Why Biden-Bibi friction won't end with a White House visit
There is something insulting about President Yitzhak Herzog’s official visit this week to the United States.
Nothing at all personal against Herzog, who, since becoming president, has leveraged his mediation skills and his likability to help reset relations with Turkey and shape a compromise solution for judicial reform against prohibitive odds.
But it is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and not Herzog, who should have been meeting with President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and addressing Congress. Biden’s belated invitation to Netanyahu to meet sometime in the near future — after Herzog had already taken off for the US — is only a first step in making amends for having snubbed Bibi and other members of his democratically elected coalition in favor of Herzog — who is respected, but essentially powerless.
Until now, the administration has shown contempt for the choice of Israeli voters. The daily lectures from a rotating chorus of officials about how judicial reform will erode Israel’s shared democratic bonds with America is an intrusion into an ally’s internal affairs and reeks of hypocrisy.
In a parting shot before leaving his post, Thomas Nides, who will go down in history as one of America’s most forgettable and shallow ambassadors to Israel, admitted in a patronizing fashion that the Biden administration aims to stop Israel from “going off the rails” and that “Israelis want the US to be in their business.”
Before casting aspersions on Israeli democracy, which a hyperactive judiciary hijacked 30 years ago, perhaps Nides should express at least equal concern over Americans’ disenchantment with their own democracy.
A poll released last month by the AP-Norc Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago shows that most Americans question whether the US government understands their interests. Only 10% of those surveyed feel that democracy is functioning extremely well, or very well; while 49% say democracy is either not working too well, or not working at all. Even among Democrats, 36% assign the two lowest grades to democracy while an additional 48% say it’s only working “somewhat well.”
While it wouldn’t be appropriate for Michael Herzog — Israel’s ambassador to the US and the brother of President Herzog — to publicly rub that poll in the administration’s face, there are subtle ways of getting a please-mind-your-own business point across, in diplomatic parlance.
What Israeli officials need to remind their critics is that even if American democracy were the epitome of perfection, the modern-day State of Israel — a parliamentary system without a formal constitution — is never going to resemble it. Israel is open to vigorous debate, but won’t accept dictates. The constant scorn is both unappreciated and ineffective.
Certainly, the military and strategic ties between the two countries are still tight. The US and Israel conduct joint military drills, and as Israel Hayom has reported, Israeli national security advisor Tzachi Hanegbi and his American counterpart Jake Sullivan have close ties and even communicate via WhatsApp. And even though Biden hasn’t invited Bibi to the White House, top administration officials visit Netanyahu here in Israel, even if they still boycott Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.
But there are serious gaps that are widening as time passes.
Aside from the dispute over judicial reform, the Biden administration clings to the fantasy of a two-state solution, even though it’s clear the Palestinian Authority won’t accept any arrangement that leaves Israel intact.
The administration continues to seek a nuclear deal that will allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons on one timetable or another while leaving Israel exposed. This is more than insulting — it’s an existential threat to Israel and other US allies in the Middle East.
The US obsession with judicial reform is irrational. Critics leap to compare Israel’s reforms to those instituted by strong right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary, two NATO members that the US is committed to defending if attacked. Bulgaria and Turkey are also NATO members, neither nation is a beacon of Western-style democracy, yet the Biden administration holds its tongue with them while using it to lash Israel.
While some pundits refer to the Biden administration as Obama’s third term, the reality is that the Biden administration verbalizes its hostility to Israel above and beyond whatever Obama might have felt in his heart.
Obama mostly observed the unwritten agreement that Israel and the US keep their disputes private — Iran being a major exception. The Biden administration flaunts its differences publicly.
The daily criticism that emanates from the State Department, White House officials, and the erstwhile ambassador has been unprecedented. Adding injury to insult, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a Biden confidant, hinted last week that the US might reassess its relations with Israel if Israel doesn’t change its naughty ways.
Both Israeli and US officials downplayed Friedman’s “threat,” but no one denies the sentiment is there.
It was a stark reminder of early 1975, a year and a half after the Yom Kippur War, when President Gerald Ford conducted a “reassessment” of US-Israeli relations after Israel refused to buckle to Egypt’s terms to disengage Israeli troops from the Sinai Peninsula.
Back then, in a show of its lobbying might, AIPAC signed 76 senators to a letter objecting to Ford blaming Israel for the impasse.
Assuming for a moment that AIPAC has the same clout, could you imagine 76 senators — which would now have to include half the Democratic Senate delegation — signing a letter in support of Israel and flying in the face of a White House policy?
The constant vilifying of Israel, in international forums, on campus, and now in certain corners of Congress, has taken its toll. America’s longstanding pro-Israel trend has changed direction, first under Obama, and now under Biden, despite a four-year reversal under Trump.
To insist that Israel still enjoys bipartisan support in America is like putting the blinders on.
Israeli politicians, including Bibi — as recently as last week — insisted the US-Israel bond is unbreakable and that the relationship is irreplaceable.
The more you have to repeat this, the shakier the relationship is. Like any relationship, it works in two directions, and the foundation has to be one of mutual respect. That’s what’s been missing up to this point on the American side of the Atlantic. Biden’s better-late-than-never invitation to Netanyahu is a step in the right direction, but the onus is on Biden to repair the damage he has caused.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 970)
Oops! We could not locate your form.