The Awkward Biden-Netanyahu Encounter Was a Dud

Although the United States and Israel have enjoyed a uniquely close alliance since the latter’s declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948, the bilateral relationship between the two countries has witnessed its own difficulties throughout the past seven and a half decades. Governments in Washington and Tel Aviv have frequently been at odds over key economic, political, and strategic issues that have been incompatibly interpreted by successive governments on both sides. Differences emerged as far back as the Suez Crisis in 1956, and have stretched all the way to current disagreements over a potential Middle East normalization megadeal with Saudi Arabia, the deteriorating security situation in Palestine, a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and escalating domestic turmoil in Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legislative attempts at a judicial overhaul, with which President Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed his personal unhappiness by warning that Netanyahu “cannot continue down this road.”

Yet despite these significant squabbles, the US-Israeli alliance has managed to survive quite unscathed. Throughout this turbulent period, the United States has continued to magnanimously offer Israel considerable economic and military assistance, allowing the self-declared “Jewish state” to dominate regional security by maintaining its qualitative military edge to deter any potential challenge by one or more Arab or non-Arab adversaries in the region, often at a cost to US national interests.

During his long-awaited meeting with Netanyahu on September 20 in New York, President Biden reemphasized his administration’s belief in the “unbreakable bond between the two counties” stemming from Washington’s bipartisan conviction that the Israeli-US bilateral relationship “is based on the bedrock of shared democratic values, and the United States’ iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security.” The net result is a defiant and intransigent Israeli government that takes its special relationship with Washington for granted and is willing to confront and provoke a US president who it deems as too weak and as having no choice but to capitulate to Israeli demands.

For the past nine months, a new crisis emerged rocking the so-called “unbreakable” US-Israeli relationship. Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power for an unprecedented sixth term as prime minister, heading the most extreme right-wing government in the history of Israel. Aside from occasional friction with Washington, Netanyahu and his fascist allies, a term used by Holocaust historian Daniel Blatman, came to power this time with a grandiose legal reform plan aimed at changing the political character of the state of Israel, to the outright dismay, dissatisfaction, and unease of the Biden White House and its supporters within the American Jewish community and the Democratic Party. Clearly, Netanyahu’s vision for Israel is not compatible with the “mutual interests and shared democratic values” alleged by those in charge of foreign policy in Washington.

In response, Biden persistently “begged” Netanyahu, “not to rush” his judicial overhaul and ram it down the throats of the Israeli public. The hardline Israeli government, however, seemed to stubbornly adhere to its ideological calculus and refuse a White House request for political compromise with the opposition over the judicial overhaul legislation.

Instead of challenging Netanyahu on policy matters and issues of substance, President Biden rejected the iron fist approach suggested by some foreign policy advisors, opting instead for the velvet glove treatment by choosing to deny the Israeli prime minister the traditional White House visit that has been afforded all his predecessors. Naturally, Netanyahu was not impressed with the light reprimand, anticipating that Washington would eventually back off and be forced to reconsider its unfriendly handling of the issue.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu was right all along. Nine months after his inauguration, and following a series of bitter and public clashes with the US Administration, the Israeli prime minister got his wish as President Biden agreed to meet with him in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. However, the key political question in this regard is not the venue but the agenda and substance of the meeting between the two leaders. In other words, what will Biden and Netanyahu get out of this awkward rapprochement?

Netanyahu’s Machiavellian political style is quite well-known in Israel and beyond. He is first of all seeking to rehabilitate his image in the face of the damage he has done to Israel and its economic well-being, social cohesion, and international reputation, and especially its relations with key allies and supporters like the United States over the past nine months. Second, Netanyahu rejects widespread criticism from his detractors at home claiming that he has damaged the special relationship that binds Tel Aviv and Washington. Third, Netanyahu is infinitely shameless. He has not given up on his lust for a formal White House visit, and he does not take no for an answer from anyone, particularly someone he despises like President Biden. Therefore, the prime minister will use his US visit to step up his demands for a presidential audience and to bamboozle his way back into the White House. Biden is quite aware of this, and subsequently dangled that option in front of Netanyahu by telling him, “I hope to see you in Washington by the end of the year.”

Meanwhile, Biden, who is totally focused on the 2024 presidential elections, remains too distracted and hesitant to confront Netanyahu. The political price for publicly and effectively doing so is too high to contemplate in the current environment in Washington. The most one could expect at this time is more of the same admonitions that have been leveled at Netanyahu since January, sweetened by various unnecessary but sentimental gestures to placate Netanyahu, like more accelerated Arab normalization efforts—particularly with Saudi Arabia—and approval of Israel’s accession to the US Visa Waiver Program. However, as far as Israeli-Palestinian peace is concerned, despite a few symbolic remarks by both Biden and Netanyahu, the meeting was essentially a dud.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter/The White House