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1. Biden and Bennett’s first skirmish
It was bound to happen. In fact, it is a routine every Israeli government has had to endure—except maybe one, but we’ll get to that in a second. Sometimes it takes a few months, sometimes only weeks, but eventually every Israeli prime minister reaches the moment in which the U.S. administration pulls out the diplomatic lexicon to “express concern,” or “ask for explanations,” or sometimes even “strongly condemn” Israel’s actions in the West Bank and toward the Palestinians.
On Friday, it was Naftali Bennett’s turn. His new government, made up of a mishmash coalition of right, left, peaceniks, settlers and everything in between was confronted for the first time with criticism from Washington. Using carefully chosen diplomatic terms, State Department spokesman Ned Price took Israel to task for its decision to outlaw six Palestinian civil society organizations, stating that the U.S. will “be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations.” Price also used the podium to express the administration’s “concern” over another Israeli decision, this one regarding a plan to build thousands of housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Israel claimed that it had, in fact, given the U.S. early warning about the decision to designate the Palestinian organizations as terror groups, and it dispatched a senior Shin Bet official to Washington to present intelligence that led Israel to make this designation.
Another spot of friction in the relationship relates to the Biden administration’s intention to re-open the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that deals with the Palestinian population. It was closed under Trump, who folded all the operations into the newly established embassy in Jerusalem, but Biden wants to make sure the U.S. has a direct channel to Palestinians, not one that is subordinate to the embassy in Israel. The Israeli government has called on the U.S. to reconsider its decision, warning that a consulate dealing with Palestinian affairs would undermine the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
2. Everyone has a role to play in this game
So, how serious an issue is this?
To be sure, it is not the type of crisis that will dampen the relationship Bennett and Biden have built in the past few months. In fact, much of it is no more than an orchestrated game, one in which each side needs to play its role in front of its counterparts and domestic audience.
For Bennett, the role is clear. As a leader of a right-wing party and a former settler leader, Bennett knows he cannot survive his two-year term as prime minister without doing something to appease his base. Bennett knows very well that the Biden administration opposes settlement expansion, but he is also aware of the domestic expectation that he take some action. Three thousand housing units in West Bank settlements can go a long way in demonstrating that even though he joined a coalition with centrists and left-wing parties, he has not abandoned his settler base.
Biden also has a role to play. As a Democratic president, he is bound by a strict policy of opposing any action on the ground that could negatively impact the future of a two-state solution. He is also compelled to show responsiveness to his broad base of voters who feel strongly about keeping the vision of a two-state solution alive and to a smaller faction within the party who do not support showing any leniency toward Israel on this issue. And so Biden, through the State Department, the National Security Council and diplomatic channels, has almost no choice but to condemn these Israeli actions, to express concern and to demand explanations.
And it’s a pretty good deal for both sides. Bennett gets to show his base how hard he’s working for them to advance the cause of the Israeli right wing. (Something along the lines of: “Can you believe all this pressure from Biden I have to deal with? It’ll be a miracle if I can even get by with a few hundred new housing units.”) Biden, on the other hand, can show that he took action to curb Israel’s appetite for settlement expansion. (In our imaginary conversation it will go something like this: “And then I called up Bennett and I said to him—this building in the settlements has to stop, we’re very concerned about it.”)
From here, both sides can move on, gliding toward the next public show of disagreement—Bennett knowing that he can always use Biden as an excuse for not building, and Biden knowing that he can show some distance (or, to use the Obama-era term, some “daylight”) between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to the Palestinian issue.
Biden went though it with Bennett, Obama did with Netanyahu, Bush did with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, Clinton did with Netanyahu (and even with Rabin); the list goes on. Even Kennedy and Golda had their differences. But as mentioned above, there was one exception: Donald Trump. There was nothing Netanyahu could say or do that would make him mad.
3. No harm?
Most Israelis and Americans will walk away from this first demonstration of public friction unscathed. Biden won’t lose votes for being critical of Israel, nor will his credibility in the region suffer for not being tough enough.
But for those who actually see urgency in reaching a peaceful solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this is an unpleasant moment. It’s a reminder that the conflict still plays out in its old familiar pattern, and that while there may be a new government in Jerusalem and a new president in Washington, things are pretty much the same.
4. Speaking of two states
Keep an eye on H.R.5344—the Two State Solution Act. This bill, introduced by Democrat Andy Levin, calls on the U.S. to declare that the two-state solution is America’s policy for solving the conflict and that the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza are occupied territories.
J Street and other liberal pro-Israel groups support the bill; AIPAC opposes it. An email sent by the Democratic Majority for Israel to supporters last week urged them to call their representatives and ask them to oppose the bill, which is, they say, “counterproductive.”
Why watch this bill, which is largely declarative and likely to fail in the House? Because it can give you a good sense of where the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts stands right now. As much as Democrats want to see peace in the Middle East, most of them would rather not get involved in any U.S.-led initiative. Republicans have all but abandoned the idea of a two-state solution. What’s left is just the occasional slap on the wrist when Israel crosses the line.
5. Bennett’s pitch, and why it matters
The bigger picture has to do with Bennett’s main pitch to the Biden administration.
It was delivered by the prime minister in his meetings in Washington this summer, by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (who will take over as PM in less than two years), who was in town earlier this month, and by most Israeli officials in their interactions with top Biden administration figures. The basics of this pitch are: We’re weak, we’re vulnerable, so just be gentle with us.
The Israelis have conveyed to the Americans a message of fragility, telling them point-blank that Israel is currently run by a coalition of opposites that could collapse any day. And if Americans make the mistake of applying too much pressure on this government to take steps regarding the conflict, they will very likely be the ones responsible for this collapse. Push too strongly to curb settlements, and you lose the right wing of the coalition. And then comes the unspoken warning: If this coalition breaks apart, you know who’s coming back: Benjamin Netanyahu.
This notion is probably enough to scare Biden and his team into inaction. They would rather ease off on Israel than have to deal with Bibi again.