Blinken to Address J Street Conference as Potential U.S.-Israel Tensions Surface

The speech comes as Israel's most right-wing government in history is expected to come to power creating possible points of contention between the two countries

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference in Romania in November.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference in Romania in November.Credit: Vadim Ghirda /AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will address the liberal, pro-Israel J Street’s annual conference, where he will deliver the Biden administration’s most high-level remarks since Benjamin Netanyahu’s success in last month’s Israeli elections, and amid escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We are deeply honored and excited that Secretary Blinken will be addressing this year’s J Street conference,” said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami. “At a critical time for Israelis and Palestinians and for the future of liberal democracy in the region and around the world, our movement is looking forward to hearing about these challenges from our nation’s top diplomat.”

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Blinken, who spoke to J Street in 2012 while serving as then-Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, follows U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s virtual address to the group’s conference in April 2021.

This speech, however, comes at a particularly fraught period for U.S.-Israel ties, with the administration staring down the pipe of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. This includes but is not limited to bringing the homophobic Noam party into the coalition, granting Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir the newly created position of “national security minister” and granting Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party authority over civil administration of the West Bank.

While all of these topics are undoubtedly disconcerting to the Biden administration, it will likely remain selective with the public battles it wages with Netanyahu, wary about every point of contention being played as a threat to the bilateral relationship. By all accounts, both parties are committed to maintaining such geopolitically strategic ties.

    This will likely mean the U.S. will not be the ones fighting Netanyahu over Israel’s internal democratic stress tests or issues that may be otherwise objectionable, particularly to liberal American Jewry. Matters concerning rising tensions in the West Bank, settlement expansion, potential annexation and the Temple Mount status quo, however, will be points likely to breed crises should Israel grow too emboldened.
    This has been the administration’s strategic approach since taking office, spanning from Netanyahu’s previous term through the Bennett-Lapid “change” coalition: Keep tensions from flaring out of control, which would further put momentum out of reach. This was significantly easier, however, for both countries to handle with the U.S. aiming to provide Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid with relative cover, and Israel wanting to tread as lightly as possible in hopes of avoiding confrontation.

    The U.S. has taken an extremely cautious approach to the emerging coalition, having various models and plans for how to engage with specific officials depending on their portfolios and pasts. It has already demonstrated it will be unafraid to publicly rebuke officials in ways it hasn’t before, such as State Department spokesperson Ned Price’s denunciation of Ben-Gvir for his remarks at the Meir Kahane memorial.

    Israel, meanwhile, will have to be wary of alienating not just the Biden administration but its Arab partners in the Abraham Accords. Netanyahu, relatively one of the most liberal members of his coalition, is surely aware of the delicate position he finds himself in – between his domestic allies wanting to annex and his Arab diplomatic partners, for whom annexation would be a mortal threat to normalization.

    The U.S., meanwhile, has taken its most intentional step to date toward improving relations with the Palestinians by designating Hady Amr as new special representative for Palestinian affairs — the first time the U.S. has created such a position.

    The timing should not be underestimated: The U.S. is demonstrating to Israel that it will push back against Israeli and Republican opposition toward improved ties with the Palestinians. This becomes all the more relevant as West Bank tensions continue to approach boiling point and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, 87, only gets older, with plans for his succession as unclear as ever.

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