US-Israeli tensions underscore White House unease with Netanyahu policies

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As Joe Biden received Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s figurehead at the White House this week, he hailed the US-Israel relationship as “simply unbreakable”, and spoke of the “ironclad” commitment to his ally in the Middle East.

Yet despite the US president’s warm words, this week’s flurry of diplomatic activity has also revealed how strained ties between the US and one of its closest allies have been since Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history last year.

“The administration is trying to walk between the lines,” said Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and now chairman of Silver Road Capital Group. “To show that they have Israel’s back – but also that they have a problem with this government.”

Part of the Biden administration’s criticism of Netanyahu’s government has been directed at its acceleration of plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians have long sought as the heartland of a future state but which Israel has occupied since 1967.

The Biden administration has repeatedly called settlement expansion — deemed illegal by most of the international community — an obstacle to peace. Two weeks ago, he said Netanyahu’s cabinet included some of the “most extreme” figures he had encountered in 50 years of dealings with Israel, criticizing their desire to “settle anywhere” as “part of the problem” in the West Bank. But in public statements this week, he largely avoided the topic.

Instead, the concern Biden has expressed most publicly is over moves to weaken the powers of Israel’s justice system that have sparked one of the biggest waves of protests in Israel’s history and plunged the country into its deepest political crisis in years.

Netanyahu and his allies have insisted that the judicial changes – the first of which is to be voted on Monday – are necessary to rein in an overly powerful justice system. But critics see them as a fundamental threat to Israel’s democratic institutions. This week, Biden again urged Netanyahu not to push through sweeping changes without consensus.

To hammer home his message, shortly after meeting Herzog on Tuesday, Biden told the New York Times that “the vibrancy of Israeli democracy. . . must remain the heart of our bilateral relationship”. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby later told Israel’s Channel 12 that the article “accurately reflected where the president’s head is.”

“Never before have we faced a situation in which the whole issue of Israel’s democratic institutions or its independent judiciary has been called into question,” said Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel and now Distinguished Lowy Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“And that takes on greater importance when you have a president [in Biden] WHO . . . who believes in promoting democracy.

Observers said part of the reason for Biden’s decision to focus his criticism on the judicial overhaul lay in domestic US politics. The position of American politicians on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gradually become a more partisan issue in recent years.

This trend accelerated after the administration of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, moved away from the longstanding US approach to a two-state solution, taking a number of high-profile steps that unambiguously favored Israel. This was underscored again this week when Democratic MK Pramila Jayapal called Israel a “racist state,” prompting a Republican-sponsored resolution saying it was not.

By contrast, Biden’s warnings about Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul have drawn far fewer Republican reactions, Indyk said, not least because much of the Jewish community in the United States shares his concerns.

“[Biden] will not want to engage in a fight with Israel over settlements in an election year,” he said. “But it seems he is fully prepared to fight for the independence of the judiciary.”

However, there is no indication that the Biden administration intends to follow up on its criticisms of Netanyahu’s government with action. “There was ‘no discussion of some sort of formal reassessment’ of US-Israel relations, an NSC official said.

And after ostensibly refusing to invite Netanyahu to the United States in the seven months since he returned to power, Biden finally did so this week — though no date or location was set and officials said it was done largely to keep the topic from overshadowing Herzog’s visit.

Indeed, while the Biden administration ended a Trump-era policy of funding Israeli research institutes operating in West Bank settlements, it has otherwise pursued several other policies that analysts say could provide Netanyahu with a political windfall.

Israel and the United States signed an agreement this week that brings Israel closer to its long-standing goal of entering the US visa waiver program. And even as U.S. officials have privately warned that the deteriorating situation in the West Bank is draining diplomatic bandwidth that could be devoted to issues such as Israel’s ambitions to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration has nonetheless worked to facilitate relationship building.

Diplomats and former officials have said that in the short term this is unlikely to change. “THE [US-Israel] defense cooperation continues fully, because it is also an American interest. The basic special relationship continues because it’s a person-to-person relationship,” Ayalon said. “But [the Americans] raise a red flag.