Netanyahu Versus the White House: Not Only a Challenge, but an Opportunity

Joe Biden is not Barack Obama and Tony Blinken is not John Kerry; educated in battles with previous Democratic administrations, Benjamin Netanyahu will be surprised to find a listening ear in Washington, particularly since American policy toward Iran and the Palestinians has failed.

A spark of life awakened in the aging president as he appeared before Israeli journalists gathered in the Oval Office. “I’m warning you about the boom,” joked Biden concerning the huge microphones that almost reached his head and that of President Isaac Herzog when the two met last week. He sat down slowly on the chair and spoke with a very weak voice, so it was impossible not to get close to the “boom.”

“I’ll say this 5,000 times — the ironclad commitment the United States has to Israel.” He joked about his advanced age; he spared Herzog the story known to all about his first meeting with Golda Meir on the eve of the Yom Kippur War.

Biden loves Israel. His heart is with us. Intellect and politics are with the Palestinians — this is what is accepted among his generation in America. His people take the opposite position. Their hearts are full of compassion for the Palestinians living under the “occupation,” but their intellect says that they cannot turn their backs on Israel.

Neither Biden nor his people raised any concern or reservation before Herzog about the new right-wing government that Netanyahu will set up. Even the name Itamar Ben-Gvir was not mentioned. In addition to Biden, Herzog also met with Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (whose husband was attacked at home in San Francisco a few days before this), Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and other senior officials.

The Address Is Clear

Even though the possibility of Ben-Gvir’s being integrated into a future Netanyahu government was known to all of them, they did not find it appropriate to raise the issue. Blinken was the only one who indirectly addressed elections in Israel, but even he did not mention names. Herzog, in any case, stood on the importance of respecting the results, whatever they were.

All who say that the Americans will clash with Israel over Ben-Gvir — and several reporters did that this week — are spreading false news in order to poison relations between the countries. This method is well known.

What now? The Americans’ reservations over the chairman of the Jewish Power faction are expected. Even if he is shunned by the Biden administration, he will not be the first. Avigdor Lieberman, who served as foreign minister under Netanyahu in 2009, was cut off from Washington and its representatives for many months. The state of Israel did not collapse, as is remembered. Ben-Gvir, therefore, is also a very savvy politician. He may find a way to gain American legitimacy without angering his electors.

Regardless, Prime Minister Netanyahu, if and when he returns to his position, is expected to encounter a democratic, placated and calm administration, unlike what he absorbed during the traumatic days of Obama or Bill Clinton. It is clear that the Biden administration preferred a Lapid-Gantz government made up of mainly left-wing parties; however, its complicated structure did not make life easy for them. Sometimes they found themselves running between Benjamin Gantz, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett in order to understand who was in charge of what. With Netanyahu, the address was and will be clear.

Biden and his people — Secretary of State Blinken, Iran envoy Robert Malley, Middle East envoy Hady Amr, and others — are graduates of the Obama administration. They learned through experience that forcing measures on Netanyahu does not work, other than causing an explosion. This is in addition to the much bigger and urgent problems crouching at their doorstep, such as China, Russia, Iran, gas prices, the environment, etc. So with all respect to Ben-Gvir, there are issues just a bit more pressing.

On the Palestinian issue, it is clear that the Biden administration does not have an attainable solution. Therefore they have no intention of forcing some sort of plan. Mahmoud Abbas is weak. The Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse. Attacks are increasing, as is the number of Palestinians being killed by IDF strikes. From the American side come harsh claims about the heavy loss of life and the deterioration of the situation — there is already disagreement, and it is expected to worsen, but no one is deceiving themselves by saying that there is a magic formula for the overall problem.

Those who were there, such as John Kerry, who went all out in 2014 and forced the sides to form an agreement divorced from reality, do not intend to make the same mistake. Therefore, the policy of “managing the conflict” that began when Biden entered the White House in January 2021, at the end of Netanyahu’s tenure, and continued through the period of Bennett and Lapid, will not return with the expected return of Netanyahu.

The Desire To Sign Is at the Lowest Level

Some of the requirements involved in “managing the conflict” are never easy for us. For example, uncontrolled construction by the Palestinians financed by the Europeans in “Area C,” or protocols for opening fire imposed on IDF soldiers, will likely cause conflict, and it is hoped that Netanyahu this time will do what his predecessors did not do and stop the creeping annexation of the “Area C” territory by the Palestinians.

Still, an all-out conflict in all areas with the Americans, similar to the days of Obama, is not waiting around the corner. Biden is not interested, and his people understand that there is no reason for it.

In contrast, mainly because of the great frustration over their failures, it is possible that the Americans will want to hear what Israel is proposing for the long term, its vision. What a prime minister with a stable government wants to happen in the end to territory that Israel has held for the last 55 years. They want to talk about what is, not what is not.

If on the Palestinian front the Biden administration is helpless, then on the Iranian front there is a dead end. The American strategy against Iran has crashed on the rocks. Not only is there not “a stronger, longer-term agreement,” as Blinken promised at the beginning, but there is no agreement at all. What the Americans gave Iran, and this was a lot, did not satisfy Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now, with Iran helping Russia and also violently suppressing protests throughout the country, the Americans’ desire to sign an agreement with Iran is at the bottom rung.

The nuclear agreement is clinically dead. Even here, the new Israeli government will encounter a listening American ear on proposals from Jerusalem. If this is a “maximal pressure” policy on Iran, such as that imposed by the Donald Trump administration, then the Biden administration will claim that they did not remove any of the sanctions imposed by the previous administration. On the contrary, almost every week there are new sanctions against the regime’s senior leaders who lead the suppression of the demonstrators.

However, the “maximum pressure” has not deterred the Iranians, who are on the verge of becoming a threshold nuclear state. Therefore, what is the solution? Even military action, which the Americans are ready to take in case of an Iranian breakout to the bomb, is not a long-term solution in their opinion. So what is it?

In another month or two, when Netanyahu comes to the White House for a meeting with Biden at the beginning of his tenure, as is expected, these are the questions that will be asked. He will meet with a president who is weak physically and politically — Biden is expected to suffer a stinging blow in the midterm elections next week. From Netanyahu’s perspective, who is starting his new term in office with the Jewish Power faction, there is a dual significance — the president’s status is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity.

About this publication

About Charles Railey 61 Articles
I recently retired from the federal government, having worked for many years on Middle East issues and regional media. My fascination with the region has never changed and this is one reason why the work of Watching America caught my eye. I live in the DC area with my wife, two grown children, and three cats.

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