From the hyperventilation in the Israeli media over US Vice President Kamala Harris’s comments at an Israeli embassy party and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s response, one would think that they absolutely trashed each other’s countries. They didn’t say very much, in reality, but the frosty back-and-forth is indicative of a much bigger iceberg of a problem in US-Israel relations.
It all began when Harris spoke at the Embassy’s event honoring 75 years to the State of Israel.
“Under President Joe Biden and our administration, America will continue to stand for the values that have been the bedrock of the US-Israel relationship, which includes continuing to strengthen our democracies... as [Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog] has said, [they] are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances and, I’ll add, an independent judiciary,” she said.
This was, immediately and understandably, taken to be a jab at the coalition’s planned judicial reform. But, as far as jabs go, it’s a pretty mild one. The comments were not anything new, nor were they more pointed than things US President Joe Biden has said in the past; US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told Kan that Harris “said things that the administration says at every opportunity regarding the shared values and policies.” She did not directly criticize the reform, as one of its architects and its most vocal champion, MK Simcha Rothman, who attended the party, pointed out.
Cohen's response was flippant, but also nothing crazy. He told KAN that he doesn’t think Harris has read the proposed reform. She probably hasn’t, since Israel policy is not her ambit, though she was likely briefed ahead of the party. He also said that “she may not be able to cite even one clause that bothers her,” which has been his line about everyone, true or not.
This was a public exchange – mild though it may be – at a time of quiet, but deep differences between Jerusalem and Washington.
Senior diplomatic sources have been quietly speaking about their strong suspicions that the US is trying to reach an interim agreement with Iran. Earlier this week, Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan went off message and expressed those concerns in public at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference, describing a deal by which Iran would pause, but not roll back, its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits. National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer left their recent meetings in the White House more concerned than before, even though American interlocutors told them that an agreement is not imminent, a diplomatic source said.
Days before his meetings in Washington, Hanegbi said that Jerusalem is in a “fog” about US-Saudi talks regarding normalization with Israel. That fog extends beyond Riyadh to Tehran.
The previous government adopted an intentional strategy of quiet disagreement with the Biden administration, working out their differences behind closed doors. Former prime minister Naftali Bennett, defense minister Benny Gantz and foreign minister Yair Lapid won Washington’s trust in that way, such that when they raised their voices over what they viewed as dangerous conditions of an agreement with Iran, they were heard.
While it was the Ukraine war and distrust of JCPOA partner Russia, followed by Iran digging in its heels on some of those conditions that ultimately killed the negotiations last year, the Israeli government’s outcry seemed to have played a role in Washington standing firm at the time.
The current government is quietly disagreeing with the Biden administration, for entirely different reasons. When Biden was first elected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to engage on the issue of talks with Iran at all, in order to highlight their illegitimacy. Ultimately, since his return to the Prime Minister’s Office, this has made him out to be someone not worth talking to about Iran. Plus, his 2015 strategy of using Congress for leverage is less realistic these days, when the Republican majority in the House is very narrow, the Senate is Democratic, and even the few Democrats Netanyahu was once able to peel away from supporting the Iran Deal now see things differently.
Tension between US and Israel over judicial reforms
And then there’s the judicial reform. Cohen likes to say that the reform has not harmed Israel internationally at all. To some extent, he is right; there has been very little tangible change and most of the Western countries that grumble about the reform are ones that have always criticized Israel anyway. But some critics are key countries, like the US and Germany.
Cohen speaks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the phone with some regularity, Dermer and Hanegbi have flown to Washington repeatedly, and Ambassador Herzog is welcome in the White House. So we shouldn’t exaggerate the problem – but it can’t be ignored, either.
Biden refuses to meet Netanyahu because of the judicial reform, something that he made pretty clear by publicly giving a firm “no” to a White House visit for the Israeli premier in the context of questions about the reform.
A face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Biden is not only important because the lack of one may be damaging to the former’s domestic image as an international relations wizard. Biden is one of the people most inclined to be skeptical about a deal with Iran in his administration. Though Biden meets with Herzog, and that is important, for Netanyahu to be able to directly convey the dangers of an interim deal for Israel is essential, and it’s not happening.While what Harris and Cohen said doesn’t matter all that much, it’s reflective of a bigger problem: that the disagreement over judicial reform is reverberating in other aspects of the US-Israel relationship.