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1. What American Pressure Looks Like
The Biden administration, last week, found its voice. Its public voice, that is.
Not only did the White House make clear openly and formally that America is not being attacked by aliens, but top administration officials finally said out loud what they really think about the current Israeli government’s policies.
It was no hot mic incident, nor was it an off-the-cuff comment. The Biden administration, in an orchestrated and calculated move, decided to escalate its pressure campaign against Netanyahu’s government.
The public offensive began with Biden’s written comments to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in which he weighed in on the new coalition government’s plan for “judiciary reform,” which would severely undercut the power and independence of Israeli courts. “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,” Biden stated. “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
Biden made the comments in response to claims that the new government in Jerusalem is undermining Israel’s future as a democratic state.
Following suit was the administration’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who took issue with Israel’s plan to legalize West Bank outposts and expand settlements. In an official statement, Blinken made clear that the United States is “deeply troubled” by Israel’s decision and “strongly opposes” such unilateral steps.
The message was emphasized in State Department and White House press briefings and was followed by a joint statement issued by the United States, Canada and four European nations.
Topping off the week was U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who, in an interview on David Axelrod’s podcast, said that the United States is asking Netanyahu to “pump the brakes” on his attempts to reform Israel’s judiciary.
Taken together, these comments and statements put Netanyahu in a difficult position; the Israeli PM now faces an opposition at home that can point to the messages coming from the United States and can accuse Netanyahu of creating a historic divide between Washington and Jerusalem.
2. How Far Can You Push?
In ramping up its criticism, the Biden administration strolled into a land of peril.
Biden, who has been in this business longer than anyone else, still remembers the days back in the 1990s, when a hint of pressure from George H.W. Bush was enough to end the political career of then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. But he was also around, and in the room, when Barack Obama, his boss at the time, experienced the limits of American pressure. Netanyahu, in 2015, proved capable of withstanding fire from the White House, as he moved on to snub the U.S. president and mount a massive political attack against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
As president, Biden is aware that pressuring Israel has its limits and that applying too much pressure might backfire. True, there is a chance that Netanyahu will face political consequences at home for turning his back on America, but there’s just as much a chance that he leverages Biden’s pressure into a political asset and rallies his base around the call to stand up to outside pressure.
3. Providing a Ladder
These calculations have driven the Biden administration into its cautious approach toward the new government in Israel, an approach that includes both public admonishment and closed-door diplomacy.
Here’s another way of looking at this confrontation:
Biden and his team’s working assumption is that Netanyahu is not on a suicide mission, that at the end of the day, despite his decision to assemble a coalition of extremists, Netanyahu understands the need to compromise in order to maintain Israel’s strategic relationship with America.
To do so, it’s incumbent on the United States to provide Netanyahu with a way out, a ladder to get off the tree he has climbed.
This is exactly what America’s public pressure campaign can do. By making the differences known and open, Biden is providing Netanyahu with the excuse he needs in order to slow down the race for judicial reform and—more important as far as the United States is concerned—to back out of some of the settlement expansion moves. Netanyahu, either explicitly or implicitly, can now tell his coalition partners and the Israeli public that despite his best intentions and his commitment to limit judicial independence, expand existing settlements and legalize outposts, he has to take into consideration Israel’s strategic future and abide by some of Biden’s demands.
It’s a win-win situation for both sides: America succeeds in curbing some of Israel’s activities, and Netanyahu gets an excuse for stiffing his coalition members on his pre-government promises.
4. Choosing Their Battle
The United States is fighting on two fronts. One is aimed at making sure Israel does not take actions in the West Bank that will destabilize the situation and diminish chances of reaching a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the future. The other targets those of the Netanyahu government’s actions that are seen as undermining Israel’s democracy.
Clearly, the latter front is of secondary concern for America. Biden, like all of his predecessors, is focused on making sure Israel is safe and that the region does not go up in flames. Recent concerns about Israel’s democracy are a new source of trouble, which America views as a potential source of instability and as a move that could make it harder for Biden and any other administration to maintain a pro-Israel posture. “What binds us together,” said U.S. Ambassador Nides on Sunday to leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Jewish American Organizations, “is this love of democracies, this love of institutions. This is what enables us to defend Israel in the UN, time and time again, which we will continue to do.”
5. When Diplomacy and Pressure Pay off
By Sunday, the administration’s approach began to bear fruit.
A potentially explosive United Nations Security Council showdown scheduled for Monday had been successfully averted.
Palestinian representatives at the UN had sought to put forward, through the United Arab Emirates delegation, a resolution condemning Israel’s settlement expansion. This move would have put both Israel and the United States in a bind: Israel feared that a Security Council resolution, though only declarative, would serve as the basis for future condemnation in the international arena and would help Palestinian attempts to go after Israel in international courts. The United States was also in an unpleasant predicament. On the one hand, it too disagrees with Israel’s latest moves in the settlements and would be a natural supporter of a resolution condemning them. On the other hand, America has almost always maintained that the UN is not the forum for litigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that it is committed to vetoing anti-Israel resolutions.
But the crisis was eventually avoided.
The wave of criticism from the administration, coupled with intense diplomacy culminating in phone calls made by Blinken to Netanyahu and to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, directed all sides to the desired exit ramp: Israel, according to reports, agreed to slow down its settlement activity, and the Palestinians, in return, asked the UAE to pull back its request for a Monday vote on the resolution condemning Israel.
The Biden administration can breathe a sigh of relief. It can now avoid the difficult choice between vetoing the resolution, which would anger progressives and present the administration’s policy toward Israel as hypocritical, or allowing it to pass and risking being viewed as exceptionally harsh on Israel.
Opening Image: Oren Rozen via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0) / Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)