It was a turbulent week for the US-Israel relationship. It started on Sunday, with the National Security Council issuing a statement expressing “deep concern” over the situation in Israel, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. The administration also touted the “urgent need for compromise.”
On Monday, shortly after Netanyahu announced a pause in the judicial overhaul plan, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre welcomed the statement “as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise.”
“Compromise is precisely what we have been calling for, and we continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible,” she said.
But then, on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden surprised many, when asked if he would invite Netanyahu to the White House, Biden quickly replied, “No, not in the near term.” It is highly unusual for a US president to refuse to host an Israeli leader.
“I hope he [Netanyahu] walks away from it,” Biden told reporters as he issued his most clear objections to the plan to date and opened an intensely public dispute between the two leaders.
Biden’s words were heatedly debated in Israel as the Right accused him of crossing a redline when it came to domestic interference, while the Left blamed Netanyahu for creating a dangerous rift with the country’s strongest ally.
Although it was after midnight in Israel when his words came out, Netanyahu tweeted a response: “I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel. The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional differences between us.
“Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends,” he added.
I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel. The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us— Benjamin Netanyahu - בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 28, 2023
On Wednesday, US officials tried to soft-pedal the Biden administration crisis with Israel as a “dispute with friends.”
“Our commitment to Israel is ironclad and steadfast, and that will continue to be the case,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters in Washington, adding that “sometimes the best of friends can disagree.”
Were these words Biden's?
Dave Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, said he believes Biden’s remarks were not scripted.
“I think he just did this on his own,” he said. “He was authentic and that he’s just frustrated that this issue is taking up all the time.
“How can you even talk about Iran and Saudi Arabia when your backyard is on fire?” he said. “This is a president who likes to work things out behind closed doors. That is his preference. That’s what makes him different from some of his predecessors who liked to go public. And I think that there’s part of him that feels it’s not working that way,” Makovsky said.
Speaking about the timing of Biden’s comment, shortly after a pause in the legislation process, he said: “I think so long as there was a sprint to the Knesset finish line on the votes, Biden felt he could not speak out publicly because it might impact the votes. So I think it was just the frustration that came out now.”
“But I don’t think you should read into it a whole plan to lower US-Israel relations,” he added.
He also went on to say that there have been worse crises in the relationship between the countries.
“This is not like [President George] Bush and [prime minister Yitzhak] Shamir, where they didn’t speak at all in the entire run-up to the Gulf War in 1990. It was, I think, a much deeper crisis,” he said. “This [current crisis is] just more of the president’s frustration that there are things that the US and Israel need to do to work together. And he sees this as potentially eroding the shared values that are one of the main two pillars of the US-Israel relationship, shared values and shared interests. Israelis tend to focus everything on interests, but the interests bind government and governments and values bind societies,” Makovsky said.
Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who focuses on US foreign policy, said that the current crisis “is unlike any crisis the US and Israel have faced.”
“It’s not [president] Gerald Ford and [secretary of state] Henry Kissinger calling American ambassadors back in the summer of 1975 because they want to pressure [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin to sign a second disengagement agreement with Egypt; It’s not [president] Jimmy Carter wrangling over settlements with [prime minister] Menachem Begin in Camp David,” he said. “It’s not [White House chief of staff James] Baker and Bush [Sr.] focused narrowly on Shamir’s settlement activity and the denial of housing loan guarantees.
“This is unlike any other crisis between the US and Israel because it gets to one of the two foundational elements that have been responsible for the close, special, extraordinary relationship between these two countries, and that is the notion of value affinity,” David Miller said.
“For most American presidents, fighting with Israel is a sort of occupational hazard,” he continued. “They don’t do it because it’s messy, it’s awkward, it’s distracting. And frankly, at times, it could be politically unwise. I think this administration has gone to pretty great lengths to avoid a set of public tensions with Israel.
“I worked for half a dozen administrations, Carter through [president George] Bush [Jr.],” he continued. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen any administration engage with Israel as intensively and frequently or at a senior level as this one. In the last three months, you’ve had Jake Sullivan in Israel, you’ve had Bill Burns, Tony Blinken, Mark Milley, Lloyd Austin all in Israel,” he said, referring to the national security advisor, CIA director, secretary of state, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of defense, respectively.
“So this administration has gone great lengths not to give the impression that they’re prejudging this [coalition],” said David Miller. “They don’t want to fight. They want to make it unmistakably clear that Netanyahu has said repeatedly, this is my coalition. My hands are on the wheel. I’m in charge. So by engaging directly with you, keeping the focus directly, they hoped to avoid what I think we’re now seeing playing out. I think that it’s taken the administration some time to understand that it is not the old risk-averse, cautious, practical, pragmatic Netanyahu,” he said.
David Miller described the administration’s approach as “passive-aggressive.”
“They’re not prepared to impose the cost, a real cost of consequence,” he said. “They don’t want a public war of words with him. So, [Deputy Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman calls Ambassador [Mike] Herzog; They’re slow-rolling the possibility of an early invitation to the White House, and the president’s remarks yesterday were quite uncharacteristic of how he would usually deal with that... the sort of ‘Bibi, I love you, but I don’t agree with anything that you say.’”DAN MARIASCHIN, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, noted as well that the countries “never had an issue quite like this,” but added that one has to look at this “with a bigger field of vision.”
“The core issues are the existential issues, the threats, the Iranian issue on Israel’s northern border, Russia and Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, all of that [while] maintaining the Abraham Accords,” he said. “These are all common interest issues shared between Israel and the United States.
“At the end of the day, there is no other real reliable ally for the US in the region, no other,” said Mariaschin. “So, I’m not minimizing the back and forth over the direction that the judicial reform issue has taken over the last couple of months, particularly over the last month or so. But I also try to keep an eye on the larger picture. Hopefully, these negotiations between the government and the opposition can be resolved.”
But the other issues, the strategic threats, are not going away, he said. “They’re getting bigger. And I think that at the end of the day, that really is very much a part of the glue that holds the US and Israel together. Of course, shared values are extremely important, there’s no question but I think we have to look at the larger strategic picture.
“Of course, we don’t like to see these kinds of differences of opinion play out before us. But I think that based on the past, there definitely is good reason to believe that this relationship – if it’s a little bit off track – certainly will be back on track,” said Mariaschin.
Jason Isaacson, chief policy and political affairs officer, at the American Jewish Committee, said “the fact that you have in this administration people with a long-standing, visceral and emotional connection with Israel matters.
“So that the expressions of concern, criticism, and suggestions about ways to get through this process are from a position of affection and support, not indifference or hostility,” said Isaacson. “I take very seriously what the president has said and what has come from other parts of the administration.”
He said that we are at an extraordinary point “in which Israel is examining the nature of its governmental processes; re-examining the balance of power in between branches of the Israeli government.
“The people are reacting; and Israel’s friends around the world and the Diaspora around the world are looking on with various degrees of concern and expressing views that come in many ways,” Isaacson added. “I think it’s a healthy process. I think it’s sometimes an uncomfortable process. But I think it speaks to the true nature of the relationship between our sister democracies.
“We don’t live in Israel; we don’t pay taxes in Israel; we don’t serve in the army – but we have a stake in Israel. We have a stake in the success of Israel,” he continued. “And when the president of Israel talks about civil war, it rattles us and it worries us all the more.
“Some of the actions and statements in the last couple of months have been disturbing to not only this government, but other governments, and Israel’s neighbors,” Isaacson said. “And I think that the [US] president, from a place of enormous affection for Israel and respect for Israel and a long and close relationship with the prime minister, felt the need to say something that would get the attention of Jerusalem.”
Dan Shapiro, director of the N7 Initiative and distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and a former US ambassador to Israel, said that “it’s a serious disagreement between two allies.”
“Everybody knows that Joe Biden is a strong supporter of Israel and an old friend of Netanyahu who does everything in his power to support Israel, Israel’s security and strengthen the US-Israel relationship,” Shapiro said. “He also sees the proposed judicial overhaul as a grave threat to Israel’s security, its economy and its reputation as a democracy [with] checks and balances of an independent judiciary.
“For that reason he sees it as a strain on the US-Israel relationship,” Shapiro continued. “The common interests remain as strong as they ever were. Since the prime minister took office, there have been visits from Jake Sullivan, Secretary Blinken and Gen. Milley, all working on common regional interests. But it’s also true that all the oxygen has been sucked out of the political discourse by the [discussion on] judicial reform.
“There hasn’t been any work on expanding the Abraham Accords. It’s much harder to concentrate on the threat from Iran,” he noted. “And so I think Joe Biden wants to work on common regional interests. It’s just been difficult to have a focused conversation around those when there’s been so much distraction thrown up by judicial reform. And they do need to develop a joint strategy on Iran.
“President Biden is very clear on who will make these decisions. The Israeli people will make these decisions,” Shapiro said. “The government and the people will make these decisions. There’s no question about that. And they have that right. But those decisions can have an impact on US interests. And so the United States has every right to express itself on that. And the Israeli people [will] decide whether or not this is an effect they want to take into account,” he said.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.