Netanyahu Is Playing With American Fire

by February 2023
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Photo credit: Reuters

As Israel’s finance minister from 2003–2005 and later as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was the father of Israel’s economic miracle that transformed a stagnant socialist economy into a thriving “start-up nation.” Today, however, Netanyahu is on a path toward wrecking what was one of his crowning achievements. His government’s proposed judicial reforms have begun to scare away an increasing number of Israel’s hi-tech industrialists and firms, as well as foreign investors and bankers, posing a serious risk to Israel’s credit rating.

>> Window on Washington: Read more from Dov S. Zakheim

Any threat to Israel’s economic growth and stability also constitutes a threat to its national security. Ironically, Netanyahu always has presented himself to the Israeli public as the guardian of its security. Yet his reckless drive to undermine Israel’s separation of powers could jeopardize his country’s security in another respect as well. Simply put, Israel risks losing the level of unstinting American support it has enjoyed for more than three decades.

American backing for Israel has been a bipartisan affair, with successive administrations not only advocating for ever increasing security assistance to the Jewish state but also providing critical support in international fora, notably the United Nations. Support for Israel persisted even when it was severely tested during Netanyahu’s clashes with former US President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, though Democrats became increasingly uneasy with both Netanyahu’s policies and his conduct toward Obama, they continued to support high levels of military assistance to the Jewish state, including cutting-edge weapons systems such as the F-35 fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Indeed, it was the Obama administration that signed a ten-year agreement with Jerusalem, covering fiscal years 2019–2028, whose total value is $38 billion, or $3.8 billion per year. The agreement included not only $33 billion in foreign military financing, but it also called for $500 million annually in missile defense assistance, which the administration termed an “unprecedented commitment.”

The Netanyahu government’s efforts to undermine the Supreme Court and to expand settlement construction in the West Bank are sorely testing the Biden administration’s patience.

Moreover, despite the hostility between the Democrats and Donald Trump, the majority of Democratic legislators did not utter much in the way of complaint when Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem or recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And when Joe Biden, a long-time great friend of Israel, took office in January 2021, he did not attempt to reverse Trump’s actions.

The Netanyahu government’s efforts to undermine the Supreme Court and to expand settlement construction in the West Bank are sorely testing the Biden administration’s patience. When Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Israel at the end of January, he was at his diplomatic best. He stressed the importance of working to reduce increasing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, while avoiding open criticism of Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, he emphasized that it was the commonality of values, notably the checks and balances in both the American and Israeli governments, that bound the two countries together. Privately, however, Blinken reportedly was far more blunt when discussing these matters with the prime minister.

Shortly after Blinken’s visit, Biden himself weighed in on the issue of Israel’s separation of powers. In a statement to the New York Times’ op-ed columnist Tom Friedman, the president noted that “the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.” Biden has not gone any further, and White House staff believe that his genuine love for Israel prevents him from supporting any actions that might hurt the Jewish state.

Despite the president’s feelings for Israel, his administration has nevertheless acted—or more accurately, refused to act—in three ways that signal disapproval.

First, the Biden team has refused to deal with Bezalel Smotrich, the head of Israel’s ultra-right wing Religious Zionist Party who serves as the finance minister and in a senior defense job. His inability to receive an invitation to Washington severely complicates economic relations.

Second, the administration has not been fully responsive to Israel’s requests in the military sphere, despite increasing operational cooperation. The two countries’ militaries completed their largest ever joint exercise, dubbed Juniper Oak, in January 2023. The Defense Department pointed out that over four days, Juniper Oak integrated US and Israeli fifth-generation fighters, as well as “the USS George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group, which . . . involved command and control elements, rescue and refueling aircraft, and live fire exercises with more than 140 aircraft, and roughly 6,400 US troops alongside more than 1,500 Israeli troops.” General Michael Erik Kurilla, commander of Central Command, asserted that “today, the U.S.-Israel military partnership is stronger than it ever has been, and it continues to grow.”

On the other hand, the administration continues to stall its response to Israel’s urgent request for eight KC-46 tankers that could support an F-35 fighter attack on Iran by facilitating mid-air refueling. This is despite the fact that Washington had approved the sale in March 2020.

Third, as of the time of writing, Netanyahu has yet to receive an invitation to the White House, something that is almost automatically extended to every newly elected prime minister.

Despite his warm feelings for Israel, Biden’s patience might eventually run out. Politically, he has considerable room for maneuver in this regard. He can afford to ignore Israel’s evangelical supporters; they are, for the most part, Republicans who oppose almost all elements of his policy agenda. As for the American Jewish community, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic, it is equally overwhelmingly antagonistic toward Netanyahu’s government.

Many American Jews oppose the Netanyahu government’s favored treatment of West Bank settlers and the Israeli Haredi community. Support for the latter includes increased funding for its institutions, military and national service exemptions for its yeshiva students, freedom to avoid teaching basic secular subjects in its schools, and restrictions on who should be recognized as a Jew. Many are upset by the undermining of the Supreme Court, which has been a bulwark against both groups. Should the administration act against Israel, for example, by abstaining on UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Jewish state, even if one or more called for some level of economic sanctions against Israel, it is not entirely clear that there would be a major backlash from American Jews, as has always been the case in past years.

Netanyahu has fallen into a trap that has ensnared previous foreign politicians who have spent some time living in the United States. They think their experience in America has given them unique insights into how to manage American politics. They may be correct to some extent, but only to an extent.

Netanyahu has gone a long way toward alienating the Democrats and their American Jewish supporters. It may not have mattered when Donald Trump was president; it will matter far more today, even with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Many Washington Middle East experts believe that Netanyahu is playing with White House, indeed American, fire; he should be careful to avoid burning not only himself but his country as well.

>> Window on Washington: Read more from Dov S. Zakheim

Dov S. Zakheim
Dov S. Zakheim is chair of the Board of Advisors of the JST, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and vice chair of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former US under secretary of defense (2001–2004) and deputy under secretary of defense (1985–1987).
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