WASHINGTON – With Israel’s fourth election in two years less than a week away, political observers in D.C. are considering the likely composition of the next government, and how the various permutations would interact with U.S. President Joe Biden.
The three most frequently considered are a Netanyahu-led government comprising right wing, far right and religious parties; a non-Netanyahu-led government – whether helmed by Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett or Gideon Sa’ar; or a continuation of the Netanyahu-led interim government en route to a fifth election this summer.
The possibility of a government without Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm is a pipe dream given coalition math, according to Israel Policy Forum Policy Director Michael Koplow. Suspending disbelief, however, the think tank head believes the centrist Lapid would enjoy the smoothest interactions with the Biden administration.
“Lapid has been around for a while,” Koplow says of the Yesh Atid leader who entered politics in 2013. “He knows Biden [having served as finance minister from 2013-2015], and he’s exactly where Biden is ideologically on a lot of issues – both on Israel and the Middle East more widely. It’s almost like Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin in terms of being on the same wavelength.”
More potential for friction, Koplow says, lies with a governing coalition featuring Sa’ar or Bennett at its head. The leaders of the right-wing New Hope and Yamina parties, respectively, are committed to policies that Biden openly opposes – namely annexation and the legalization of outposts – not to mention settlement construction beyond the footprint of where things currently stand.
“If that happens, it will 100 percent cause tension very early on. But it may not happen at the outset,” Koplow notes. To one degree or another, he says, the two right-wing leaders have “made public comments that they understand they have to be conscious of how they act given American objections.”
Netanyahu’s return to the premiership in 2009, after a decade out of politics or in the opposition, provides recent precedent for the pressure new prime ministers face when initially interacting with a U.S. president. “He agreed to all sorts of things at Barack Obama’s behest,” Koplow says. “When you look back now, these would never happen today: the 10-month settlement freeze everywhere outside of Jerusalem, participating in the [John] Kerry peace process a few years down the road.”
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Koplow adds: “No one should underestimate the pressure,” on new Israeli premiers. “No matter what they want to do, there’s a gap between their preferences and what they would actually feel able to do.”
This is not to say Bennett and Sa’ar would not attempt to implement their own ideologies on Israeli policy. “They’re both to Netanyahu’s ideological right. When Netanyahu tours the West Bank and says he’ll legalize settlements as soon as he’s elected, people tend to be cynical and dismiss that as campaigning. With Sa’ar, one believes he’d put more of an effort into trying,” Koplow says. “Whether plausible or not, you have two candidates who are not ideologically where Biden is.”
Extremists in the government
More immediate problems for U.S.-Israel relations may arise if the far-right Otzma Yehudit – part of the Religious Zionism alliance led by Bezalel Smotrich – joins the Knesset, and particularly if its leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is part of the government. “Any prime minister will have to deal with this notion of perhaps six Knesset seats for Kahanists,” Koplow says.
The story of how the ideology of the late Meir Kahane became mainstreamed in Israeli politics has not yet been sufficiently told, according to Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman. The extremist American rabbi served as an Israeli lawmaker for four years before his Kach party was banned from running in the 1988 election. (He was assassinated by an Egyptian gunman in Manhattan, in 1990.)
“The liberal Zionist world is convinced that people will be shocked by Kahanists being in government, and it is shocking. But his views are already in the mainstream of Israeli politics, and it’s gone by without anyone noticing,” she observes. “If he came back to life tomorrow and saw the rhetoric, from the right toward the center, he’d be very happy.”
Friedman is skeptical that a Netanyahu-led government featuring far-right extremists would lead to any significant change in the Biden administration’s approach.
“It’s going to be a right-wing government no matter what,” she says. “We’ve been saying ‘The most right-wing government in Israel’s history’ after each successive election for 15 years,” she adds, noting that the U.S. approach is to try to maintain the status quo with Israel. “If there’s a line that Israel could cross, it’s difficult to see what that would be. It’s hard to imagine that the United States will suddenly find the stomach to clash with Israel based on the political coloration of a new government,” Friedman says.
The Biden administration has yet to express any formal concerns regarding a potential Israeli government having an affiliation with State Department-designated foreign terrorist organizations such as Kach and Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), and the American-Jewish establishment has likewise been silent to date (though organizations such as AIPAC did criticize Netanyahu when he backed an electoral pact between Otzma Yehudit and other extremists in early 2019).
“People just aren’t shocked by it at the moment,” Friedman says. “That political worldview in the late 1980s, early ’90s, was so beyond the pale for Israelis and for U.S. policy. Today, that narrative is already woven into the mainstream right – the only difference is they’re saying the quiet part loud. But they’d been saying it pretty loud already.”
Such examples, according to Friedman, include Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman being considered a respectable politician despite consistently calling for the transfer of Arabs to the West Bank, as well as Bennett calling for Arab Israelis to take loyalty oaths. “This smells and tastes of Meir Kahane already, and there’s been no backlash.” Friedman says. “De facto annexation has been a feature of every Israeli government for the past 15 years, and that hasn’t hurt relations.”
She cites the Biden administration’s silence following the Israeli announcement of planned construction at Givat Hamatos – an East Jerusalem neighborhood outside the pre-1967 borders – as a significant example of static U.S. policy. “Givat Hamatos and E1 [next to East Jerusalem] are the two settlements the U.S. has publicly and powerfully intervened on, based on the argument that they make the two-state solution impossible,” she says. “Israel basically announced [new housing at] Givat Hamatos on Inauguration Day and the Biden folks haven’t said a word about it.”
Friedman notes the double standard of holding Palestinians to old conditions where they have to support the two-state solution, while a significant number of Israeli lawmakers in successive governments have rejected this. “It hasn’t hurt [Israel’s] U.S. relations at all, while the empty rhetoric remains. It’s hard to see a firm line in the sand that can’t be crossed that would lead to consequences,” she says. “And Netanyahu seems to understand that well.”
Netanyahu’s experiences with previous U.S. administrations is informing Biden’s approach, Friedman says, arguing that he operates as if he will succeed no matter who is in power. “He operates like ‘If it’s Trump, I can flatter him and find my fellow travelers. If it’s Obama, I will corner him between a rock and a hard place.’ He very effectively checkmated Obama’s policies, notwithstanding the fact he was the most generous and noncritical U.S. president for Israel in decades; he has been stuck with a false legacy,” she says.
Aware of this dynamic, as well as Netanyahu’s “extraordinary all-out on Congress and the U.S. Jewish community” regarding Iran, the Biden administration is instead saving its political capital for a potential clash over a return to the nuclear deal (officially known as the JCPOA), Friedman believes. “On everything else – the International Criminal Court, settlements, violence – the administration response is ‘Both sides should hold back.’ It’s hard not to conclude the key operating rule is: ‘Don’t clash with Israel,’” she says.
Behind closed doors
Despite blanket Israeli opposition to a return to the Iran nuclear deal, there has been a notable absence of public clashes between the U.S. and Israel over the past several weeks. Friedman says this reflects Biden’s current strategy on Iran. “So far, their framing basically matches Israeli framing. It isn’t Netanyahu biding his time or being diplomatic – that conflict just isn’t there yet.”
Koplow says Biden’s tactic of making sure to include relevant Israelis in discussions – highlighting the frequency of conversations between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and strategic dialogues between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat – will help keep disagreements behind closed doors, no matter who is prime minister.
“No Israeli prime minister will completely back down and say they’re fine with a U.S. return to the JCPOA, or any deal, though none will raise things to the same level we saw in 2015,” Koplow says. “Those days are behind us. Whoever is prime minister will raise objections, but not in such an in-your-face manner,” he adds, referring to Netanyahu’s speech against the Iran deal before a joint session of Congress.
Natan Sachs, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, calls the current state of affairs “surprising and relatively productive,” noting that this is the same Netanyahu who was so public in his battles with the Obama administration in 2015.
“It seemed as if they would be on a collision course because of the stated American intent to return to the JCPOA, and Israel’s outspoken opposition to that. Instead, there’s been cooperation and we’ve not seen an overt confrontation. It looks like Netanyahu has decided it’s not worth it at the moment.”
This reflects the fact that Biden and Netanyahu share a mutual need to cooperate, according to Sachs. “There’s a domestic incentive for Biden to have some distance from Netanyahu, but the last thing he needs is trouble from his flank on Israel; he needs a good working relationship as they deal with a very tough portfolio with Iran,” he says.
He adds that Netanyahu needs to project that he can work with Biden and not just Donald Trump – especially if Israel heads to a fifth election and the interim government remains in power.
“We’re in a strange time where the Netanyahu-[Defense Minister Benny] Gantz government is just a Netanyahu government in many respects. Internationally, Netanyahu is the one leading,” Sachs says. “Gantz and Ashkenazi are sometimes in the room, but it’s the Netanyahu show. If there was a modicum of cooperation at the beginning, there’s very little left now.”
That’s not to say, he adds, that Gantz and Ashkenazi’s presence is not insignificant with regards to the Biden administration, even if it seems meaningless at the political level. “They have important, deep relationships with their American counterparts. Their presence matters on a whole host of issues, technical or otherwise,” Sachs says, highlighting the annexation debate, ongoing matters relating to Israel’s qualitative military edge following the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and Iran – which Sachs believes could still create a point of crisis.
“The logic that led Netanyahu to confront Obama could still apply if he thinks Biden is rushing toward a bad deal or giving up too much,” Sachs says. “He doesn’t view his Congress speech as a mistake; if he sees a major threat, it’s no-holds-barred.”
One area where Sachs doesn’t see a confrontation between an interim Israeli government and the Biden administration is regarding the Palestinians, unless there is a domestic Israeli logic to it.
“Some bilateral items are relatively high on Biden’s agenda with this specific portfolio, which is low in itself on his agenda. A confrontation is less likely with this government since he has such a strong hold on his flank,” he notes.
All things considered, yet another interim government with a fifth election on the horizon would be “deeply troubling,” according to Sachs.
“There’s something fraying at the seams on the government’s basic ability to conduct its affairs. Israel is a well-functioning state by and large, but it’s in the throes of a major crisis in governance. It shouldn’t be overlooked – and it goes beyond who’s prime minister. It’s a question of ‘Does this system work?’ Four elections in two years suggests it doesn’t.”