Middle East/North Africa

US-Israel relations poised to enter new phase without Netanyahu

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The relationship between the U.S. and Israel is poised for critical change with political momentum building to oust longtime Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s next prime minister will undoubtedly factor into President Biden’s Middle East agenda and influence a bilateral relationship between Washington and Jerusalem that has come under criticism from progressive lawmakers in Congress.

Netanyahu is under immense pressure by a coalition of Israeli political parties who are aiming to break his 12-year grip on power.

His ousting could come as soon as Wednesday, the deadline for Netanyahu’s opponents to announce a 61-member majority-coalition in the 120 seat Israeli Knesset, or parliament.

Anything can happen in Israel’s chaotic governing system — which has held four elections in two years — and Netanyahu has shown no signs of backing down from the fight.

But the announcement Sunday by Israel’s hard-line conservative politician Naftali Bennett that he is prepared to join a rotational premiership and coalition government with Yair Lapid, the leader of the center-left Yesh Atid party, is stacking the deck against Netanyahu.

The deal being worked out between Bennett and Lapid will require a delicate balance of support among a wide faction of Israeli political parties to vote in favor of their coalition in the Knesset in a week’s time.

Biden’s own Middle East agenda — from rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran to helping maintain a cease-fire in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is unlikely to face great challenges from a fragile governing coalition of Bennett and Lapid.

A change in Israeli leadership could also provide a fresh start for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Bennett and Lapid, while political polar opposites, are likely to be less confrontational with the U.S. than Netanyahu, whose 2015 address to Congress opposing then-President Obama’s negotiations with Iran for what eventually became the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) marked a fracturing of support for Israel on Capitol Hill.

Biden and his team appear to be weeks away from rejoining the JCPOA, despite ongoing Israeli opposition. He may encounter a softer tone from Bennett and Lapid.

“I think those coalition partners understand that it’s better to work with the Americans on assurances, monitoring and trying to improve some of the things in the JCPOA,” said Shira Efron, policy adviser for Israel Policy Forum and the RAND Corporation’s special adviser on Israel.

“I don’t see any new leader in Israel — neither Bennett, definitely not Lapid — no one’s trying to pick a fight with the U.S.,” Efron added.

Lapid, in particular, has focused on building support among Democrats that was chilled from Netanyahu’s antagonistic approach.

“Lapid has spent the last several years conducting outreach to Democrats on the Hill in an attempt to help shape opinions about Israel so that Democrats don’t view Israel as [Netanyahu],” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute on national security and foreign policy.

But that doesn’t mean Netanyahu is likely to disappear from the world stage anytime soon.

“It’s definitely a mistake to count Netanyahu out before the moving truck actually is departing with his stuff from the prime minister’s residence,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a left-leaning Israeli and Palestinian advocacy organization in the U.S.

Over the past two days, Netanyahu has brandished the support of prominent Republican members of Congress, welcoming to Jerusalem Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.).

Netanyahu on Sunday gave a speech in which he called Bennett’s political coup the “fraud of the century” and painted the unity coalition as an existential threat to Israel’s security — from Tehran to Washington.

“How will we look to our enemies?” Netanyahu said in an address Sunday night. “What will they say in Iran? What will they say in Gaza? What will they do in Iran and in Gaza? What will they say in the hallways of power in Washington?”

The close ties between Netanyahu and the Republican Party paved the way for former President Trump to push through significant U.S. policy shifts related to Israel, criticized by Democrats as a death knell for America’s long-held position to push toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This includes offering U.S. recognition and legitimization for Israeli claims to Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and West Bank settlements, in addition to Trump withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018.

A Bennett and Lapid government could provide an opening to shift relations with Washington amid growing criticism from U.S. progressives over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

A small but vocal group of Democrats have slammed the Israeli government over threats to Palestinian livelihoods in east Jerusalem neighborhoods, access to Islamic holy sites in the Old City and the death and destruction wrought on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

While Bennett supports Israeli annexation of Area C of the West Bank — the more than 60 percent of territory identified as under Israeli control in the 1993 Oslo Accords and that comprises the nearly 400,000-person settlement enterprise — he has signaled openness to more Palestinian autonomy in Areas A and B.

Area A is exclusively administered by the Palestinian Authority, and Area B is administered by the Palestinian Authority but controlled by Israeli security.

The Biden administration may have an opportunity for creative cooperation as part of its own outreach to the Palestinians, restarting relations that were severed by the Trump administration.

“Can we find this Venn diagram, can we find this sweet spot between what this coalition can do and what the U.S. can do in keeping the two-state solution open?” Efron asked.

Bennett is a proponent of private sector investment in the Palestinian economy, and other members of the coalition are in favor of confidence-building measures with the Palestinians to repair the relationship, Efron added. 

Those approaches could be supported by the Partnership Fund for Peace Act, a bill that passed in the last Congress and provides $250 million over five years for Israeli and Palestinian people-to-people projects and projects that stimulate the Palestinian economy.

Other areas for cooperation include bolstering Israeli and Palestinian security partnership, which Efron said enjoys popular Israeli support and is backed by the U.S., and could provide an avenue for greater Palestinian autonomy.

While Biden has signaled he’s in no rush to push Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations and aspirational talks of a final-status agreement, he is under pressure to do more for the Palestinians amid criticism from prominent progressive members of Congress accusing Israel of terrorism, ethnic cleansing and running an apartheid state.

Those lawmakers are calling for conditioning U.S. military assistance to Israel to ensure no funds are being used in the oppression or killings of Palestinians.

But even Netanyahu’s ousting would be unlikely to moderate the criticism of progressives, according to J Street’s Ben-Ami.

“The departure of Trump from the White House didn’t mean that the United States had overcome structural racism — the departure of Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office is not going to mean that the occupation has come to an end,” he said.

“What people are focused on is not the name on the door of the prime minister’s office, but on the conditions that millions of Palestinian’s are living in, under an occupation that is funded by American tax dollars, and that is what motivates progressive lawmakers.”

Updated on June 2 at 7:29 a.m.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Iran Israel Israeli prime minister Israeli-Palestinian conflict Jerusalem Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Ted Cruz US-Israel relations
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