US President Joe Biden said Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government has some “of the most extreme members” he’s seen in Israel, and that cabinet ministers who back settling “anywhere they want” in the West Bank are “part of the problem” in the conflict.
In addition to offering rare comments during a CNN interview on his thoughts about the Israeli government, he provided an update on his administration’s effort to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, saying, “We’re a long way from there.”
Biden was pressed on what it would take for him to extend an invitation to Netanyahu to visit the White House, but he dodged the question, noting that Israeli President Isaac Herzog will be coming to Washington next week.
Herzog was invited by Congressional leaders to address a joint session in honor of Israel’s 75th year of independence. He is also expected to meet with Biden at the White House, but those invites are traditionally extended only a few days ahead of time.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has yet to receive an invitation, even though he’s been back in office for over six months. Previous prime ministers — himself included — had made the trip by this stage in their terms. Biden told reporters in late March that Netanyahu would not be coming in the “near term” amid US frustration over the Israeli government’s effort to radically overhaul the country’s judiciary.
Despite the lack of invitation, Biden stressed that he has been an “unyielding supporter of Israel for… as long as I have been around.”
As for Netanyahu, Biden said, “I think, [he] is trying to [figure out] how he can work through his existing problems in terms of his coalition.”
“I’m one of those who believes that Israel’s ultimate security rests in a two-state solution,” Biden then said, and went on: “I think it’s a mistake to think that, as some members of his cabinet — and this is one of the most extreme members of cabinets that I have seen. And I go all the way back to Golda Meir and all. Not that she was extreme, but I go back to that era.”
Indeed, none of the cabinet members have gone on record in recent years backing a two-state solution, and many back annexing large parts of the West Bank without granting equal rights to Palestinians in those areas. Netanyahu even told his party last month that Israel must “crush” Palestinian aspirations for a state.
Netanyahu’s coalition includes far-right lawmakers Bezalel Smotrich, who serves as finance minister, and Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, both of whom vowed to oppose a series of measures aimed at bolstering the PA and have voiced fierce opposition to the prospect of a Palestinian state, pushing for settlement expansion and more Israeli control in the West Bank.
Smotrich as finance minister could play a key role in boosting the cash-strapped PA, a cause the US sees as central to its interests, but for the past six months, Smotrich has withheld tens of millions of dollars from Ramallah over welfare payments the latter makes to terrorists and their families.
Washington has steered clear of both ministers in Netanyahu’s government, and have expressed deep misgivings about them. Last month, the White House expressed alarm over the sway the right wing of Netanyahu’s coalition has over policy, especially settlements and judicial reform. Three Biden administration officials acknowledged to The Times of Israel in June that Washington is not convinced the longtime Likud leader is in control.
In an interview on Channel 14 Sunday evening, a right-wing network aligned with Netanyahu, Ben Gvir responded to Biden’s comments to CNN and said that while the US is Israel’s greatest ally, “President Biden must internalize that Israel is no longer another star in the American flag.”
“In what way am I an extremist? By handing out weapons to the citizens of Israel so that they can defend themselves? In that I give full backing to our soldiers and officers? I invite Biden to tour Jerusalem and Hebron to see that our extremism is extreme, immense love for the State of Israel,” Ben Gvir claimed.
In recent months, Ben Gvir has proposed dramatically expanding access to guns amid a spate of Palestinian terror attacks.
In his interview Sunday, Biden said that Israel is not all to blame for the latest uptick in violence in the West Bank but that it is “part of the problem — particularly those individuals in the [Israeli] cabinet who say… we can settle anywhere we want, [and the Palestinians] have no right to be here.”
Just in the first half of 2023, the current government set a record for most settlement homes advanced for construction in a single year. It has enabled the establishment of a handful of new illegal outposts and is in the process of legalizing existing ones located deep in the West Bank, while barring Palestinians from building homes in areas under Israel’s civilian control.
The comments indicated that Biden does not completely buy Netanyahu’s insistence that he is in control of his coalition and that his far-right partners answer to him — and not the other way around.
Biden added that the Palestinian Authority “has lost its credibility,” though not only because of Israel. As a result, a “vacuum for extremism” has been created among the Palestinians. “There are some very extreme elements,” he said.
The president said his administration is in regular contact with Israel, “trying to tamp down what’s going on.”
He quickly turned to the crisis over the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul effort and said, “Hopefully, Bibi will continue to move toward moderation in changing the court.”
As for a possible Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal, Biden said, “We’re a long way from there. We got a lot to talk about.”
“We’re making progress in the region, [but a normalization deal] depends upon the conduct and what is asked of us for them to recognize Israel,” the president said.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think they have much of a problem with Israel,” he noted.
“Whether or not we would provide a means by which [Saudi Arabia] could have civilian nuclear power [and whether the US could] be a guarantor of their security — that’s… a little way off,” Biden said.