Netanyahu and Biden Are Not Meeting Precisely Because Of What Is On Their Agenda (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- June 20, 2023)


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. Why? Why won’t Biden invite Netanyahu to the White House?

A. They are not meeting because Biden knows exactly what the two leaders have to talk about if and when they meet. Biden will not dignify Netanyahu with an invitation unless and until the Israeli prime minister does something about at least two of the four items on their agenda, the ‘domestic’ issues, the ones that reflect Israel’s core values or lack thereof: the West Bank settlements and the government’s anti-democratic ‘judicial reform’ plans.

On Sunday of this week, Netanyahu took two highly provocative steps in this regard that render that White House visit even less likely.

The other two issues on the agenda, the prospect of a US-Iran “nuclear understanding” and the prospect of a US-Saudi deal involving some form of Saudi-Israeli normalization, involve legitimate differences between Biden and Netanyahu. These are currently discussed in a variety of high-level US-Israel forums and would constitute obvious constructive topics for a Biden-Netanyahu encounter.

Q. Start with the West Bank settlements issue . . .

A. This Sunday the Netanyahu government, with its heavy messianic settler representation, took a major step toward accelerating and spreading Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Washington reacted the same day, with State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller stating, "The United States is deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s reported decision to advance planning for over 4,000 settlement units in the West Bank. We are similarly concerned by reports of changes to Israel’s system of settlement administration that expedite the planning and approval of settlements."

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich made no bones about the objective of the new decision regarding settlements: “With God’s help, we will continue to expand settlement and strengthen Israel’s hold on the territory.” Smotrich is also a minister in the Ministry of Defense and now assumes authority over the settlements from Defense Minister Yoav Galant. Under Smotrich the bureaucratic process of planning and approving West Bank settlements will be shortened and streamlined.

Netanyahu’s coalition is dependent on Smotrich and his Religious Zionism party. Radically expanding the Jewish presence in the West Bank and attaching it formally to Israel is a major goal of that party. Netanyahu is perfectly aware that the Biden administration considers the settlements a major obstacle to resolving the Palestinian issue. Sunday’s decision, which deepens and expands Israel’s long-repugnant occupation of the West Bank, is truly poking a finger in the administration’s eye.

One immediate US reaction was to postpone a scheduled meeting in Morocco of the Negev Forum, which brings together the foreign ministers of Israel, the US, and four Arab states. That was a barely symbolic gesture.

Q. And judicial reform? Didn’t Netanyahu freeze his government’s anti-democratic legislative initiatives that are intended to radically diminish Israel’s judicial branch, bowing to widespread mass protests and demonstrations?

A. On Sunday, Netanyahu announced renewal of two of those initiatives. One would politicize the appointment and service of ministerial legal advisers. A second would render it more difficult for the High Court of Justice to disallow ministerial appointments and certain government decisions based on a lack of ‘reasonableness’. This second initiative is designed to allow Netanyahu to return Aryeh Deri of Shas, twice convicted on corruption charges, to the Cabinet, however unreasonable such an act.

Netanyahu’s decision was couched in seemingly moderate terms and was, by far-right standards, a minimal gesture to anti-judicial advocates--presumably just enough to maintain coalition solidarity. The decision was Netanyahu’s response to a fiasco late last week when, due to internal intrigue within the Likud, the coalition botched a move agreed with the opposition to select two representatives--one from the coalition and one from the opposition--to the committee that appoints judges. We ended up with only an opposition appointee and an embarrassed Netanyahu.

It was then that the prime minister, confronting desertions from the moderate extreme of the coalition on the judicial-appointment issue, proceeded to renege on his understandings with the opposition regarding a freeze on judicial reform legislative initiatives.

In response, the opposition suspended its participation in compromise talks sponsored and guided by President Herzog. The opposition’s threat to radically amplify anti-‘reform’ demonstrations--the kind that led Netanyahu to suspend legislation--was palpable.

Herzog, incidentally, felt impelled to repudiate Netanyahu’s claim that changes in the High Court’s ‘reasonableness’ authority and the status of ministerial legal advisers had been agreed in the talks at the president’s residence. The renewed political rancor over ‘judicial reform’, coupled with the latest freeze in the presidentially-mediated talks, were taking their toll on Herzog’s status as a neutral arbiter.

By Tuesday of this week, national attention was focused on Lawyers’ Guild elections that would eventually produce two additional members of the judicial appointments committee. A pro-Likud candidate with a shady moral background was running for the leadership post against a candidate who backs opposition to the Likud’s ‘reforms’.

Here we recall that the Biden administration has made plain, and public, its call for Netanyahu’s government to galvanize broad public consensus before deciding on issues like changing the judicial system.

So this was yet another Netanyahu finger in Biden’s eye. A divided, unstable and anti-democratic Israel is hardly the ally the United States needs in the Middle East.

Q. Backtrack to the Iran nuclear and Saudi issues. Are the US and Israel completely at odds here too?

A. No. Netanyahu opposes the latest ‘less for less’ arrangement (not a formal agreement) that would include, among several reciprocal concessions, a freeze on Iran’s military nuclear program. But the prime minister’s criticism thus far has been muted. Moreover, many in the Israeli security establishment, who also supported the JCPOA back in 2015, back this US effort too as a least-of-all-evils stopgap measure. Then too, Netanyahu’s emissaries have been given ample opportunity to weigh in on the indirect US discussions with Iran.

At a minimum, this is on both sides a legitimate difference of opinion on what is acknowledged to be, for Israel, an existential issue.

On the Saudi issue, too, there is ample US-Israel dialogue. Biden is seeking from Saudi Arabia something Netanyahu badly wants: normalization, whereby Riyadh would join Abu Dhabi, Manama and Rabat in openly engaging in diplomatic, economic and security relations with Israel. But Saudi de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is trying to exact a high price in US concessions in return: a US-supplied and sanctioned nuclear infrastructure and F-35 stealth aircraft. Interestingly, MbS is apparently less insistent on the traditional Saudi demand of a two-state solution agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Normalization with Saudi Arabia could constitute perhaps the crowning achievement of Netanyahu’s premiership. He will not, in terms of his own ideology and that of his far-right messianist coalition partners, deliver a Palestinian state in return. But he and the Israeli security establishment know that F-35s and a nuclear program, once delivered to the Saudis could, in a volatile Middle East, end up in the wrong hands. Not to mention the nuclear and conventional arms races that are liable to be spawned by their supply to Riyadh.

Still, the prospect of US-brokered normalization with Saudi Arabia, which recently reconciled with Iran, is a good reason for Netanyahu to tone down his criticism of a prospective new US-Iran-nuclear deal.

All in all, this is another legitimate issue that is being discussed by Washington and Jerusalem. But something important is missing: a Biden-Netanyahu summit to thrash out the details.

Q. Bottom line?

A. These two issues, Iran-nuclear and Saudi Arabia, illustrate perfectly how Israel-US relations and Israel’s strategic interests are being poorly served by Netanyahu’s far-right folly regarding building settlements and ham-handedly dismantling Israel’s judicial branch of government. Meanwhile, under the prime minister’s faltering leadership his coalition parties are losing in the opinion polls, the shekel is weakening, and inflation is rampant.

PS, one final question, with apologies for changing the subject

Q. Moving from Biden to Trump: You are a former intelligence professional whose highly-classified intelligence-gathering and analyses were delivered to the Israeli leadership. How do you explain ex-President Trump’s obsessive hoarding of so many sensitive government secrets?

A. I think the explanation lies in something Trump reportedly told one of his lawyers, M. Evan Corcoran, in May 2022: “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes.”

Exclusive access to secrets empowers a head of state. Trump left office insisting he still was the legitimate head of state in the United States. Apparently, in his warped psyche, those boxes of documents--“my boxes”--ratified and confirmed his self-image as president. Note that after leaving office, Trump reportedly moved the boxes around and examined their contents with the help of an aide, in his own ‘presidential’ manner.

Add to this that he came to the presidency with no background in reading and absorbing classified intelligence assessments. Apparently, he is also not endowed intellectually to process sensitive strategic intelligence. Conceivably, Trump does not really comprehend the significance for the nation of what he has hoarded.

Sadly, at least one aspect of this description, lack of intelligence background, fits most recent American presidents and, indeed, many world leaders. For what it is worth, Israeli leaders usually enjoy an advantage here. Sadly, that does not necessarily improve their strategic decision-making.

This is my own personal theory about Trump and the documents he hoarded. The boxes show better than anything else just how unfit for office this man is.