A Democratic presidential administration in Washington has coincided with the most far-right Israeli government in history, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who on many occasions has meddled in US politics in favor of Republicans. This sounds like a recipe for unprecedented conflict between the United States and Israel, and yet Washington has just allowed Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program and looks poised to hand Netanyahu a series of additional unprecedented gifts. What explains the motivations behind this bizarre set of policy choices by the Biden administration? Reviewing the sources of tension, the gifts being offered, and the possible explanations, it is obvious that President Joe Biden’s personal convictions weigh heavier in these decisions than US national interests or domestic politics.
Sources of Tension
Benjamin Netanyahu has clashed with a number of US presidents during his multiple long stints as prime minister of Israel. But a specific context shapes the sources of tension between this iteration of Netanyahu as head of the 37th Israeli government and the current American administration led by Joe Biden. This includes Netanyahu’s history of GOP boosterism, the extremist agenda of his current government, and the reaction those generated among liberal American Jews.
Netanyahu is no stranger to American politics, and Joe Biden has likely had a front seat, or been a vocal participant in a number of expletive-laden private conversations about this with top-ranking Democrats over the last decade.
Netanyahu is no stranger to American politics, and Joe Biden has likely had a front seat, or been a vocal participant in a number of expletive-laden private conversations about this with top-ranking Democrats over the last decade. During the reelection campaign of Barack Obama and Joe Biden in 2012, Netanyahu was reportedly seen by the administration as campaigning on behalf of Mitt Romney, in what appeared to the administration to be a “crude, vulgar and unrestrained intervention in the US election campaign.”
Of course, the partisan divide on Israel began to grow more significantly after Netanyahu lost his gamble on Romney and Obama and Biden won reelection. As they pursued a massive, negotiated non-proliferation agreement with Iran and other partners, Netanyahu worked to circumvent the White House, and with the assistance of a Republican speaker of the House, launched a campaign against the Iran nuclear deal from the main hall of Congress itself.
During the Donald Trump years, this divide only grew as Netanyahu embraced the Republican president, being the first foreign leader to visit him after inauguration and proclaim him a “great friend of the Jewish people,” despite widespread concern and outrage over Trump’s role in instigating anti-Semitic right-wing extremists.
Netanyahu developed a significant following among American Republicans, and many during the Trump years who were key parts of the Trump voter base were also white evangelical Christians who prioritized strong relations with Israel. By 2015, most Republicans identified Netanyahu as among the leaders they most admired. He placed ahead of Ronald Reagan and the Pope in this category. By 2023, no world leader was viewed more differently by Republicans and Democrats than Netanyahu.
Beyond being political kryptonite among Democrats, Netanyahu today does not just lead any Israeli government, he leads the most far-right one in history, which he cobbled together after multiple rounds of elections that were seen as referendums on his suitability for office while under indictment on various corruption charges. Not only does this far-right government act as a shield to keep an indicted prime minister in power, it is also built around a legislative agenda aimed at weakening the state’s system of checks and balances and attacking the judiciary. These campaigns go directly against the claims of so-called shared values of democracy which lie at the foundation of the US-Israel relationship. On top of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and its apartheid policies against Palestinians, the attacks against the courts by the government made the Israeli political system even harder to defend for some of its most frequent defenders.
The attacks against the courts by the Netanyahu government made the Israeli political system even harder to defend for some of its most frequent defenders.
Netanyahu’s government is also dedicated to massive settlement expansion and to the idea of annexing the West Bank into Israel. Key figures in charge of the National Security Ministry and Finance Ministry, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, respectively, are among the most extreme and controversial political figures in Israel. Biden got a front row seat to the controversy around settlements when he was visiting Jerusalem in 2010, just as the Israeli government announced the significant expansion of a settlement north of the city. The announcement led to condemnation from Washington, which felt that Biden’s presence was used as a cover for the push and would be seen as American approval of the settlement expansion.
Israel’s continued entrenchment of apartheid has alienated many Americans who value human rights, including many American Jews, who generally tend to be liberal in their political views and who are among the most reliable voting constituencies for Democrats. Despite an attachment to Israel among many in this community, Netanyahu is seen far less sympathetically. In 2018, Moment Magazine, founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel and writer and activist Leonard Fein in 1975 and claiming to lead “the conversation to illuminate Jewish life and thought,” published a symposium entitled “The Growing Gap Between Israel And American Jews,” exploring “the forces pulling the Jewish state and the American Jewish community apart.” That gap had been growing steadily for years, but the legislative agenda of the 37th government of Israel has blown it open, far wider than before. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting, and many Jews outside of Israel are making their opposition to the legislation known. Even establishment Jewish American organizations that have long worked to keep good relations with the Israeli government spoke out in opposition.
All of this is happening after the Israeli military killed a record number of Palestinians in the West Bank in 2022, according to the UN, and is on pace to far exceed that number in 2023. Israeli settler violence is rampant in the West Bank as well, leading to the ethnic cleansing of vulnerable Palestinian communities.
Despite all the above detailed conditions which would be expected to amount to significant tension between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s government, Washington has presented or seems poised to present Netanyahu and his extremist government with a wide-ranging set of political gifts.
No Change in Trump Policies on Jerusalem, Golan or Settlements
Before taking into account what the Biden administration has chosen to do when it comes to Israel, it is also important, especially given the previous administration’s relationship with Netanyahu, to look at what it has not done: reverse key decisions by the Trump administration. President Trump, in his four years in office, offered a long list of political gifts to Netanyahu and Israel. These included steps that previous presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, were not willing to take, like recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and reversing longstanding policy on the illegality of Israeli settlements. The Biden administration came into office pledging to repair much of the damage with the world that the Trump administration had wrought, but when it came to Israel policy it did not reverse any significant decisions.
Relative Silence on the Extremist Agenda
While the Biden administration, including the president himself, has spoken up a few times to express concern and send public messages to the Israeli government over its coalition’s drive to overhaul the judicial system, its public tone has been far more muted over the escalating violations of Palestinian rights. Exceptions to this include settler attacks on the villages of Huwwara and Turmus Ayya, when the US did condemn the violence. But the level of concern in Washington pales in comparison to the level of violence and violations against Palestinians, and it is hard to see the relative silence on the part of the administration as anything other than a calculated choice.
The US Visa Waiver Program
On September 27, 2023, the Biden administration announced that Israel has become the 41st member to gain entry into the US Visa Waiver Program. Israel had long sought entry into this program, but previously failed to meet the requirements. In recent months, a push by the former US ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, helped move the political pieces into place to make Israel’s participation possible. But the rushed effort, just a couple months before the statutory deadline, failed to address the real reciprocity concerns, and there is plenty of reason to believe that the Israelis will not live up to their commitments now that they have been let in. Despite all of this, the Biden administration decided to overlook the discriminatory treatment of American citizens by Israel in order to rush it into the program before the deadline, handing Netanyahu a gift no other president was able to deliver.
Saudi Normalization with Israel
Perhaps the biggest of all of President Biden’s handouts to Netanyahu is the effort to secure normalized ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu, Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) all recently confirmed that negotiations are ongoing to make this happen. Importantly, however, the negotiations for an Israeli-Saudi deal are not taking place between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but rather between Saudi Arabia and the United States. In return for normalized ties with Israel, Riyadh is asking for deliverables from Washington, not Tel Aviv. These asks are reported to include some sort of US-Saudi defense pact and US support for a Saudi nuclear program. To make this happen, the Biden administration would have to make a major international diplomatic effort and a domestic one as well, as any such defense pact would have to gain Senate approval. Still, despite all the gifts already given to Netanyahu and all the costs involved in this biggest one, negotiations are moving closer every day, according to MBS. Such a deal would be a political coup for Netanyahu, who would not only use it to boost his international standing and deflect from Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, but also for political purposes in Israel.
What can possibly explain the Biden administration’s generosity toward a Netanyahu government that has had little but contempt for American policies or values, and that continues its human rights violations against Palestinians and its attempts to solidify authoritarian rule and upend the Israeli political system? Could this be a product of US national interests or is this about the election in 2024, or maybe something else?
US National Interests
Core US interests in the region have not changed. The focus remains on the free flow of natural resources, limiting nuclear proliferation, and more recently, pushing back against Chinese influence in the region. Does this help explain the Biden administration’s approach to Israel? Israel has been a longstanding American ally and collaborator on many things related to national security, and while the United States undoubtedly sees the maintenance of that relationship as part of a broader strategy in the region, it hardly justifies the extent of the spoils Biden is seeking to deliver to Netanyahu. The cost of a Saudi normalization deal, which includes a nuclear program and a defense pact, cuts against US interests as well. Even if a nuclear program for Saudi Arabia would be used for research or peaceful energy purposes, it could very easily slip in the direction of becoming weaponized over time. Any doubt about the dangers of this should have gone out the window after MBS said in a recent interview that Saudi Arabia would have to get a nuclear weapon if Iran has one. Aiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is not in the American national interest, or anyone else’s for that matter; nor is the idea that a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal is necessary to push back Chinese influence in the region. Comments made by MBS suggesting that Saudi Arabia would look elsewhere for arms if a defense pact is not secured are hard to take seriously. The Saudi military has a long and deep history with American arms manufacturers, and switching gears to Chinese- or Russian-supplied arms does not seem realistic.
The cost of a Saudi normalization deal, which includes a nuclear program and a defense pact, cuts against US interests as well.
The United States should also avoid entering into defense pacts through extortion, as such partners rarely prove reliable. It is more likely that the Saudis and the Israelis see an opportunity to drive the bargain they believe they can get out of Biden, with the threat of China’s regional appeal as leverage. Biden would be better off calling their bluff. China is not capable of replacing what the United States can provide in the region; nor is its primary lever of influence in the region a military one. Instead, it is economic. A Saudi-Israel deal is unlikely to change the geostrategic picture in any way (other than to foment dissent in the region and hand the Iranians a propaganda card). Nor is it going to reset the region’s economic relations with China.
Domestic Politics and the 2024 Election
If not motivated by US national interests, it is worth considering whether US domestic politics are the cause behind the Biden administration’s deep investment in rewarding Benjamin Netanyahu. There is little doubt that a “peacemaking” photo op would offer Biden a foreign policy victory at a time when he has few to point to ahead of the 2024 presidential election. The major foreign policy focus of his administration has been backing Ukraine, and progress on the battlefield has been slow. Many Americans, already war-weary from two decades of entanglement in the Middle East, are reluctant to throw open-ended support behind the Ukrainians—even if they see their cause as just—without some prospects of the conflict coming to an end soon.
A Saudi-Israeli normalization deal would give Biden a historic foreign policy achievement that he could point to ahead of the election; but does this desire explain the investment? It is hard to see this being the case. Sure, positive images and headlines would help Biden to some extent, but very few voters prioritize foreign policy issues, and the ones who do are not likely to change their votes over a normalization deal. Biden might be looking to shore up support for his and other Democrats’ campaigns from major donors who, like Israeli-American media producer Haim Saban, for example, consider themselves one-issue voters (in Saban’s case, Israel). But that does not explain the extent of US investment in this effort, which seems poised to include a defense pact and nuclear support to Saudi Arabia, which is likely to be led for decades to come by a crown prince who has not shown a penchant for reliable behavior.
According to Joe Biden himself, the president is a Zionist, and one who has spoken often about his deep commitment to Israel. He routinely talks about his relationship with Israel originating with his father who was a devout Christian, and about how his career in Washington began with former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir visiting town. He has said that if the State of Israel did not exist, the United States would have to create one, and recently, in a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, he promised Netanyahu a visit to Washington and said that no Jew could feel secure without the existence of the State of Israel. That is a stunning thing for the president of the United States, the nation with the world’s second-largest Jewish population, to say. Such a statement might be expected from Donald Trump, who espouses an ethno-nationalist worldview; but Biden is supposed to be a liberal Democrat and a believer in the importance and necessity of liberal principles protecting minorities. Biden’s Zionism, which may well be deeper than most understand it to be, might better explain his inexplicable list of rewards for Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister who has been dedicated to opposing Democrats and democracy.
The level of concern in Washington pales in comparison to the level of violence and violations against Palestinians.
When one considers the conditions of the moment, especially given Netanyahu’s history of meddling in American politics and the current far-right government in Israel, it is hard to understand why the Biden administration would be going above and beyond to reward the Israeli prime minister, especially if it means neglecting American national interests and the rights of American citizens. The looming election and geopolitical considerations do not suffice as explanations for Biden’s generosity, and it becomes hard not to conclude that a deeper commitment to Israel and to Zionism is playing a decisive role in these policy choices.
The views expressed in this publication are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Twitter/Bibi Netanyahu