Biden faces Israel quandary with new Netanyahu government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government is little more than a week old but it is already giving the Biden administration headaches.

Just a day into his mandate, a controversial member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Cabinet mocked US diplomats for visiting a holy site in Jerusalem that some believe could be an obstacle to other controversial moves, with his -includes a massive expansion of the construction of Jewish settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians. .

And, the Netanyahu government has taken punitive measures against the Palestinians that stand in direct opposition to some of Biden’s recent moves to strengthen US-Palestinian relations, including restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority that was cut during his administration Trump and allowing Palestinian officials to visit the United States. States.

The new administration is an unwelcome complication for Biden’s national security team, which is trying to shift attention away from the Middle East and towards rivals such as China and Russia. It also comes as Republicans in control of the House of Representatives are eager to cast Biden as unfriendly to Israel ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Bracing for more turmoil, Biden is sending his national security adviser to Israel in mid-January to try to prevent potentially deepening rifts between his administration and his main Mideast party. Jake Sullivan’s visit may be followed by other high-level trips to Israel, including one by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to administration officials.

Their message goes beyond warnings about igniting tensions with the Palestinians: It also means not cozying up to Russia, especially now that Moscow is relying on Israel’s main enemy, Iran, in its war on Ukraine; and without upsetting the delicate security balance of the Middle East.

Since Netanyahu won hotly contested elections last year with overwhelming support from the Israeli right, US officials have sought to play down predictions of a collision course, saying they will judge his government on actions rather than personalities. Biden himself has talked about his relationship with Netanyahu for years.

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“I look forward to working with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been a friend of mine for many years, to address together the many challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East region, including threats from Iran,” Biden said when Netanyahu took office Dec. 29. .

But while Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for years, they are not close. Biden and former Obama administration officials who now work for Biden resent the prime minister who, during his previous iteration as Israel’s leader, sought to achieve in foreign policy a signature: the postponement of the nuclear deal Iran.

Still, the administration has signaled it will reach out to Netanyahu while avoiding larger members of his government. That approach would not be unprecedented in the region: the US deals with the Lebanese government while avoiding members of the Hezbollah movement, a designated foreign terrorist organization that is nevertheless a domestic political power. But, it would be great if the US would take a similar approach to such a close alliance.

“We will be dealing directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week when asked about possible contacts with Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who his visit to the site is known as Temple Jews and Muslims. as the Lord Asylum provoked a great outcry.

The inclusion of Ben-Gvir, a West Bank settler leader, and other right-wing figures in Netanyahu’s government that is hostile to the Palestinians and opposes the two-state resolution, has Israel and the United States on opposite sides.

On Thursday, the deputy ambassador of the United States to the United Nations, Robert Wood, brought to an emergency meeting of the Security Council that called Arab states to condemn the holy visit of Ben-Gvir to the site, he expressed Biden’s firm support for the “status historical quo,” especially the “Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount.”

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Wood noted that Netanyahu has pledged to preserve the status quo — “We expect the Israeli government to follow through on that promise,” he said — and emphasized that the administration has prioritized the possibility of a two-state solution to preserve.

But on Friday, Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet approved a series of punitive measures against the Palestinian leadership in retaliation for Palestinians pushing the UN’s highest judicial body to comment on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

The moves underscored the tough approach to the Palestinians promised by the Netanyahu government at a time when violence is escalating in the occupied territories.

The Security Cabinet decided to withhold millions of dollars from the Palestinian Authority and transfer those funds to a compensation program for the families of Israeli victims of Palestinian military attacks. And, he will deny benefits, including travel permits, to Palestinian officials who are “leading the political and legal war against Israel.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is moving in a diametrically opposed direction. Since taking office, the Trump administration has reversed Trump’s aid ban and provided more than $800 million in economic, development, security and other assistance to the Palestinians and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

In the fall, the State Department received an opinion from the Department of Justice that allows Palestinian officials to visit the United States and spend money in the US despite laws that prohibit such travel and transactions and control of the Supreme Court that Congress has an enforceable role in the foreign policy process. .

The administration “could reasonably assess that barring the hosting of the PLO delegation in Washington would seriously harm the President’s diplomatic efforts,” the Justice Department said in a brief opinion on Oct. 28. Autumn.

Then, exactly one week before Netanyahu took office in late December, the State Department imposed terrorism sanctions against the Palestinian leadership but immediately waived them, saying that engagement with the Palestinians was a vital US national security interest.

On December 22, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Congress that she had placed a travel ban on senior leaders of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization because they “do not meet” the requirements for terrorist attacks against Israelis. be cut down and publicly criticized. .

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But, in the same announcement, the State Department said Sherman had waived the travel bans “based on its determination that such a waiver is in the interest of the national security of the United States.”

“A lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians has long been a goal of US foreign policy,” the department said. “A blanket denial of visas to PLO members and PA officials, including those who travel to the United States to advance U.S. goals and objectives, is inconsistent with the U.S. government’s expressed willingness to partner with the leadership of the PLO and PA.”

Despite an annual aid package of more than $3 billion for Israel and diplomatic support in international forums, the US appears to have limited influence with Netanyahu.

The Biden administration has not yet followed through on its promise to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which has historically been the main point of contact with the Palestinians, and has made no move to reopen the Palestinian embassy in Washington. Both facilities were closed during the Trump administration.

Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that further US rapprochement with the Palestinians might be the only way to influence Netanyahu. “If they want to put pressure (on Israel), Biden should say tomorrow in the coming months, we will consider reopening the Palestinian embassy in Washington. Then they will see the world shake here,” said Liel.

“But there is no sign of that,” he said. “As long as they say, ‘We are worried about your democracy,’ those words have no meaning because there were so many words. There is nothing behind the words.”

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Laurie Kellman contributed from Jerusalem.

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