Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to take office, and he already is on a collision course with both liberal American Jews and the Biden administration. Also add to them the European Union and Israel’s new-found allies in the Middle East under the Abraham Accords.
On Thursday night, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned that Netanyahu’s government “will be the first in the history of the state that the United States won’t view as its closest ally.”
Reform and Conservative Jews, who are among the most influential leaders of American Jewry, “won’t see Israel as their second home,” he predicted.
Lapid spoke after Netanyahu’s government partners published details of their coalition agreements that will be signed in the coming days.
They include two significant “third rails” of Israeli diplomacy: the Law of Return and sovereignty over West Bank settlements.
The first governs Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewish communities, the largest of which is American Jewry.
The clash won’t be delayed; it will happen by March 31, if not beforehand. That date is when the time frame set out in the coalition agreements for the Knesset to vote on legislation to eliminate the clause by which grandchildren of those who are Jewish according to Halacha can immediately immigrant to Israel, even if they themselves do not meet the thresholds that Orthodoxy requires to be considered as Jewish. This Grandfather Clause is typically applied to those with Jewish ancestry on their father’s side.
Impact on American Jewry
Those who support the clause have argued that the technical impact on US Jewry is minimal, but the issue for American Jews is not a numerical one.
The elimination of the clause touches on the deeply divisive issue between American Jews and Israel about “who is a Jew” and reawakens the question whether in the long run, their community will meet the strictly Orthodox definition for Jewishness.
There is an unspoken contract between that community and the State of Israel; indeed, between Israel and all Diaspora communities. It offers them an unofficial special status in the Jewish state, both through shared history and heritage and also as a safe haven from antisemitism.
Now, looking to the future, Reform, Conservative and secular Jews, who are already questioning their ties to Israel, would be even less likely to consider that the Jewish state has any relevance to their lives.
In some cases, these are Jews who are already questioning whether the liberal Jewish values that define their identity can be found in the Jewish state.
The potential weakening of their support, including politically, would come at time when Netanyahu’s new government will also go head-to-head with the Biden administration on the issue of sovereignty over the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria.
Israel has refrained from applying sovereignty to the West Bank for almost 56 years, ever since it captured the territory from Jordan during the Six Day War. At issue, in part, has been the understanding that it is a diplomatic redline, the crossing of which would have severe consequences for its diplomatic relations with the West, including the US.
The Trump administration had given Israel a nod in the direction of applying sovereignty to West Bank settlements, but the matter was suspended in exchange for the Abraham Accords, under whose auspices Israel normalized ties with four Arab countries.
Moving toward annexation
Now, Netanyahu has moved back in the direction of annexation, with the Religious Zionist Party reporting that there is now an agreement to put forward a policy to advance sovereignty in the West Bank.
It did not define which geographic portions of the West Bank were under consideration, but at a base level, it would likely include all of the settlements. These are located in Area C, which is under IDF military and civilian control.
Many members of the coalition would like to see Israeli sovereignty applied to all of Area C.
The first step in that direction is a commitment by Netanyahu to authorize some 70 West Bank outposts. Such a move would expand Israel’s holding in Area C and, by definition, that territory would likely be annexed.
There is no timetable for the sovereignty issue, but a government declaration about the outposts is also time-bound and expected to occur within 60 days.
US President Joe Biden has historically been opposed to Israeli settlement activity, even though he is a strong advocate of the Jewish state.
To date, he has been cautious about statements against Israel, with officials speaking in broad terms, warning against settlement activity, without tying it to any consequences.
But since the election, the rhetoric has been raised a notch, and it can now be expected to increase, along with behind-the-scenes pressure to force Netanyahu to back away from the commitments made to his coalition partners.
Particularly bad timing
The timing is particularly bad, given that going soft on Israeli settlement activity will not play well with the more left-wing base of the Democratic Party as it heads into the 2024 presidential election.
In taking this stand, Netanyahu is also playing with fire with the Abraham Accords, given his earlier pledge to suspend annexation. The Abraham Accords countries will now have to weigh the benefits of their agreements against Israel’s steps in the West Bank.
Israeli reporters tend to describe Netanyahu as politically cautious, a leader who prefers the status quo. But his next government will upend that image, with an almost immediate set of diplomatic storms, by which Israel will test the Diaspora and global resolve to prevent West Bank annexation.