Will Netanyahu's government jeopardize US defense support for Israel?

DEMOCRATIC AFFAIRS: While Israel is the junior partner in the US-Israel security relationship, Jerusalem is not without assets valuable to the US.

 GETTING READY for US President Joe Biden’s visit to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem in July. Will US-Israel relations be able to recalibrate when the new government takes over? (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
GETTING READY for US President Joe Biden’s visit to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem in July. Will US-Israel relations be able to recalibrate when the new government takes over?
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to address the left-wing J Street’s annual conference in Washington on Sunday. If former US ambassador Dan Kurtzer and former Mideast negotiator Aaron Miller had their way, Blinken would announce that the US is suspending the sale of offensive weapons to Israel.

That’s right, Kurtzer and Miller – longtime “peace processors” during the 1990s and 2000s, who are critical of presumptive prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for mainstreaming extremist parties in Israel by bringing Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz into his coalition – are themselves mainstreaming the blockage of arms deals to Israel, once the purview of the extreme anti-Israel wing of the Democratic Party.

In September 2021 – even as a diverse government was leading Israel made up of both right- and left-wing parties – US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced legislation that would have suspended the transfer of $735 million worth of guided missile conversion kits to Israel under the pretense that US munitions had been used to harm Palestinian civilians. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, of course, was all in.

Progressive Democrats at the time also sought to block $1 billion in Iron Dome funding, a move led by Ocasio-Cortez and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Both moves failed.

US barring arms sales to Israel?

But now the idea of barring arms sales to Israel received a tailwind from Kurtzer and Miller. In a Thursday op-ed in The Washington Post, the pair of seasoned diplomats bewailed the results of the Israeli election, and said that the Biden administration should tell Israel that “while the United States will continue to support its ally’s legitimate security requirements, it will not provide offensive weapons or other assistance for malign Israeli actions in Jerusalem or the occupied territories.”

 The Iron Dome missile defense system in action. (credit: Israel Defense Ministry Spokesperson’s Office) The Iron Dome missile defense system in action. (credit: Israel Defense Ministry Spokesperson’s Office)

Why? Because of the November election results. Not because of anything the presumptive Netanyahu government has done – for, remember, it has not even been formed yet – but, rather, because of what some of the presumptive ministers have said in the past.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse.

And it is precisely because a new Netanyahu government has not done anything yet that when Blinken addresses J Street on Sunday, he will be very unlikely to endorse Kurtzer and Miller’s idea, though it is safe to assume many in J Street hope that he will.

WHAT MATTERS to the administration are actions, not statements, said former ambassador to the US Michael Oren.

“If American-Israeli relations had been determined over the years by statements made by politicians, we probably wouldn’t have an alliance,” he said. “Deeds, not words. Politicians who have stated a position in the past still have to be judged by what they actually do in the office.”

Another former ambassador to the US, Danny Ayalon, echoed Oren’s comments that Kurtzer and Miller “jumped the gun.” Moreover, Ayalon said, if part of the intent of the op-ed was to serve as a warning to the Israeli public, and to indicate what voting for a right-wing government has wrought, it could have the opposite effect.

“Even Israelis who did not and do not support Ben-Gvir and Smotrich will come to their defense when they hear this type of talk,” he said.

Ayalon said that he was surprised that Kurtzer and Miller, who have served in numerous US administrations, do not understand that American administrations are “pragmatic and work on behalf of American interests.” It is an American interest, not only an Israeli one, for the defense relationship between the two countries to remain above the political fray, he said.

Israel, US are useful to each other

While Israel is the junior partner in the US-Israel security relationship, Jerusalem is not without assets valuable to the US.

“Especially now when there is a war in Ukraine, terrorism, cyberterror and the threat of a nuclear Iran, Israel is a major and useful ally of the US. Many American lives have been saved by Israeli intelligence and the tactical military lessons that Israel has passed on,” he said. “I don’t think that the holy grail of defense relations will be hurt, because it is too important for the stability of the region, for US interests, and for the survival of Israel. A strong Israel is a vital interest of the US.”

Both Ayalon and Oren pointed out that this is not the first time the Americans have taken issue with the composition of a democratically elected government in Israel. Oren remembered that there were calls in 1977 in Washington to block arms to Israel because of the election of Menachem Begin, a man many in Washington at the time viewed as an extremist.

Oren also remembers the days, when he was ambassador – from 2009 to 2013 – that then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton refused to have any dealings with her Israeli counterpart at the time, foreign minister Avigdor Liberman.

Ayalon had a similar experience during his stint in Washington from 2002 to 2006. The US refused to engage with then-tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi. Ten years earlier, then-secretary of state James Baker, Ayalon said, made it forbidden to deal with Israel’s construction and housing minister at the time, Ariel Sharon. When Sharon’s US counterpart, Jack Kemp, wanted to meet with him on one of Sharon’s trips to the US, they had to meet in an apartment outside of Washington, Ayalon said.

Ayalon stressed that these boycotts of individual Israeli ministers – something being whispered about Ben-Gvir and Smotrich – did not impact the larger ties between the two countries, specifically not the defense ties.

“The past has shown that when Americans disapprove of a politician, even if he is serving in an official capacity, they know how to distinguish between the government and the state and that individual,” Ayalon said. “And they can do that now as well, even if Ben-Gvir will have a more significant role than Ze’evi ever did.”

Neither Oren nor Ayalon believe that the Kurtzer-Miller piece indicates which way the winds are blowing inside the administration.

“Kurtzer and Miller are two old-time members of the peace establishment who have limited impact on American foreign policy,” Oren said. “If they had influence, we would already have been forced to withdraw from Judea and Samaria and redivide Jerusalem.”

Although some Biden administration officials have indicated – much of it off the record – a concern over the rise of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, Oren said that with a war in Ukraine, fierce competition with China, and domestic issues at home, the administration is not “focused on the Israel-Palestinian” question.

“If we build in Judea and Samaria, they will be critical; if we take harsher measures against terror, they may be more critical; but, on the whole, they will want to keep this issue in the ice box. Their main focus will be Ukraine, China and increasingly Iran. They don’t want to expend diplomatic energy on us,” he said.

In Oren’s view, the one issue that could destabilize the US-Israel relationship is if Jerusalem would take steps to annex parts of Judea and Samaria.

“Annexation would be a major issue,” he said, whereas issues such as loosening open-fire restrictions “won’t delight the Americans” but at the same time would not destabilize the relationship.

Oren does not think that moving the Civil Administration from the Defense Ministry to the Finance Ministry – a move some have likened to de facto annexation – would destabilize relations, since few people really understand what such a move would mean. This is something that Smotrich – likely to be the next finance minister – has demanded.

Oren said he does not even think that allowing Jews to pray on the Temple Mount would upend relations with the US, since there would be a sympathetic hearing in much of the US for the argument that it was simply discriminatory – and contrary to the principle of religious freedom – not to let Jews pray at their holiest site, while Muslims are allowed to pray there.

“Israel’s main position now has to be not to take its eye off the ball,” Oren said, arguing that the “ball” in this case remains the Iranian nuclear threat. He said the guiding principle of the government needs to be how specific policies – such as annexation – would impact Israel’s ability, with the US and other allies, to combat the Iranian threat.

However, he said, Kurtzer and Miller’s idea that the US should suspend the sale of F-35s to Israel, used in actions in Gaza, because of the new government’s possible policy on an issue such as home demolitions is detached from reality. As detached, he said, as another idea that Kurtzer and Miller proposed in their Washington Post piece: that the US plainly tell the Palestinians that its support for them depends on their “willingness to hold elections, build a responsible democratic government and curb violence and terrorism.”

Just last week, the US appointed Hady Amr to the newly created position of “US special representative for Palestinian affairs,” a sign of increased – not decreased – US support for the Palestinians.

Asked during a Wednesday press conference whether the US supports the Palestinians’ holding elections, Amr replied: “The United States – the Biden administration – has been clear all along that elections are a decision for the Palestinian people and leadership to decide. They decide to have elections. We were very pleased to see the local elections that were held earlier this year. But again, democratic principles require that elections are decisions for the Palestinian people to decide.”

In other words, if the Palestinians want elections, fine; if they don’t, also fine. Contrast that with those who argue that Israel should be punished already because of its election results.