Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Barely a week into the most extreme government in Israel’s history, its controversial national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, is already demonstrating its right-wing religious and nationalist credentials.
On Tuesday, Ben Gvir visited the Jerusalem compound known as the Temple Mount by Jews and the Haram al-Sharif by Muslims – an action that threatens to upset an already precarious status quo and trigger violence.
Ben Gvir, who has previously been convicted of racist incitement, has vowed to institutionalize Jewish prayer and presence in perhaps the most volatile flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His stated intention for the visit was to mark one of the Jewish fast days.
The visit prompted a string of international condemnations, including from the US Embassy in Jerusalem, which indicated in a short statement that such actions were “unacceptable.”
Ben Gvir – a long time provocateur and heir to the party of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane – is now in charge of Israel’s police, putting him in an influential position to stir up trouble in Jerusalem and between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens.
But if you think the Biden administration is gearing up for a sustained campaign to aggressively oppose the direction the new Netanyahu government is heading, you should lay down and wait quietly until the feeling passes.
Governing is about choosing. And while a fight might yet come, US President Joe Biden will go to great lengths to avoid a confrontation with a newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Here’s five reasons why.
First, Biden is preternaturally pro-Israel.
The US President may have once told Netanyahu: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.” But it’s not the Prime Minister with whom he’s enthralled, it’s the state of Israel.
Biden’s commitment to Israel stretches back decades. He’s long been captivated by the idea of Israel and has a deep appreciation and respect for the realities of Israel’s security challenges. If you’re looking for a presidential model when it comes to handling Israel, it’s not Biden’s former boss Barack Obama that comes to mind but former President Bill Clinton. As fellow politicians, their affection for Israel and the importance of supporting Israel politically run deep.
As far as Netanyahu is concerned, Biden knows all too well the Prime Minister’s strengths and limitations. After the humiliation of a Netanyahu government decision to announce a major expansion of housing in East Jerusalem during his visit as Vice President in 2010, Biden clearly doesn’t trust him.
At the same time, he knows that Netanyahu – for better or worse – is a political survivor and an immensely talented politician who’s been a part of Israel’s story for decades.
Biden believes – perhaps mistakenly – that if he wants to have any chance of getting anything done in the region, he must find a way to deal with him. Like Clinton, his first instinct is not to jam Netanyahu but to give him the benefit of the doubt and try to work things out quietly without a public row.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that in congratulating Netanyahu on his new government, Biden referred to the fact they’ve been friends for decades.
Second, Biden is too busy.
Fighting with Israel requires presidential time and energy. Biden’s foreign policy plate is already brimming with problems that lack quick or easy solutions. The administration’s top foreign policy priorities are the Russian war against Ukraine and how to deal with China. And then there are the nuclear threats from both North Korea and Iran.
These are the challenges that will define his presidency far more than the Middle East, which the administration has rightly deprioritized. In that region, filled with political and security landmines, the focus is on managing – not resolving. And trying to keep as many issues off the President’s plate as possible.
Biden got a taste of the risks during his ill-fated “fist-bump” trip to Saudi Arabia in July last year. He gave Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman what he wanted – recognition. And in return, he essentially got a slap in the face. With gas prices rising, two weeks before the midterms, the Saudi-Russia dominated OPEC+ cartel cut production significantly.
Third, Biden knows fighting with Israel is bad politics.
Republicans control the House and trail the Democrats by a hair in the Senate. The race for the White House won’t formally conclude until 2024; but it begins this year. Whether Biden runs or not, the Israel issue is always loaded politically – for whoever does run.
With the exception of a few outliers like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the Republican Party has set itself up as the go-to party on Israel. And given Netanyahu’s honorary membership in the GOP, it should surprise no one if he finds a way, as he did during the Obama administration, to cavort with the Republicans.
If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, there’s no doubt they’ll figure out ways to cavort with one another. The last thing Biden or any Democratic nominee needs is to get sandwiched between the Republicans beating him up for fighting with Israel, and a Democratic Party divided between a majority who are traditional Israeli supporters and a progressive minority pushing the administration to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of the Palestinians.
In the event the Iran nuclear deal surfaces again (even the Israelis believe it’s not dead yet) Biden would get caught between Republicans and more than a few Democrats who will vigorously oppose US reentry – and an Israeli Prime Minister egging them on, if not leading the band.
Fourth, Biden knows the Palestinian issue isn’t ready for prime time.
Presidents don’t willingly seek out fights with a close ally, even one where US interests and values may be beginning to diverge on some important issues. And fighting with Israel on the Palestinian issue, which shows little promise of producing results, is unlikely to provide Biden with much of an incentive.
The two-state solution, if not dead and going the way of the dodo, still faces unimaginable long odds. The best Biden can possibly hope to achieve is to prevent an explosion between Israelis and Palestinians of tensions. That involves holding the line against de jure annexation by Israel; preempting another escalatory round like May 2021 between Israel and Hamas and keeping the Abraham Accord countries from jumping ship if there’s a sustained confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians.
The key ingredient required for anything remotely resembling a credible negotiating process are leaders on each side who are willing and able to make key decisions and bring their constituencies along with them. These simply do not exist now.
Fifth, Biden believes Iran is the greater priority.
The Palestinian issue is volatile. But the real crisis for Biden isn’t over a two-state solution but how to contain Iran’s nuclear program. That issue could lead to regional confrontation, rising oil prices and plunging financial markets. And right now, it appears that there’s little prospect of a return to the nuclear accord even while Iran ramps up uranium enrichment to near weapons-grade.
Biden knows that Netanyahu’s threshold for taking military action against Iran is much lower than America’s. And the US President is going to try to coordinate with Netanyahu on Iran, rather than push him into a corner, in the hopes of finding some way to deter Iran without the use of military force.
What Biden is unlikely to do is to put himself in a situation where he and Netanyahu are in conflict on both Iran and the Palestinians. Biden had a ringside seat watching his former boss Obama go at it with Netanyahu on both; and probably doesn’t want to go down that road again.
There are reports that the administration is sending National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to Israel this month. That suggests Biden wants to get ahead of any kind of confrontation with Netanyahu and perhaps believes he can work out understandings on some key issues.
Netanyahu isn’t looking for a fight with Biden. Right now he’s more beholden to his extremist coalition than he is to Washington. Without those partners, Netanyahu can’t pass the legislation he needs to postpone or nullify his corruption trial. Perhaps he believes he can control his extremist ministers. And that’s the case he’ll make to the administration – that he needs help in doing so.
Paradoxically, tough statements from Washington might actually help Netanyahu do so. But the administration should also understand that words alone aren’t enough, particularly if the views of Netanyahu’s extremist coalition partners turn into actions.
Without imposing consequences for provocative Israeli actions in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and working to press Palestinians to control terror and violence, Biden will likely – before his first term is up – have yet another crisis to add to an already full plate.