course. Biden’s ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, dangled the prospect of a White House invitation for Netanyahu just hours after Netanyahu paused the controversial legislation. No one can say for certain what will happen after the Passover holiday when the Knesset returns from recess. But there’s a very good chance that Netanyahu will resume his efforts to destroy Israel’s judiciary. Dangling an invitation to Washington—which Nides presumably did at Biden’s or Antony Blinken’s direction—is exactly what Biden should not be doing now. We’ve seen, yet again, that Netanyahu responds not to carrots but to sticks. Even though the potential invitation—misreported by the New York Times as having been extended to Netanyahu already—has not been made yet, it is just another example of how badly Biden and Blinken misunderstand Israel in 2023.

Democrats in Congress are already on edge over the increase in violence by Israeli soldiers, police, and, especially, settlers who are marauding with virtually no restraint at all. In other times, Netanyahu has tried to moderately restrain these attacks, but now his desperation to gut Israel’s judiciary in order to avoid prosecution for his corruption means he needs the far right in his coalition, and that means he will resist any effort to restrain them. That leads to embarrassing incidents, like those that happened in the wake of the sham “diplomacy” the U.S. spearheaded in Aqaba and Sharm el Sheikh. 

At both of those meetings, the U.S. pressed the Palestinian Authority to resume security cooperation with Israel in exchange for meaningless pauses by Israel in its settlement construction (Israel basically agreed not to announce new settlements for a few months when they were not likely to do so anyway). Immediately after the first meeting at Aqaba, Netanyahu himself denied there would be any settlement freeze, and one member of the Knesset joked that “What happens in Aqaba stays in Aqaba.” 

But after the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement, the Knesset voted to repeal the so-called “Disengagement Law,” which ordered the evacuation of settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. This was a direct spit in the face of the United States, and even this administration, which has topped its predecessors in the spinelessness it has displayed on this issue, had to respond. In unusually strong language, the Biden administration called the law “a clear contradiction of understandings the Israeli government made to the United States.” 

While it’s easy to lament that this rebuke is what passes for strong language from the Biden administration, it should be noted that Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog was summoned to the State Department for a private dressing down, an unprecedented event in the U.S.-Israel relationship. 

Yet, while Biden has rebuked Israel, he has taken no action to pressure Israel into backing away from its current course. Israel has long since learned not to fear the words of an American president, only his actions. The most famous example of a U.S. president using a stick on Israel instead of a carrot is George H.W. Bush holding up $10 billion in loan guarantees in 1991 to force Israel to temporarily freeze settlement construction and join the Madrid peace conference.

Less well known is that his son did something similar in 2003, threatening to again withhold loan guarantees if Israel did not make an alteration in the planned route of the wall it was illegally building in the West Bank. After Bush the Younger did trim the loan guarantees, in response to ongoing settlement activity, Israel slightly altered the wall’s route to address Washington’s concerns. 

Loan guarantees are one minor tool Biden can use to press Israel if he chooses. If he were to employ the sort of pressure that is at his disposal, that could legitimately be called a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations. But Israel is only too familiar with the emptiness of American words. Only actions carry any weight in the prime minister’s office. And at least some in Israel do not consider that off the table. 

The potential crisis

Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a centrist think tank devoted to defense and military matters, issued what it called a “strategic alert.” According to their statement, it was the first time in INSS history that they had issued such an alert, despite the fact that the think tank was set up in the wake of the 1973 war to assess Israeli defense and warn if the government was misreading the political landscape and overlooking potential threats, as it did in the months leading up to that conflict. 

What is INSS so worried about? They mince no words, pointing to a possible breakdown of the U.S.-Israel “special relationship” in their explanation: “The world is closely following the internal turmoil in the wake of the proposed reform, and the almost universal reaction is of puzzlement and deep concern, ranging from heads of state to street protests. In particular, the special relationship with the United States, based not only on interests but also on shared values, shows signs of growing strain in the wake of the reform.”

INSS is looking further down the road than either the Biden administration or the Netanyahu government. They see what the now-fired Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant saw, and what prompted him to sacrifice his job to call for a halt in the “judicial reform’s” progress. They see that the entire rightward push—including not only the attack on the judiciary but also the explicit rejection of any compromise with the Palestinians, which would destroy the entire façade the U.S. has worked so hard to maintain—as potentially forcing Democratic leaders in the U.S. to finally move away from their lock-step devotion to Israel. They realize this is a process that has already begun, but has only made limited progress so far, but that a blatantly authoritarian Israel could greatly hasten that break.

That is what a “crisis” in U.S.-Israel relations would look like. Writing in Haaretz, Miller makes an assessment that, unlike his tweet, misses the mark. “Biden doesn’t need to leave himself open to Republican charges that he’s being too tough on Israel.”

This is a mistaken assessment. Biden risks nothing right now by standing against this government, which progressives view as fascist and even pro-Israel Democrats view as threatening to the future of Israel. It has never been politically safer to be “tough” on Israel. Republicans will attack Biden on this point, but he’s not going to lose single vote, and probably not even a single dollar of support for doing so right now. GOP attacks won’t score any points outside of their own voters. 

Biden is not alone in misreading Israel right now. Many of Israel’s more liberal supporters are misjudging the situation just as badly.

But Biden is not alone in misreading Israel right now. Many of Israel’s more liberal supporters are misjudging the situation just as badly. This push for authoritarianism was rushed and thus provoked a massive response from the Israeli Jewish populace. But the threat arose gradually over many years and elections. It was not suddenly thrust upon Israel by Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s panic over being caught in his corruption. It grew out of Israel’s essential rejection of democracy for anyone but Jews, and the resulting, gradual but steady move to the right. If this pause in the authoritarian push that Netanyahu just declared should, as is quite possible, allow elements in the Knesset to derail the judicial “reform” effort, there will be many huzzahs over a so-called “triumph of Israeli democracy.” But it’s nothing of the kind. 

While some in Israel recognize that the refusal of Israel to regard Palestinians as human beings deserving of equal rights is the soil that nourished and grew Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and Netanyahu, the overriding sentiment in these protesters has been the protection of Israel’s fictitious “Jewish democracy.” 

As J Street put it in their statement, “We call on the Biden Administration to take the firm action necessary to truly stand up to the Netanyahu government’s far-right agenda. Only with that determined approach can they truly uphold our two countries’ shared values and interests, and help secure Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.” 

It’s the wrong call. This is an opportunity to secure a future that sees democracy for every person living in historic Palestine. It is Biden’s and the United States’ responsibility to demand security and equality for everyone concerned, not only the “Jewish people” as J Street put it.

The “crisis” that some fear is not here and is probably not approaching now that Netanyahu has paused his reckless march to authoritarianism. It also would not turn the U.S. into a crusader for Palestinian rights by any means. But it could allow for a more rational policy approach. That would obviously be good for Palestinians and would be in the best interests of the U.S. and even most Israelis. But Biden will work against it as hard as he can. That says a lot about this administration’s view of apartheid. 

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