Israel signals confidence in its relationship with Biden
Israeli officials are feeling confident about where they stand in Washington nearly one year into the Biden administration.
President Biden took office promising to recenter the U.S. in its relationship with Israel following overt favoritism during the Trump administration and outright antagonism between former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Democratic President Barack Obama.
Netanyahu’s successor, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has called for a new spirit of cooperation with Democrats and has sought to soften disagreements on thorny issues like the Iran nuclear deal and advancing solutions to conflict with the Palestinians.
Biden has largely sought consensus with Israel, shifting his administration’s language on Iran, firmly supporting Israel during its war with Hamas in May, and backing off demands or criticisms related to the Palestinians — and despite vocal opposition among progressives in his party.
“We respect the president, we respect the administration,” Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said in an interview with The Hill in Washington this week. “There are specific issues in which we don’t think the same, but in general, we are working [well] together.”
Overall, the U.S. and Israel relationship is one of the strongest — if not the strongest — partnerships among American allies.
Central to the agenda between Washington and Jerusalem is coordination over how to deal with Iran and its nuclear ambitions. That is taking precedence over Biden’s opposition to a number of Israeli policies, largely related to the Palestinians.
This includes the Israeli government’s decision in October to greenlight construction for more than 3,000 housing units in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, its labeling of six Palestinian nongovernmental organizations as terrorist groups, and Israel’s increasing use of demolitions of Palestinian homes and structures.
Israeli officials — including the prime minister and the foreign minister — have also rejected the idea of Biden’s promise to reopen the U.S. consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. Former President Trump closed the consulate in 2019, following his move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Biden officials have spoken out on each of these issues, but Israelis appear unfazed.
“The administration has, of course, the right to express their attitude and their feeling, and we have the right to do whatever we think is good for Israel, and for our policy,” Shaked said.
Biden has held back from pressing hard on any of these issues, prioritizing his intent on bringing the U.S. back into the nuclear deal with Iran that Trump withdrew from in 2018, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Israel has forcefully opposed the deal since its inception during the Obama administration.
Israel’s current government — headed by Bennett and only six months old — is outspoken in its opposition to the deal but has worked more closely with Biden to project a united front, an effort to increase pressure on Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.
The administration has “coordinated with the Israelis every step of the way,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and who has served as a Middle East negotiator during Democratic and Republican administrations.
“They clearly still disagree,” Miller continued, but pointed out that Bennett is a relatively weak leader, new to the global stage and head of a coalition that spans the ideological political spectrum, limiting what his government can achieve on consensus.
“If the administration reaches a deal with Iran, I think the Israelis will have no choice but to acquiesce,” he said.
The U.S. and Iran are expected to meet in Vienna at the end of the month, returning to a seventh round of negotiations to establish a path for both countries to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.
According to Miller, Biden picked up during his time as vice president in the Obama administration that U.S. relations with Israel can only withstand one major conflict between them at a time.
“Biden learned from Obama, you do not confront the Israelis on the Iranian and the Palestinian issue at the same time,” he said. “Obama did and it turned out to be a disaster. So you don’t do that.”
Obama pursued the nuclear deal with Iran and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over the course of his tenure. The peace talks fell apart in 2014, and in 2015, Netanyahu publicly rebuked Obama’s Iran deal in front of Congress at the invitation of the Republican House Speaker.
Netanyahu’s speech is regarded as the key factor in cementing partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats over U.S. support for Israel.
Republican claims of being Israel’s most ardent ally were further strengthened with Trump, who withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA and severed ties with the Palestinians.
Democrats have wrestled internally with how to present their party’s position toward Israel, with moderates and progressives falling on opposite sides of how the U.S. should support the Palestinians.
Biden’s tepid stance on Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians has so far received little pushback from Democrats with any criticism largely coming from the small, yet prominent, progressive firebrands.
Israeli officials recognize this divide, and the Bennett government has spoken to wanting to repair relationships with Democrats that were damaged under Netanyahu.
Those pronouncements are coming under strain over Biden’s intent to reopen the U.S. consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, viewed as a significant symbol of the American commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.
Israeli officials are outspoken in opposing the consulate.
“The prime minister, the foreign minister, myself, we all said different ways that Israel cannot agree to open a consulate for the Palestinian in Jerusalem,” Shaked told The Hill. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and the capital of Israel only.”
She added, “I do hope and believe that the administration will respect it.”
Republicans have seized on this issue to criticize Biden and Democrats as rejecting Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital, the beating heart of its identity.
“President Biden must immediately abandon any plans to open this consulate and reaffirm America’s unambiguous support of an undivided Israeli capital in Jerusalem,” GOP Conference Chairman Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) said in a statement Wednesday, alongside more than 100 other Republicans opposing the consulate. She further called the president’s promise “destructive to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said delaying the reopening of the consulate further deepens the partisan divide on Israel.
“It’s become a political, hot-button issue. But it gets hotter every single day that we don’t follow through on the commitment we’ve made,” he told The Hill.
“The new Israeli government says it wants to rebuild relations with both sides of the aisle in Washington. Their continued insistence to stand in the way of one of President Biden’s primary policy promises on Israel and Palestinian relations isn’t a good sign when it comes to their sincerity in making good on that promise.”