Since the establishment of Israel’s current government, it seems that the American administration has greatly increased its involvement in what is happening in the Jewish state. It seems that the Americans have never been so active behind the scenes in almost every issue and decision of the Israeli government.
It started already during negotiations to form the ruling coalition. The Americans anxiously followed reports on the composition of the incoming government and the basic lines that were taking shape. At first Washington gave Israel the benefit of the doubt. They said they would judge the new government by its actions, and not by its words alone. The Americans also stressed that for them, one person alone is responsible for what happens in Jerusalem: Benjamin Netanyahu. His are the hands on the wheel. This was their way of saying that they trust Netanyahu.
Even before the formation of the government, the Americans vetoed the appointment of Bezalel Smotrich as Minister of Defense. They did so elegantly and not directly. They didn’t threaten to not accept Smotrich as defense minister, but said that if Israel wants to continue the intimate security relationship, Netanyahu should appoint a person with whom the Americans can work. It was their way of saying they would’t full cooperate with Smotrich. Netanyahu got the message and Smotrich received the treasury portfolio, with one concession – he would also be a minister in the Ministry of Defense responsible for the civil administration in the disputed territories.
The Americans, by the way, have maintained their hard line toward Smotrich, and after his unfortunate remark about destroying Huwara they even debated denying him entry to the US for an important economic conference. After letting Smotrich sweat, they granted him a diplomatic visa, but no senior American official would meet with him. In American terms, this is their way of declaring him almost persona non grata.
In the first 100 days of the Israeli government, the Americans took a very firm line against the judicial reform led by Netanyahu’s coalition. Their message to Netanyahu was that he must reach a broad consensus. They exerted tremendous pressure on Netanyahu in this regard, which included several harsh direct messages. In a rather unprecedented move, Netanyahu has also still not received an official invitation to visit the White House. Nor is he likely to until the Americans are satisfied that there is broad Israeli consensus on judicial reform. The Americans made it clear that the overhaul in its current form threatens to weaken the judicial arm, which could harm Israeli democracy, and with it the shared values which bind Israel to the US and constitute the basis of the strategic partnership between the two countries.
Netanyahu’s decision to suspend the judicial reform just a minute before the completion of the legislation in the Knesset is mainly attributed to the fierce protests in Israel. But not many know that the Americans and President Joe Biden played a role – and were perhaps the main factor that convinced Netanyahu to stop.
The Americans also played a key role in pressuring Netanyahu not to fire Defense Minister Yoav Galant, whom they consider a reliable partner and a responsible leader.
What is particularly interesting is Biden’s public rebuke of Netanyahu just after he suspended the judicial reform legislation. To this day, it is not fully clear whether this was an impromptu outburst on the president’s part, or a deliberate statement intended to convey to Netanyahu the message that the Americans don’t believe that he’s really delayed the reform, and that they think this is merely a tactical and temporary refrain.
Biden’s remarks reflect the concern in Washington that Netanyahu is not entirely in control of the reform, and that it is being led by extremists. They are no longer sure that Netanyahu is at the helm. The Americans are very concerned about his promise to Itamar Ben-Gvir to establish a National Guard. They see this body as a militia that will be under the direct control of Ben-Gvir alone, king of like giving fuel to a pyromaniac. The Americans were also very upset that Netanyahu did not see fit to condemn his son, Yair Netanyahu, for echoing the conspiracies that the US State Department and the CIA were behind the demonstrations in Israel. And not only did he not see fit to condemn the remarks – a senior political official in London took the trouble to mention that the Americans had already tried to overthrow Netanyahu twice and hinted that they continue to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs even today.
The bottom line is that the Americans see a weak prime minister, and are disturbed by Netanyahu’s present perception of reality, and by the fact that every time they deliver a harsh message, the Israeli leader, in a kind of defiance, belittles it and claims everything is fine. In their view, everything is not fine. And as such it was important for Biden to clarify that he has no intention of inviting Netanyahu to the White House in the near term. The Israeli has not yet done what Biden wants of him, which is to straighten course and reach a safe harbor in regards to judicial reform and the security situation.
The Americans fear that the weakness that Israel projects will cause a miscalculation by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. They also see the intelligence picture and fear what is to come. They are likewise concerned by the distancing of Saudi Arabia and its cozying up to Iran.
Biden’s statements are a kind of political Yom Kippur that shows how much Netanyahu, who is perceived as “Mr. America,” lives in a bubble and is disconnected from the contemporary American reality.
The Americans are sitting on Netanyahu very strongly. Any controversial decision, and they immediately jump in and issue warnings. This was the case with the recent legislation that canceled parts of the “law of secession” (disengagement law) in northern Samaria. This was the case after Jewish settlers rioted in Huwara, drawing a public American reprimand. The Americans also scolded Israel after Ben-Gvir ascended the Temple Mount, which drew condemnations against Israel from all over the world.
The phone in the office of the US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, works overtime. He talks to Netanyahu and his people on a daily basis, and sometimes several times a day. He demands fresh clarifications to new developments and delivers harsh messages from Biden. Nides is a wealthy former businessman. He has no political ambitions. This is a real mission for him. And he takes it to heart. The Prime Minister’s Office knows that when Nidas calls, they have to give answers.
Netanyahu’s office understands that this is the reality that will accompany them for a long time. If Netanyahu wants to get to the White House, he will have to convince Uncle Sam that he deserves an invitation. There are those in Israel who claim this is interference in Israel’s internal affairs. But quite a few others think that a weak Israel needs an American babysitter to protect it from itself. Israel needs the Americans, and it is likely that Netanyahu will do everything he can to please them, even if behind closed doors he asserts that the last three Democratic administrations have tried to unseat him.
Netanyahu understands very well that if he wants to expand the Abraham Accords he must have America on his side. He also understands that if he wants a reliable military option against Iran, he must appease Washington. On the Iranian issue, Israel is very concerned that the Americans have not really abandoned their push for an interim agreement. But in the meantime, Israel and the US maintain close security coordination. For now, the US also still backs Israel at the United Nations. After 75 years of independence, Israel cannot really do without America, even if there are elements in Netanyahu’s government who think otherwise.
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