Senior officials discuss Iran in security meeting

‘Candid conversations’ with Israel will continue: Blinken congratulates Netanyahu

US secretary of state repeats new policy that will see US judge the incoming Israeli government based on the policies it implements, rather than its far-right personalities

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday after the Likud leader announced his successful formation of a new government.

Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s approach to the new government, which will be the most right-wing in Israel’s history, saying that Washington “will engage with and judge our partners in Israel on the basis of the policies they pursue, not the personalities that happen to form the government.”

Netanyahu has until January 2 to get his coalition — comprising 64 MKs from Likud, the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties — sworn in by the 120-member Knesset. He is racing to pass legislation to meet his commitments to his new partner parties and to finalize his coalition agreements with them before that date.

“We look forward to working with Israel to advance both the interests and the values that have long been at the heart of our relationship and also to promoting a broader approach to try and bring equal measures of security, opportunity, prosperity and dignity to Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Blinken said when asked about the new government during a press briefing at the State Department.

The Palestinian issue is where the Biden administration is most likely to clash with Netanyahu’s next government, given that it includes lawmakers who oppose a two-state solution, want to annex the West Bank without granting Palestinians equal rights, ramp up settlement construction and legalize wildcat Israeli outposts throughout the West Bank while demolishing similar Palestinian building in those areas.

But Blinken downplayed the impact potential disagreements will have on the broader US-Israel relationship.

“We’ve demonstrated over successive Israeli governments and over successive American administrations precisely because we have a rock solid partnership and one that is committed to Israel’s security that we can have very candid conversations when we disagree,” he said. “That’s not going to change either.”

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to US President Joe Biden, from a Likud office in Tel Aviv on November 7, 2022. (Courtesy Likud)

Also on Wednesday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Eyal Hulata convened another virtual meeting of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group with representatives from the countries’ foreign policy, defense and intelligence agencies. The group last met in June.

“Officials reviewed significant regional developments since the last SCG meeting, including the current situation with respect to Iran,” according to a White House readout.

“They further discussed Iran’s growing military relationship with Russia, including the transfer of weapons the Kremlin is deploying against Ukraine, targeting its civilian infrastructure, and Russia’s provision of military technology to Iran in return,” the statement said.

The officials also expressed a commitment to countering Iranian threats and ensuring Tehran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and discussed economic sanctions against Iran. They reviewed cooperation and exercises held between the US military and the Israel Defense Forces and discussed bolstering Israel’s security and economic integration in the region, the White House said.

Israel has long called for a more aggressive US stance against Iran, arguing that a credible military threat must be presented in order to deter Tehran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. While Biden has said he would use military force against Iran if necessary, his administration continues to emphasize that it prefers a diplomatic solution for the issue, even though the president has acknowledged that talks to revive the nuclear deal are “dead.”

Israel has pressed the US to present a “Plan B” in the seemingly likely event that the talks fail but the Biden administration has been wary of discussing this publicly.

National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in front of the White House on October 5, 2021. (Jake Sullivan/Twitter)

Hulata has announced that he will not be staying on through the next government, though Netanyahu was unlikely to have kept him as national security adviser anyway.

The Biden administration enjoyed a warmer relationship with the outgoing government led by former prime minister Naftali Bennett and outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, thanks to their willingness to advance a handful of measures to improve Palestinian livelihood in the West Bank and Gaza.

While those steps are less likely to continue in the next government, Biden officials have touted the US president’s ability to work well with Netanyahu over the four decades they’ve known each other.

Accordingly, two US officials told Politico earlier this week that the Biden administration will publicly turn to Netanyahu on any serious issues regarding the Palestinians or Israel’s ties with Arab states.

The policy — confirmed to The Times of Israel by a senior US official — allows the US to avoid dealing as much with the next government’s most hardline elements, such as expected incoming finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, expected incoming national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, and Avi Maoz, the anti-LGBT lawmaker tapped as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Biden administration officials have dodged repeated questions as to whether they will engage with some of these lawmakers, and the White House held a meeting on the matter earlier this month, though no final decision was made.

“Bibi says he can control his government, so let’s see him do just that,” Politico quoted one of the anonymous US officials as having said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

From left, President Isaac Herzog, US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Ben Gurion Airport, July 13, 2022 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The two US officials avoided saying that they would leverage US military assistance to Israel in order to pressure Netanyahu — something Biden has repeatedly come out against.

They said that options exist beyond rhetorical rebuke, pointing to Netanyahu’s desire for a tougher US policy toward Iran and Washington’s brokering of a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, the official refused to dismiss the importance of public rebukes, arguing that Israel takes these seriously since Jerusalem has long sought to maintain the perception that it has a close relationship with Washington.

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