Biden Tried to Go Easy on Bennett. It Wasn’t Enough

By | Apr 11, 2022
Naftali Bennett holding a microphone at a press conference

Jewish politics and power

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1. Israel’s coalition is in tatters and America is worried

Yael Lempert, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for near east affairs, delivered a pre-Passover briefing via Zoom last Thursday, which was organized by the White House for Jewish activists.

Sure, there were all the usual statements about Iran and about America’s commitment to Israel’s security. But at the top of people’s minds was news that had broken in Israel just a day earlier: one member of Knesset’s decision to cross the lines, throwing Naftali Bennett’s coalition into a tailspin.

“I think it’s a little early for there to be any statements from the U.S. government,” Lempert said when asked about the administration’s response to the situation. “We are certainly watching that very, very closely.”

What exactly happened, and why is Washington watching events in Jerusalem so closely?

It all boils down to one MK—Idit Silman, a member of Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, who decided to defect to the opposition, leaving the coalition with only 60 MKs out of 120 members of Knesset. Silmat, who is Orthodox, chose a very Jewish reason for her departure: the coalition’s refusal to pass a ban on non-kosher-for-Passover food in Israeli hospitals.

Losing his tiny majority means the Bennett government’s days are numbered. Any vote of no confidence could potentially topple the government and send Israel into another round of elections. Even if Bennett survives such an election, he could be forced out next year if he is unable to come up with sufficient votes to pass a new national budget.

2. Why should the Biden administration care?

Political turmoil, you may say, is nothing new in Israel. In fact, Israel’s inability to maintain a stable government has become a running joke in Washington—especially in the past three years, as the country stumbled from one inconclusive election to another.

But this time is different. Why? This time, the Biden administration is invested in the longevity of Bennett’s unusual coalitiona joint venture combining right wingers, centrists, some center-left members, and an Arab party—into one coalition government bonded by a wish to oust former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power and chart a new course for Israel.

Now, America does not take sides in Israeli politics, right? Right. But it still has preferences. And while Biden and his top foreign policy officials had plenty of reasons to prefer any Israeli government that excludes Netanyahu, it isn’t only about personal animosity toward the former prime minister, whose claim to fame was sticking it to the Democrats.

The Biden administration believes the Bennett coalition would maintain reasonable stability, keeping the region quiet and working around differences regarding Iran. Most importantly, it would maintain the status quo with the Palestinians, which would allow America to keep its promise for a two-state solution without having to expand the political capital needed to broker a deal.

To show its support to Bennett, Biden’s administration chose a somewhat sophisticated approach. Leaders of the new Israeli government were warmly embraced, debates over re-joining the Iranian nuclear deal were moved from the public arena, and the all-too-touchy issue of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace was reduced to a set of muffled comments when Israel crossed the line, coupled with a series of constructive ideas aimed at improving lives of Palestinians without requiring Israel to make real concessions.

A demonstration of this approach can be seen in a video call last month held by Tom Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, with members of Americans for Peace Now.

Nides offered a pragmatic look at many of the issues that have plagued U.S.-Israel relations throughout the years: He spoke out forcefully against settlement expansion (calling it a “stupid thing”) but made clear he does not think it makes sense to fight each and every building plan in the West Bank. The same goes for reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, a move that Israel has opposed: “We want to open it,” he said, while also cautioning against making “a way too big deal” of the move. 

This pragmatic approach was supposed to be just the right balance: enough to keep the two-state solution alive, but not too much to irritate Bennett’s right-wing coalition partners.  

3. Did Washington push too hard?

Idit Silman was the first to resign from Bennett’s coalition, but there may be more resignations to come. Right-wing members of the coalition feel that Bennett, under pressure from the U.S., is pulling the government into a centrist direction they cannot accept. Their complaints vary, including not only the key issue of settlement expansion, which the Biden administration strongly opposed and Bennett has been careful not to push the limit on, but also issues of semantics and style: For example, one of the remaining Yamina party members took issue with Bennett’s use of the term “West Bank” when standing next to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken; right-wing politicians in Israel prefer the term “Judea and Samaria,” which implies historic Jewish ownership of the land. Others made clear they did not agree with Blinken and other administration officials raising the issue of settler violence against Palestinians, which Bennett has also been willing to discuss.

They also feel that the U.S. should not mention the need to advance relations with the Palestinians every time it celebrates the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries.

4. There’s no winning

There’s a lesson here for Biden, or any future administration.

Managing Israeli politics is tough. It’s even tougher if you actually care about promoting peace in the Middle East.

The situation has changed dramatically throughout recent decades. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. presidents could pose demands on Israel. In the 1990s, they could present American plans and try to broker peace. Just a decade ago, it was considered legitimate for an administration to call out Israel for its actions in the West Bank. But in a post-Trump world, in which any American criticism of Israel is considered an act of hostility which could cause political uproar in both countries, there is very little room left for presidents to express any dismay or disagreement with Israel, even if they try doing so in the most subtle and nuanced way.

5. What happens next?

It’s now a matter of time. Bennett and his chief partner Yair Lapid seem to believe they have stabilized their coalition for now and can maintain the 60-member group for the near future. But they’re only a hair away from collapse. 

Whether it’s a month or a couple of years away, one thing is clear: The Bennett government’s remaining days will see an even more cautious Biden administration, trying even harder to avoid any semblance of involvement in the region.

Top image: Naftali Bennett in 2015.  (Credit: Brookings Institution via Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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