US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel this week for the fourth time since coming into office two years ago.
Blinken has only visited Belgium, which is the seat of the EU, and Germany more times (seven) than Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The only other countries he has visited on four separate occasions are France, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.
So much for those saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fallen off the US agenda. One does not visit an area on four separate occasions (one in the company of US President Joe Biden) in two years if it is a low-priority item.
In retrospect, it is clear that some things never change.
Blinken's previous visits to Israel
For instance, Blinken’s first visit in May 2021 came just a week after Operation Guardian of the Walls, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a caretaker prime minister, and just days before the Lapid-Bennett government was sworn into office. Part of Blinken’s public comments then had to do with calls for calm and working to “reduce tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
The same calls for calm featured prominently on his second visit, in March 2022, to participate in the Negev Forum. Then, too, he called for calm and appealed to “prevent actions on all sides that could raise tensions.”
This time as well, following the IDF’s action against terrorists in Jenin a week ago on Thursday and the twin terrorist attacks in Jerusalem last Shabbat, one of the phrases that Blinken repeatedly used during his visit was that the US was “calling for calm.”
Those calls have not had much of an impact in the past, but at least the sentiment is a worthy one. Chances are that when the secretary of state comes back for another visit in the not-too-distant future, he will again have an opportunity to call for calm and de-escalation. Some things, unfortunately, really never do change.
But then some things do change.
For example, this was the first time Blinken felt the need to give the Israeli prime minister a mini-lecture on civics and on the essence of democracy.
That Israel and the US are both robust democracies with shared values is a line that for years has become a staple in public comments given before or after senior US and Israeli officials meet. But this time, in what was widely viewed as a veiled rebuke of the current government and the controversial judicial reform plan, Blinken decided to define those values during comments he made while standing next to Netanyahu.
The US-Israel relationship, he said, “is rooted both in shared interest and in shared values. That includes our support for core democratic principles and institutions, including respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, a robust civil society.”
He then added that “one of the unique strengths of democracy is a recognition that building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure. Our fellow democracies can also make us stronger. That’s what the United States and Israel have done for each other over many decades – by holding ourselves to the mutual standards we’ve established, and by speaking frankly and respectfully, as friends do, when we agree and when we do not. The discussion the prime minister and I had today was no exception.”
Israel is accustomed to being lectured to by the US when it comes to settlements, using “proportional” force, and Palestinian rights. It is not used to being lectured when it comes to the essence of democracy. That Blinken did so was a noticeable deviation from the usual script.
Likewise, this was also the first time that Blinken publicly said that the US expects more assistance from Israel for Ukraine.
Blinken’s visit on March 26 last year came just a month after Russia invaded Ukraine. He addressed the matter in statements he made at the time alongside then-prime minister Naftali Bennett.
“We appreciate all efforts by allies and partners to stop the catastrophic suffering Russia’s aggression is causing for the people of Ukraine,” he said.
“And I have to say, we’re also grateful for the Israeli government’s efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including more than a hundred tons of food, medicine, generators and other vital supplies. And the field hospital. I had a chance earlier today, when I was with foreign minister [Yair] Lapid, to actually connect directly with those who are running the field hospital. We did it virtually, and it was very powerful to see that in action.”
These words came as Israel was being criticized at home and abroad for what some saw as inadequate public support for Ukraine.
Contrast those comments with what Blinken said about Ukraine at a press conference he gave Tuesday just before leaving:
“Tehran’s deepening ties with Moscow and the sophisticated weaponry that they’re exchanging to enable one another’s aggression are among the many reasons that we’ve raised with Israel the importance of providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs – humanitarian, economic, and security – as it defends its people against Russia’s brutal war of aggression.”
“Tehran’s deepening ties with Moscow and the sophisticated weaponry that they’re exchanging to enable one another’s aggression are among the many reasons that we’ve raised with Israel the importance of providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs – humanitarian, economic, and security – as it defends its people against Russia’s brutal war of aggression.”Antony Blinken
In other words, as nice as a field hospital, tons of medical equipment and other forms of humanitarian aid may be, the US now expects – and is saying publicly – that Israel should also provide “security” aid.
BLINKEN DID not use a bludgeon to clobber Israel on its head on either issue. He did not make any threats about what would happen if Israel did not internalize his points, nor did he issue any ultimatums.
Instead, he made clear that the US has certain expectations. What was implied, however, was that there may be consequences if those expectations are not met.
The hint, at least regarding the Ukrainian issue, was understood in Jerusalem.
Just a few hours after Blinken’s press conference, CNN aired an interview with Netanyahu in which the prime minister said that Israel was considering providing weapon systems – perhaps the Iron Dome – to Ukraine. He also sought to make clear to those watching the interview that Israel was already stepping up to the plate for Ukraine.
Netanyahu pointed out that – without any opposition from Jerusalem – the US took 250,000 ammunition shells it had prepositioned in Israel and sent them to Ukraine.
Furthermore, in what sounded like a reference to the drone attack on an Iranian defense ministry facility in Isfahan last Saturday night, Netanyahu cryptically said that Israel also “acts in ways that I will not itemize here against Iran’s weapons productions, which are used against Ukraine.”
Netanyahu said that Israel was not only attacking Iran’s nuclear program and trying to thwart it, but also “taking action against certain weapons development that Iran has. And Iran invariably exports them.”
Blinken made clear during his visit that the US wants to see more Israeli security assistance to Ukraine; Netanyahu’s response: you are already seeing it.
When it comes to concerns Blinken hinted at regarding the state of Israel’s democracy under this government, Netanyahu – who reiterated his argument that the reforms would make the country more, not less, democratic – left the door open to some flexibility.
Challenged in the CNN interview about the clause in the judicial reform that will give a simple majority of 61 MKs the ability to override a Supreme Court ruling, Netanyahu indicated that there is some room to maneuver on this.
The size of the majority needed to overrule the court is something that “could be discussed,” Netanyahu said, adding that he is waiting to “hear counteroffers.”
If indeed, Netanyahu were interested in toning down the judicial reform plan because of the unprecedented pushback the plan has encountered, Blinken’s going public with US concern about the project could paradoxically help him.
Granted, it’s not pleasant for any prime minister to hear the US secretary of state level even veiled criticism during a joint public appearance. But that the criticism was made public, and not relegated to the back room – where it is believed to have been registered in much harsher terms – will enable Netanyahu to say to those pushing full speed ahead with the reform as unveiled by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, “I’m all in on the reform, but hold on, you heard Blinken. If we do go ahead with this, there will be a price to pay with the Americans.”
Netanyahu reiterated in the CNN interview that this is his government and that he is firmly in control. “I’m governing. I’ve got my two hands on the wheel. And, believe me, it’s going to be a good direction for us.”
Judging from Blinken’s remarks, however, the Americans are hardly convinced. Still, Blinken’s criticism gave Netanyahu a ladder to use to get his government down from the very high judicial reform tree that it has climbed.
The question is whether Netanyahu wants a ladder.