Biden, Netanyahu, unhappily bound in a key alliance
They have known each other for decades, rubbing shoulders at countless international events, but there is little love lost between US President Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu as the Israeli prime minister faces a full-blown crisis over a contested judicial reform.
For the Democratic president, a fervent supporter of Israel for a half-century, the dilemma has become increasingly public as he seeks ways to work with the most far-right Israeli government in history.
While Biden continues to insist on the “ironclad” nature of America’s support for its Israeli ally, he describes that country’s government as the most “extremist” he has known.
And while Biden has urged caution over the judicial reform, even denouncing it, the Israeli leader moves ahead unbudged, describing it as a “minor correction” despite the massive protests it has spawned in his country and the sharp criticism from abroad.
It is striking: while Biden has involved himself in an Israeli internal matter to a degree rare for a US president, his influence remains clearly limited.
- ‘Regrettable’ –
The White House on Monday described as “regrettable” the approval by the Israeli Knesset of a key measure in the judicial reform plan, which backers insist provides a needed rebalancing of power between the branches of government.
In an unusual move, the US president invited to the White House a New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, to underscore his opposition to a reform that Biden considers “a source of division.”
Beyond the reform itself, the Biden administration has not hidden its frustration over Israeli settlement in Palestinian territories, which has gone on despite repeated US calls for the two sides to de-escalate and avoid unilateral measures.
But while Washington continues its pro-forma advocacy of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, it seems increasingly to be preaching in the wilderness.
The latest tensions are reminiscent of those between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu in 2015, when Biden was vice president and the United States was negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, to the manifest displeasure of Israel.
That agreement has been moribund since then president Donald Trump, who was close to Netanyahu, withdrew from the pact in 2018. Repeated efforts by Biden to revive it have been futile.
These tensions surfaced again in a squabble over whether Netanyahu would be invited to the White House for the first time since he returned to power late last year.
In a seeming snub to the prime minister, Biden last week hosted the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, a political moderate.
In an ABC interview, Netanyahu denied being snubbed, saying Biden had indeed invited him to the White House, a meeting he said would probably take place in September.
But the White House, clearly irritated, would confirm neither the venue nor the exact timing, saying only that the two men would “meet in the United States later this year.”
- ‘Not going to happen’ –
Despite everything, experts agree that American support for Israel is not about to weaken.
There have been calls, including from the left wing of the Democratic Party, for a reduction in US military aid to Israel.
But American diplomats flatly rule that out. “I’ll just say that that is not going to happen,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.
Each year, the US sends $3.3 billion in military aid to Israel.
Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington said he expects that “we’ll have tense relationships between Biden and Netanyahu going forward.”
“Part of why Netanyahu is willing to be so confrontational with Biden,” he said, is that “he feels secure in the backing that he has from Republicans on the Hill, who basically adopted an Israel right-or-wrong position.”
That dynamic will not have escaped Biden, who is running for election to a second term in office next year.
But Boot believes Netanyahu’s close alignment to the Trump-led wing of the Republican Party carries a risk — that of “alienating a lot of other sectors of American public opinion.”
In the meantime, the United States and Israel are pushing hard for a normalization of ties between the Jewish state and Saudi Arabia, which would be a tectonic shift in the Middle East that Riyadh intends to bargain hard for.
“We’re working on it,” Netanyahu told ABC on Thursday.
He was speaking as US national security advisor Jake Sullivan was in Jeddah for talks for the second time in a few months, and on the heels of a June visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
by Léon BRUNEAU
©️ Agence France-Presse