Israel’s far-right parties frustrate Biden, but PM is also an obstacle to his vision

Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit are the source of Washington’s key concerns, but the US president’s call for change in Israel’s government overlooks Netanyahu’s own agenda

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

US President Joe Biden, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP)
US President Joe Biden, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP)

US President Joe Biden’s public comments on Tuesday on the diplomatic difficulties created by the inclusion of ultranationalist parties in the Israeli government were just the latest indication of his growing frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking at a campaign fundraiser, Biden said Netanyahu himself needed to “change” and that his coalition allies were “making it very difficult for him to move” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also indicated that the rhetoric and policies of the prime minister and his coalition against the Palestinian Authority would stymie efforts to bring about normalization with Saudi Arabia and the broader region.

The truth is that Netanyahu is politically hamstrung, hemmed in by extremist coalition allies Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit on his right, and catastrophic polling numbers that would likely spell political doom in the event of new elections.

The calculation is simple and undeniable: If Netanyahu were to accede to Biden’s urgings and dump the far-right parties in favor of bringing in Yesh Atid alongside the centrist National Unity, which has temporarily joined the coalition, his tenure as prime minister would come to an abrupt end the day the war against Hamas concludes.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid — who has said he could join an emergency government without the far-right parties — would quit the coalition immediately after the war if he did join. And Benny Gantz’s National Unity party would depart as well, triggering a new election. It would be impossible at that stage for Netanyahu to go cap-in-hand back to the radicals he had jettisoned.

The prime minister, for all his political guile, would almost certainly lose the subsequent election and find his long career ignominiously over while facing his ongoing corruption trial without the protective envelope of the premiership.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a press conference on the planned construction of a new railway line from the northern city of Kiryat Shmona to the city of Eilat, in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Critics argue that Netanyahu’s political future should be the last thing guiding his decision-making in the wake of the single worst disaster in Israeli history. But assuming such considerations do play a part, Netanyahu simply cannot dispense with the Religious Zionism party of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich or the Otzma Yehudit party of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

And that leaves him encumbered by the hardline policies they promote.

PA taxes and workers; settler extremism

One issue is Smotrich’s firm objection to transferring Palestinian tax revenues collected by Israel to the Palestinian Authority.

The finance minister has centered his opposition around the PA’s refusal to condemn the October 7 massacres as well as the stipends it pays to imprisoned terrorists and the families of dead terrorists — points that are likely to be seen as reasonable by large segments of the Israeli public. But his opposition to the transfer of tax funds cannot be separated from his stated desire to dismantle the PA and annex the entirety of the West Bank.

Just this week, Netanyahu reportedly pulled a vote in the security cabinet on transferring the funds because he didn’t have a majority to win it, in part because of his finance minister’s opposition.

Smotrich has also opposed allowing Palestinian workers from the West Bank to once again enter Israel, as more than 150,000 did daily before October 7.

The IDF, the Shin Bet and the National Security Council all reportedly backed the move, in part to help ward off economic distress in the West Bank, which they fear might lead to a heightened crisis and increased violence.

But Netanyahu pulled a vote on that too, despite reportedly backing the policy himself, again because he did not have a majority in the security cabinet.

File: Palestinian workers crossing into Israel at the Tarkumiya checkpoint near the southern city of Kiryat Gat, November 14, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The issue of allowing fuel into Gaza during the war is another topic where Smotrich and Ben Gvir have fought Netanyahu, though in this case less effectively due to heavy US pressure to allow such deliveries to avoid a humanitarian disaster.

Another source of friction is the ongoing problem of extremist Jewish violence in the West Bank against Palestinians, particularly in areas of the territory where Israel has full security and civilian control. Hundreds of incidents of vandalism, violence and harassment have been recorded since October 7 in dozens of communities, in which Palestinian property has been destroyed, lives threatened, and beatings, shootings and even killings have taken place.

Despite this wave of violence and the uprooting of more than 1,000 Palestinians from their home as a result, not a single person has been charged. Biden has himself condemned the violence and said it must stop, but near-daily reports of incidents of harassment have continued.

A report by Channel 12 news alleged that Ben Gvir, whose ministry has authority over the police, has pressured police in the West Bank not to take measures against nationalist crimes committed in the territory by Israeli citizens. The report cited Shin Bet officers who said that they had been told by senior police officials of Ben Gvir’s orders. The police denied the allegation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, greets National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset on May 23, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

But although Netanyahu’s political calculations have saddled him with these problems, he is not an unwilling partner in perhaps the key source of friction with the Biden administration right now: the question of the future governance of the Gaza Strip.

Who will govern Gaza

On this issue, Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted over the last month that Israel will not allow the Palestinian Authority to take control of the coastal enclave after the war.

But it took Netanyahu about a month to begin this messaging after October 7, and it was preceded by Smotrich saying in an interview with Channel 12 on November 4 that “the [Gaza] Strip will be under IDF operational control for years… We will be there, we will rule there and we will preserve security.”

As late as November 7, key Netanyahu ally Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer told Sky News, “I think it will be the Palestinians that are going to govern Gaza.” While Dermer said he didn’t know who that would be precisely, he did not say that it would not be the Palestinian Authority.

Numerous commentators have accused Netanyahu of playing politics on this issue, arguing that by attacking the Palestinian Authority he can, in the election that will surely come soon after the war with Hamas is over, drive a wedge between himself and his main rival Gantz — who will find it much harder to disavow the PA, even if he rejects the ongoing leadership of its longtime President Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu has even attacked the Oslo Accords, saying the peace process it spawned was responsible for as many deaths as the October 7 massacres, another way to gin up support in his political base and differentiate himself from his more dovish political rival who supports a Palestinian “entity.”

Indeed, the Biden administration has picked up on this political strategy.

The Times of Israel reported earlier this week that two US officials said they believed Netanyahu’s public statements against the Palestinian Authority showed the prime minister had entered “campaign mode.”

US President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023 (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

But in this regard, the general mood in Israel and public sentiment supports Netanyahu’s position and opposes that of Biden, even if the prime minister is using the issue to gain political points.

A recent poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that a majority of Jewish Israelis, 52% to 35%, do not believe that Israel should pursue a two-state solution with the Palestinians, even if it means not receiving US support during the current war.

And the general perception of the Palestinian Authority is of a corrupt, incompetent entity that pays salaries to imprisoned terrorists for the terrorism they committed, and whose leader cannot find it in himself to condemn the October 7 atrocities.

Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu’s government, as expressed in his remarks on Tuesday, is that he sees the prime minister’s rhetoric both on Gaza’s future governance and his administration’s deep-seated hostility to a Palestinian state as primary obstacles to his grand vision of regional normalization between Israel and key Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.

The US president spoke that evening of plans to tie the region together with a trans-Middle East railway, and implied that that vision was only possible if there was a political horizon for Palestinian national aspirations.

Biden’s vision; Israel’s reality

But Biden’s vision is running aground here not only on the rocks of the extremists in Netanyahu’s government but on the political reality in Israel, which even before October 7 had grown highly skeptical of the idea of a Palestinian state.

Back in the ancient past of the campaign for the November 2022 elections, even Gantz said that there was no chance of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians in the near future.

Minister Benny Gantz attends a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Biden may very well be frustrated with Netanyahu and his extremist political partners, and his desire for the prime minister to at least remove those radicals from his coalition to shore up American and European support for Israel makes a lot of sense on many levels.

But if Biden believes there is any likelihood of Netanyahu acceding to that request, he has very much misunderstood the man he is dealing with, despite what he frequently says is his long relationship with the Israeli prime minister.

Similarly, if the US president thinks that there is any appetite or support in Israel right now for advancing greater autonomy and independence for the Palestinians, then he has very much misunderstood the political zeitgeist in the country in the wake of the October 7 watershed.

Regardless of who might come into the government in whatever manner, Biden is unlikely to see much backing for that idea right now.

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