'Bibi says he can control government; let’s see him do it'

US said planning to hold Netanyahu responsible for actions of far-right ministers

US officials quoted saying policy aimed at limiting influence of next coalition’s most hardline members; US policy on Iran, Saudi Arabia could be leveraged to pressure incoming PM

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds a joint press conference with then-US vice president Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (Amit Shabi/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds a joint press conference with then-US vice president Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

US President Joe Biden’s administration reportedly plans to hold expected incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally responsible for the actions of the far-right lawmakers he is expected to soon appoint as senior ministers in his next government.

The stance, revealed in a Tuesday report by the Politico website, is a central part of the policy that the White House has been crafting as it readies to once again work with a Netanyahu government in Jerusalem after a year in which ties warmed, thanks to a more moderate coalition led by former prime minister Naftali Bennett and outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Netanyahu had a frosty relationship with the previous Democratic administration, when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama, due to significant policy differences on Iran and the Palestinians.

Those differences remained when Biden returned as president and overlapped with Netanyahu as premier for almost six months in 2021, though they didn’t come to the fore to the same degree. The two leaders often boast of their close friendship built over the 40 years in which they have known each other.

Accordingly, the two anonymous officials cited in the Politico report said the Biden administration will publicly turn to Netanyahu on any serious issues regarding the Palestinians or Israel’s ties with Arab states.

The policy allows the Biden administration 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.

No decision was made though, which led to the crafting of a line in US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s speech days later at the J Street conference, where he said, “We will gauge the government by the policies and procedures, rather than individual personalities,” an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“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.

The officials explained that by focusing on Netanyahu, they hope to limit the influence of the next government’s most far-right figures.

“What’s relevant is Netanyahu. He is the prime minister,” the second US official said, lamenting the attention that has been given to the far-right lawmakers. “People are making a strategic mistake by building these guys up.”

Still, the first official recognized that some of the incoming ministers pose a more significant challenge for the Biden administration. “Everyone, without exception, understood that these guys are fundamentally different” from previous Israeli governments, the official said, referring to the position of those at the White House meeting earlier this month where the matter was discussed.

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.

MK Avi Maoz, left, and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a coalition deal on November 27, 2022. (Courtesy: Likud)

“Netanyahu wants a bunch of stuff from us,” one of the US officials told Politico. “It’s a two-way street… We’ll work with him on the things he cares about, and he’ll work on the things we care about.”

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.

“Right now, we’ve been very measured,” the US official said. “We could turn up the criticism very quickly.”

The two anonymous US officials quoted in the report echoed the sentiment offered by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who said earlier this month: “I’ll work with Prime Minister Netanyahu. As he says, he has his hands on the wheel… I’m going to make sure those hands are very tight on that wheel, and I’ll encourage him to do the things that he said he wants to do.”

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks at an event organized by Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management on December 7, 2022. (Courtesy)

“He said he wants to be prime minister for all of Israel. I take him at his word. And obviously, the United States will work with him to make sure that happens,” Nides added, further indicating that Washington views Netanyahu as the most moderate member of the next Israeli government, which has been characterized as the most right-wing in the country’s history.

He added that he would not be telling Israel what to do, given that it is a democracy. “We will speak up and speak out when we believe that our shared values are getting confused, and that’s what friends do,” Nides clarified.

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