US President Joe Biden this week hosts Israeli President Isaac Herzog. The purpose of the visit and speech to Congress is to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary. However, the absence of a formal invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until just before the trip added policy dimensions. The optics of shunning Netanyahu signaled to Israel that Netanyahu, who prides himself on accessing American political culture, is some sort of persona non grata. So why was Netanyahu shunned, until he wasn’t?
The administration’s Middle East team, which includes the most unsympathetic staffers (Samantha Powers, Maher Bitar, Hady Amr and the now-suspended Robert Malley) ever to manage that area, believes that the popularity of the United States and Biden in Israel can be leveraged to politically damage Netanyahu, who already is limping as a result of upheaval surrounding legal reform. Moreover, throwing Netanyahu reeling on his heels was a way to neutralize his obstructing America’s gallop towards a new nuclear deal with Iran. The Middle East team was also determined to hold up progress on advancing Israeli-Saudi peace not only to further isolate Netanyahu and deny him any appearance of victory but to block his work with the Saudis to derail the US attempt to come to terms with Iran.
As such, the administration had no interest in throwing the prime minister a lifeline or calming tensions. In fact, it was interested in exacerbating them. It even floated a trial balloon, which Netanyahu’s opposition seized upon with great focus, in the form of an editorial by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times arguing that the United States is reassessing (read: downgrading) US-Israeli relations. As such, the administration hoped honoring Israel’s premier would politically defeat Netanyahu on his own turf.
Another reason for cropping Herzog’s visit as an ersatz for Netanyahu’s was the bitter experiences of the Biden team, most of whom are veterans of Obama’s administration, whenever Netanyahu brought his case to American soil previously. The administration’s hesitation stems not only from the 2015 Netanyahu visit—when Netanyahu appealed directly to Congress and the American people against the emerging nuclear deal with Iran—but from earlier visits when Netanyahu displayed a unique ability to connect with both American conservatives and pro-Israeli liberals. The language and imagery of his speeches and press interviews evoked deeply held ideas that American leaders themselves struggle at times to masterfully express. This posed a direct challenge to former President Barack Obama, who himself was a master of imagery. Not only did the Israeli leader know how to play on Obama’s turf, terms and constituency, but he did so well. In fact, the reaction in Congress and the media suggested that the prime minister bested the political master.
Biden clearly is not the political master Obama was. His political appeal is neither ideas nor imagery, but commonality. If it was difficult for Obama to parry Netanyahu on American turf, the Biden team knows it could become no contest.
Given how dearly the Biden team held isolating Netanyahu and focusing blame for US-Israeli tensions solely on him, a visit by Netanyahu—connecting directly with the American people, being feted in Congress and filling the airwaves—could be disastrous for the US administration’s strategy. When The Wall Street Journal, which is read by a far larger and more influential audience than Friedman, ran a staff editorial answering Friedman and blasting the Biden administration for its hostility towards Israel, it aroused the US administration’s anxiety in relation to a successful, popular visit by Netanyahu; it would completely undermine its strategy to load full blame on deteriorating relations on him alone.
And yet, on the eve of Herzog’s visit, Biden invited Netanyahu. Why?
First, Biden may disagree with Israel’s prime minister, but he is generally not seen as harboring an animus against Israel. Whenever he connects directly with Netanyahu, they seem to get along, which is why Biden’s Middle East team was so determined to keep them from talking.
Second, regarding Iran, it became increasingly unlikely that there is much daylight between Netanyahu and Herzog. In fact, Netanyahu sent the administration via Herzog a strong message: no Israeli support for the emerging nuclear deal and no more promises of “no surprises.” Read: Israel reserves the right to strike Iran without advance warning. This ranks among the most unnerving of scenarios for an administration whose essence is anchored on deterring Israel from acting and instead deferring to US diplomacy. Engagement with Netanyahu suddenly became essential to maintaining enough leverage to reel the Israeli prime minister back, although that ship may have already sailed.
Third, Israel’s presidency is ceremonial. Herzog adeptly used his office to help navigate the internal upheaval over reform, but he cannot allow himself to be reduced to an instrument in the US administration’s campaign to discredit Netanyahu internally. The administration’s aspirations to do so represent a serious threat to distort Israel’s governmental structure, and it is inconceivable that the Israeli president would allow himself successfully to become a party to this. Given this, it became also unlikely that Biden still viewed this as a productive path to isolating Netanyahu.
Fourth, the administration is losing its domestic footing on Iran. The removal and investigation of its voice on Iran—Malley—has snowballed into calls for transparency and public debate on American policy not only among conservatives but liberals as well. Biden, not Netanyahu, appears more on the defensive.
Finally, the outbursts of the progressive caucus, which represents a third of congressional democrats, against Israel and their collective boycott of Herzog’s speech forced liberal Democrats to recoil, flock towards and express support for Israel. The US administration regards a Netanyahu visit as politically dangerous, but ostracizing the prime minister proved even more damaging.
In other words, the context of Herzog’s visit shifted. The administration’s attempt to isolate Netanyahu yielded to expressions by conservatives and centrist liberals alike—the latter of which Biden cannot ignore—to reaffirm the specialness and strength of relations.
Taken together, Herzog’s visit appeared that it was less likely to isolate Netanyahu than threaten to isolate the US administration on its Iran and Israel policies. Potentially facing a setback on its own turf, even absent to a visit by Netanyahu, the US administration encountered the stark lesson of politics: Beware the law of unintended consequences. Simply, continued branding the scarlet letter on Netanyahu had become a greater liability for the Biden administration than engaging him.
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