Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. Last Tuesday, President Biden said an emphatic “no” to a visit to the White House by PM Netanyahu “in the near term”. He pointed to the judicial reform issue, noted his hope for a “genuine compromise” and stated “they cannot continue down this road”. How bad is the crisis in US-Israel relations?
A. When an Israeli prime minister is pointedly non-invited to the White House and when a US president bases his anger in part on American Jewish opposition to Israeli policies (“They [the Netanyahu coalition] know the American Jewish position”), there is indeed a crisis in relations. Right now, with regard to democracy the US-Israel relationship is not based on “shared values”. A Biden administration official added that the Netanyahu government had made a ”gross miscalculation” with regard to the US reaction to the judicial legislation.
Nor is the problem confined to the Netanyahu government’s anti-democratic drive to radically reduce the authority and clout of Israel’s judicial branch. The Knesset vote earlier in March to permit Israelis to return to the ruins of four settlements in the northern West Bank that were abandoned, along with the Gaza settlements, in 2005, was cited by the State Department as a direct and “provocative” violation of an Israeli commitment and of US policy.
The administration was also reportedly furious after Netanyahu’s extreme-right son Yair tweeted that the US State Department was conspiring to topple his father’s government through CIA financing of mass anti-Netanyahu demonstrations--a libel reportedly endorsed by the prime minister in a briefing to Israeli journalists. Nor did it help to fire Defense Minister Yoav Galant for calling openly to suspend judicial legislation because it had come to constitute “a clear and tangible danger to national security”. Galant is practically the only minister in Netanyahu’s extremist government that the administration believes it can work with.
Netanyahu was clearly taken aback by Biden’s remarks. After all, the prime minister had just temporarily suspended judicial reform legislation and was reassured by US Ambassador Tom Nides’s statement that “I’m sure he’ll be coming [to Washington] relatively soon”. Nor, apparently, was Galant really fired.
Clearly Biden, like the Israeli opposition which continues to demonstrate all-out, has become convinced that Netanyahu’s temporary suspension of legislation does not represent a sincere rethinking of the Israeli government’s judicial reform agenda. At the coalition-opposition negotiations taking place at President Herzog’s official residence, the Netanyahu government representatives are reportedly stalling for time until judicial reform legislation can be resumed in May.
Perhaps of greater significance, the Biden-Netanyahu confrontation serves as an indication that something very fundamental is amiss in Israel’s understanding of America.
Q. Why? We have an American president and an Israeli prime minister who take pride in “over 40 years of friendship”.
A. Some Israelis, of the sort who tend to be outspoken and not nuanced, apparently don’t know how to read between the lines. Netanyahu and his emissary to America Ron Dermer, who purport to know the United States like the back of their hand, have been living in a bubble. When Biden points out that he has known Netanyahu for 40 years, he means he knows from experience what Bibi is capable of. He once inscribed a photo sent to Netanyahu, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.” That was a warning that under the best of circumstances this is a fragile relationship.
Moreover, when it comes to recent polls, it turns out Biden reads them while Netanyahu does not. In Israel, close to two-thirds of the public, including many Likud supporters, do not support the coalition’s judicial reform. Benny Gantz, not Netanyahu, is the leader of choice. From the standpoint of the Israeli public, Biden’s firmness is welcome.
In the US, according to a recent Gallup poll, more Democrats support the Palestinian cause than the Israeli (49 percent to 38 percent). If, as seems likely, Biden decides to run for a second term, the sentiments of Democratic party adherents are an important factor. So is Netanyahu’s near-automatic support for the Republican party, where his most energetic American support base lies: Evangelicals, not Jews.
Q. Yet can’t Netanyahu take comfort in the fact that Biden administration disapproval has thus far been only verbal? Some previous US presidents have been much tougher on Israel.
A. Biden’s administration has been highly critical of Netanyahu regarding judicial reform and the Palestinian issue--particularly settlement construction and expansion and Palestinian casualties caused by Israeli forces. In recent security discussions in Aqaba and Sharm a-Shaykh, Netanyahu could permit himself to accept a temporary confidence-building settlement freeze because he had already undertaken to build 10,000 new dwellings and legalize dozens of outposts.
Yet in point of fact, Biden has not slowed or obstructed security cooperation. Spurred on by the war in Ukraine, his administration has approved sale by Israel of Arrow 3 anti-missile batteries (an Israel-US joint venture) to Germany. Strategic collaboration against Iran continues apace. The US is not known to have delayed supply of vital aircraft, spares, etc. for the Israel Air Force.
Some earlier administrations did do precisely this. Eisenhower (and the Soviets) gave Israel an ultimatum to withdraw from occupied-Sinai in 1956 after the Suez Campaign. Nixon and Kissinger briefly delayed vital resupply of aircraft in 1973-74 following the Yom Kippur War. Reagan did something similar in 1982-83 when Israel was occupying part of Beirut.
All these steps were taken while Israel was at war. Due to Israel’s critical reliance on US diplomatic and materiel support, Jerusalem had no choice but to bend.
Q. But Israel is not at war. So will Biden go that far?
A. Over anti-democratic judicial reform within the Israeli political system, and over settlement expansion, I doubt it. After all, one is an internal Israeli issue and the other takes place against a prolonged and total stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian two-state negotiations. If, on the other hand, Israel confronts a new Intifada in the West Bank that generates expanded Israeli occupation and heavy Palestinian losses--and we are not far from such a situation--I could envision Biden withholding a UN Security Council veto and possibly vital ordnance as well. If Israel gets bogged down in a war against the Iran-Hezbollah camp on Lebanese territory, again generating heavy losses, the Biden administration again could invoke sanctions.
Lest we didn’t notice, recent skirmishes against Hamas in Gaza may have left Israel virtually unscathed, but they involved a huge expense in anti-missile warfare that drained Israeli ordnance reserves. Following the May 2021 Guardian of the Walls campaign, Israel came begging to Washington for an urgent one billion dollars-worth of Tamir anti-missile missiles to replenish its Iron Dome system. Under current circumstances, can we imagine Netanyahu appealing to Biden for such an emergency aid package?
Then too, Biden does not have to punish Israel at all in order to undercut its regional strategic standing. Can an Israel whose leader is persona non-grata in Washington offer his good offices in the US to neighbors Jordan and Egypt? To Turkey or the UAE?
Q. This sounds particularly problematic insofar as the Israeli security community has been dragged into the anti-Netanyahu protests: an unprecedented situation.
A. Indeed, the Biden administration appears to be on the side of Galant and of opposition figures like former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot. They warn of the danger that an Israel seemingly weakened by civil strife will lack the deterrent strength to prevent a multi-front war involving Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza and an Intifada on the West Bank. Were such an all-out war to erupt, Biden would probably openly support Israel, unless and until it gets bogged down again in occupying Arab lands--something Israeli governments have avoided since the tragic 1982-2000 occupation in Lebanon.
But Israel is now poised to revamp its security structure, a move that is generating alarm in circles both at home and abroad. In order to prevent his coalition from crumbling when he bent recently to pressure from the Israeli public and the United States and agreed to delay implementing judicial reform until May, Netanyahu gave in to a demand by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to create a ‘national guard’ under his direct command. On Sunday, all other ministries were informed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a Ben Gvir ally, of a 1.5 percent cut in their budgets in order to create this new force, which Ben Gvir clearly intends to deploy in and against Arab communities in Israel.
Q. To be clear, you are talking about some sort of militia under the command of a racist, Kahanist minister with a long criminal record in the sphere of Arab-Jewish conflict in Israel and the occupied territories?
A. The national guard--a misplaced term borrowed from the US by Israelis who have no clue what the American version does--was originally conceived after the May 2021 conflict, which spread in an unprecedented manner into mixed Jewish-Arab cities and onto strategic axes of transportation where Arab neighbors blockaded roads. What if this happens in wartime, when the IDF needs to move forces to the northern border and encounters resistance by angry Arab citizens of Israel? The original idea was to create a reserve police unit available for emergency call-up and deployment if and when Arab-Jewish civil strife erupts again.
(We’ll leave aside for now what this forecast says about the slippery slope that Israel and the Palestinians are sliding down toward a highly conflicted binational entity.)
An expert committee has been set up by the government to decide who in the end will be in charge of the national guard. Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai still envisions it as a police reserve unit. Ben Gvir wants it under his direct command. Meanwhile the IDF is itself preparing forces to intervene in wartime against fellow (Arab) Israeli citizens--a terrible precedent if it transpires.
And Minister of Legacy Amichai Eliyahu from Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party is arguing that the national guard under Ben Gvir’s ministry should deal with “citizens of the country who identify with the enemy,” citizens who committed acts such as “sexual molestation and rape against a nationalist backdrop,” in his words.
In today’s Israel, you can’t make this stuff up.
One way or another, as matters currently stand, Netanyahu is likely to move forward with undemocratic judicial ‘reform’ and civil strife is likely to continue and even escalate. That means growing involvement by the security community--police, striking reservists, a defense minister warning of major conflict, conceivably a vigilante ‘national guard’.
And an angry and appalled Joe Biden will look for new ways to demonstrate his discontent at losing a liberal, democratic ally in the Middle East.