How important is a White House visit to Israel's Netanyahu? - analysis

US House Speaker McCarthy said that if Biden doesn't invite Netanyahu to the White House, he will.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, in 2016 when Biden was US vice-president. (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, in 2016 when Biden was US vice-president.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

Visiting US House Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy undoubtedly meant well when he said he would invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington if US President Joe Biden does not do so in the near future. 

Though a nice gesture, that’s the last thing that Netanyahu -- and Israel -- needs.

An invitation by McCarthy would only highlight Biden’s refusal to grant the prime minister an invitation, and this would further the impression that there is a deep partisan divide on Israel: The Republican McCarthy wants to invite Netanyahu; the Democrat Biden does not. 

Seventy-five years after Israel’s independence, these types of visits -- though undoubtedly important -- are no longer needed to cement ties between the two countries. Those ties are duly cemented with strong and robust and deep ties at so many levels -- between the military, intelligence, and business communities -- that they hum along nicely with or without periodic summits at the top, and despite periodic disagreements and “crisis” between the leaders.

The importance of these meetings is in developing rapport and chemistry between leaders and in their ability to talk candidly about issues they may only want to discuss in private. Even more important, these meetings -- especially if they are frequent -- send a signal to those watching of the intimacy and closeness of the relationship and create the perception that the Israeli premier has easy and ready access to the US president. 

 US House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy addresses the Knesset, May 1, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) US House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy addresses the Knesset, May 1, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

This is why Netanyahu wants this meeting so badly, and why Biden is so reluctant to give it to him. 

Netanyahu wants Arab world to see good ties with US

Netanyahu wants the Arab world, with which he hopes to forge closer ties, to see his closeness to the president. But that is not something Biden wants to spotlight just as he embarks on his re-election bid, since this will not win him points with the Progressive wing of his party or, for that matter, with some elements within the American Jewish community.

Netanyahu needs the meeting primarily because of foreign policy considerations; Biden doesn’t want the meeting because of domestic political ones. 

Israel has many things to offer the Arab world as it seeks to expand the Abrahma Accords. It has military strength and a proven determination to keep Iran from becoming a military nuclear power, it has the world’s best intelligence picture of the Middle East, it has cutting-edge technology and innovation. It also has a close alliance with the US and has long been perceived as having easy access to the US president. 

That is no small thing, and a commodity that Israel has been able to trade in over the years not only with Arab countries, but also with other states with less ready-entree into Washington’s corridors of power. A White House meeting is symbolic of this access.

If in the past Israel could cash in on the perception that it has the president’s ear, with countries believing they may be able to get closer to the US by getting closer to Israel, the continued Netanyahu freeze-out creates the opposite impression: that Israel has no special access to the White House. If that is the case, then one of the benefits of having ties with Israel for Arab states falls off the table.   

Countries have many ways of expressing their displeasure with one another. This displeasure can come out in private meetings through “frank” discussions, or it can come out in public gestures. The refusal so far to invite Netanyahu to the White House is a very public way of expressing displeasure, and is also a significant break from the manner the Biden administration has managed its ties with Israel up until now.

Obama administration didn't hide differences with Israel

One of the characteristics of the Obama administration’s way of doing business with Israel was to make its differences with Israel very public. Then-president Barack Obama set that tone in the early months of his administration when he told a group of American Jewish leaders that his predecessor’s policy of “no daylight” with Israel had not yielded any diplomatic progress. 

The upshot of that comment was that it was time to open the curtains and let the daylight pour in. If the close ties between Israel and the US during George W. Bush’s tenure did not bring progress in the peace process, Obama reasoned, then it was time to try another way. And he did try another way: publicly taking Israel to task and not keeping disagreements behind closed doors.

Obama, one diplomatic official in Jerusalem said at the time, came to power like so many US presidents before him, thinking that all he had to do was shake the Israeli tree a bit, and Arab fruit would start falling from the boughs. All he felt he had to do, according to this official, was show a willingness to pressure Israel, and the Arab world – including the Palestinians – would rise to the occasion, reciprocate and take the steps needed to move a peace agreement forward: The Arab world would make gestures toward Israel, and the Palestinians would show some tendency toward compromise.

It didn’t work. Obama shook the Israeli tree, but the fruit did not fall. 

Biden, from the beginning of his presidency, took a different tack. Though there have been differences from the outset over Iran, the settlements and the re-opening of a US consulate in east Jerusalem, the Biden administration -- for the most part -- has kept those differences quiet and dealt with them behind closed doors. It did not engage too much in megaphone diplomacy; it did not magnify the differences.

Until recently, until the judicial reform issue when Biden has come out openly against Netanyahu. 

Last month, After Netanyahu announced his intent -- which he never followed up on -- to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Biden made clear that he had no plans to invite Netanyahu to the White House “in the near term.” 

“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. And I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road,” he said at an impromptu press conference. “Hopefully, the prime minister will act in a way that he is going to try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen.”

This may help explain Netanyahu’s US media blitz over the last couple of weeks. While in Israel the only media outlet he seems willing to interview with is Arutz 14, over the last two weeks he has given interviews with NBC, CNBC, CBS and CNN in the US. During these interviews -- which by no means have been soft-ball affairs -- he has portrayed himself as someone looking for compromises on the judicial reform issue and opposed to the Knesset being able to override Supreme Court decisions by a simple majority. 

Netanyahu is trying to convince the American people that, in Biden’s words, he is acting “In a way that he is going to try to work out some genuine compromise.” 

Why? Partly in an attempt to secure that White House invitation that will signal to the region a return of Netanyahu’s access to the White House. Netanyahu speaks continuously of expanding the Abraham Accords and looping Saudi Arabia into the process. That task will be much more challenging -- if not impossible -- if the Arab world perceives him as an unwanted guest in the Oval Office. 

An invitation by McCarthy is nice, but it does not provide nearly the same diplomatic benefits as an invitation to the White House.