PM’s failure to secure calm on home front hastens inevitable breakdown in US ties

From judicial overhaul push to settlement expansion to Smotrich, not a week has gone by without a ‘backyard fire’; US official: We want calm so we can work on issues together

Jacob Magid

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference in Berlin on March 16, 2023. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference in Berlin on March 16, 2023. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

Despite the vast political differences between the United States and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government, the Biden administration made clear from the get-go in December that it was still interested in and committed to strengthening ties with Israel.

Joe Biden leads a Democratic party whose sympathies are gradually moving away from Israel, but the US president has continued to buck that trend, identifying as a Zionist when it might not be the most politically wise characterization to take on.

When he called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his November election win, the White House said, Biden “reaffirmed the strength of the bilateral partnership and underscored his unwavering support for Israeli security,” adding that the president looked forward “to continuing to work with the Israeli government on our shared interests and values.”

But there was somewhat of a caveat, which was explained by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides several weeks after Netanyahu’s return to power.

“The prime minister has told us he wants to do big things. And we want to do big things too,” Nides told The Times of Israel, referencing Netanyahu’s goals of expanded Israel-US cooperation against Iran and an Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement.

“But if we want to achieve those things, we can’t wake up and have one’s backyard on fire. So he’s going to have to manage the things we care about effectively,” Nides said, highlighting the Biden administration’s commitment to preserving prospects for a two-state solution along with Washington’s desire for Israel’s judiciary to remain strong and independent.

Demonstrators protest in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin against the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit, March 16, 2023. (Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)

Nides laid out those ground rules after the two countries had already endured a diplomatic blip over National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the flashpoint Temple Mount in January.

But those hiccups have since continued on a near-weekly basis, as Netanyahu’s government has moved full steam ahead with efforts to radically overhaul the judiciary and further entrench Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line, thanks in no small part to the collection of far-right ministers whose actions and incendiary remarks regarding the Palestinians have quickly eaten away at the Biden administration’s patience.

US frustration peaked on Monday night following the Knesset’s passage of a repeal to part of the Disengagement Law, which allows Israelis to return to four settlement areas in the northern West Bank that were evacuated during the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

The administration began by issuing a lengthy statement at the Tuesday State Department press briefing, lambasting the legislation as a “provocative” violation of commitments to both current US officials and former president George W. Bush, who agreed to recognize the legitimacy of settlement blocs near the Green Line in exchange for Israel’s willingness to evacuate those four settlements located deep in the West Bank.

But the US then went further than it has gone in 13 years, urgently summoning Israeli Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog to the State Department for a meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman where the No. 2 American diplomat laid into Jerusalem for what she said was a violation of the commitments made just two days earlier at a Sharm el-Sheikh summit when Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to refrain from actions that escalate tensions, according to a US official briefed on the meeting.

Another senior US official explained that while the focus of Tuesday’s dressing-down of Herzog was the Disengagement Law repeal, the decision to call in the Israeli ambassador was due to much more than just one law.

Youths sits on a water tank painted orange, the color symbolizing the movement opposing the disengagement, at the West Bank settlement of Homesh, 12 June 2007 (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“The reality is that the boat’s got a lot of stuff on it,” the senior US official told The Times of Israel, explaining that the combination of the Disengagement Law cancellation, the radical judicial overhaul plans, new settlement announcements and remarks by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have all proven too much for the administration to suffice with just another State Department condemnation.

“It’s just a lot for the system [to handle] every day,” the senior official said.

Just hours before the Knesset passed the legislation that sparked the crisis, Biden phoned Netanyahu so the president could share, in his own voice, the mounting concerns from Israel’s most ardent supporters in the US regarding the coalition’s effort to curb the High Court of Justice’s power, said the senior US official.

“The president was articulating the anxiety that the Diaspora community has over this issue,” the US official said, adding that Biden reiterated his call for Netanyahu to secure consensus support for the changes he’s seeking.

An invitation to the White House was not extended during the call, and the senior US official explained that one wouldn’t likely be offered in the near future.

“Not because of us, but because he won’t want to come until this is resolved,” the official said, speculating that Netanyahu would not want his next Oval Office meeting to be used by the president to rail on the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US Vice President Joe Biden speak prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. (AP/Michel Euler)

“But of course, the president will have him. He likes Bibi,” the US official added.

An Israeli official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated that the Biden administration is not interested in further escalating tensions.

“This is not the Obama administration where there was a feeling sometimes that the US was seeking conflict with us,” said the Israeli official. “Here, they largely want to avoid the issue so they can focus on higher priorities.”

That analysis was consistent with how the senior US official described the administration’s agenda for the coming weeks on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

“We want calm — calm on judicial reform, calm on Ramadan. We want calm so we can work on issues together.” the senior official said.

Because when that calm dissipates, as it has over the past several weeks, pressure mounts on the Biden administration to come down harder on Israel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, March 22, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Testifying before the Senate on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was pressed by Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen on what the administration was prepared to do if Israel continued to violate commitments made at Sharm el-Sheikh this week.

“It seems to me that we look very weak when we continually make statements without any kind of consequence,” Van Hollen charged.

Blinken avoided answering directly, further demonstrating the gap between Biden and the rest of his party, which has far less patience for Netanyahu’s government.

But then the secretary of state offered a revealing reflection: “Both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority want us to be engaged in helping them to try and get to this period of calm.”

“But if either or both sides is not doing what we believe is necessary [to restore calm], it will be hard — or maybe even futile — for us to be able to do that,” he continued, indicating that the US might find itself with no other choice but to throw in the towel and leave Israelis and Palestinians to fight it out themselves.

“If we’re being honest, we knew this breakdown would happen eventually,” said a third US official. “I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly.”

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