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As Joe Biden welcomed Israel’s figurehead President Isaac Herzog to the White House this week, he hailed the US-Israel relationship as “simply unbreakable,” and spoke of “unwavering” commitment to its Middle East ally.
However, despite the US president’s warm words, this week’s flurry of diplomatic activity also revealed just how strained relations between the US and one of its closest allies have been since Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in last year at the head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
“The administration is trying to walk between the lines,” said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and head of Silver Road Capital Group. “To show support for Israel – but also that they have a problem with this government.”
Part of the Biden administration’s criticism was directed at the Netanyahu government for accelerating its plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians have long sought as the heart of a future state, but which Israel has occupied since 1967.
The Biden administration has repeatedly called settlement expansion — which most of the international community viewed as illegal — an obstacle to peace. Two weeks ago he said the Netanyahu government had some of the “most extremist” figures he had encountered in 50 years of dealing with Israel, criticizing their desire to “settle anywhere” as “part of the problem” in the West Bank. But in this week’s public statements, he has largely avoided the topic.
Instead, it was the concern Biden expressed most publicly about moves to weaken the powers of the Israeli judiciary that sparked one of the largest waves of protests in Israel’s history and plunged the country into its deepest political crisis in years.
Netanyahu and his allies have insisted the judicial changes – the first of which is scheduled to be voted on Monday – are needed to rein in an overly powerful judiciary. But critics see it as a fundamental threat to Israel’s democratic institutions. This week, Biden again urged Netanyahu not to push through far-reaching changes without consensus.
To get his message across, shortly after meeting Herzog on Tuesday, Biden told the New York Times that “the vitality of Israeli democracy . . . must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.” A White House National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, then told Israel’s Channel 12 that the article “accurately reflects where the president’s head is”.
“Never before have we had a situation in which the whole issue of Israel’s democratic institutions or its independent judiciary has been called into question,” said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This becomes even more important when you have a boss [in Biden] from . . . Who believes in promoting democracy.”
Observers said that part of the reason for Biden’s decision to focus his criticism on judicial reform lies in the domestic politics of the United States. The position of American politicians on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gradually become a more partisan issue in recent years.
This trend accelerated after the administration of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, deviated from the longstanding American approach to the two-state solution, and took a number of high-profile steps that were unequivocally in Israel’s favour. It was underlined again this week when Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal called Israel a “racist country,” prompting a Republican-sponsored resolution saying it is not.
By contrast, Indyk said Biden’s warnings about Netanyahu’s judicial reform have drawn far fewer reactions from Republicans, not least because much of the US Jewish community shares his concerns.
“[Biden] He will not want to get into a fight with Israel over the settlements in an election year. “But it seems that he is fully prepared to enter into a struggle over the independence of the judiciary.”
However, there is little sign that the Biden administration intends to follow up its criticism of the Netanyahu government with action. “There has been no talk of some kind of formal reassessment” of the relationship between the United States and Israel, said a National Security Council official.
And after conspicuously declining to invite Netanyahu to the United States in the seven months since returning to office, Biden finally did so this week — though no date or location was set, and officials said this was done largely to avoid the topic overshadowing Herzog’s visit.
Indeed, although the Biden administration halted the Trump-era policy of providing funding to Israeli research institutes operating in West Bank settlements, it pursued several other policies that analysts said could provide Netanyahu with a political windfall.
Israel and the United States signed an agreement this week that brings Israel closer to its long-term goal of entering the US Visa Waiver Program. And although US officials have warned privately that the deteriorating situation in the West Bank is using up diplomatic bandwidth that could be devoted to issues such as Israel’s ambitions to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration is nevertheless working to facilitate relations.
Diplomats and former officials said that was unlikely to change in the short term. “the [US-Israel] Defense cooperation continues in full, because it is also an American interest. “The basic special relationship continues because it is a relationship between people,” Ayalon said. “but [the Americans] They raise the red flag.”