With a new budget comes inevitable US-Israel drama - analysis

Bennett may say he does not want drama with the Biden administration, but the drama will still come to his doorstep.

 PM Bennett meets with President Biden in Washington (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
PM Bennett meets with President Biden in Washington
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)

“We’re not looking for drama; we’re not looking for fights,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at a news conference on Saturday night, referring to disagreements with the Biden administration. “We’re looking to stand up for our interests in the appropriate way, to a great friend, and we will continue to do this.”

Asked a similar question again, in English, Bennett was even more emphatic: “We always present our position quietly, without drama – and we expect it to be understood.”

The news conference was held to celebrate the passing of the budget in the early hours of Friday morning, and this is exactly the time when drama is expected.

Sources close to Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have denied that the budget signifies anything in their relations with the Biden administration, and dismissed reports that Washington was waiting to put pressure on Jerusalem until after the vote, which it viewed as likely to stabilize the coalition.

Still, at least one senior Israeli official made a comment last month that seemed to reflect the atmosphere in Washington when it comes to dealing with Bennett’s government: “Everyone seems to be an expert in the Israeli budget.”

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 7, 2021.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 7, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Bennett and Lapid were asked at that news conference about the Biden administration’s promise to reopen the US consulate to the Palestinians in its former location in western Jerusalem, which the Trump administration turned into the US ambassador to Israel’s residence.

“My position, which was presented to the Americans by me and by Foreign Minister [Yair] Lapid, is that there is no place for an American consulate that serves the Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Bennett said. “We have expressed our position determinedly, quietly, without drama, and I hope it will be understood. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, alone.”

Lapid chimed in: “We clarified to the Americans that we oppose a consulate in Jerusalem. There is an embassy [to Israel] in Jerusalem. Sovereignty in Jerusalem is of one country, the State of Israel.”

They relayed their position to the Americans months ago “without drama,” as Bennett put it, but it doesn’t seem to have swayed the Biden administration much.

“We’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening... ties with the Palestinians,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late October, nearly two months after Bennett told Biden he opposes it and right after a meeting with Lapid who did the same.

That comment came in response to a question in a news conference – as Bennett and Lapid’s did – that could indicate the matter was not high on Blinken’s agenda, if he did not choose to remark on it in his opening statement.

The concern is that he was simply waiting for the post-budget-vote era to prioritize the consulate.

And the Biden administration’s actions and statements toward Israel in recent weeks seem to indicate that they’re ready to make a shift, moving on from somewhat of a grace period.

When it comes to settlements and the recent decision by Israel to ban six Palestinian NGOs in light of their well-documented ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – designated in the US and other places as a terrorist group – Bennett and Lapid took the same “agree to disagree” approach.

“We don’t agree on everything with the Americans, but, also on this, we know how to handle a dispute when necessary,” Bennett said on those issues. “We stand up for ourselves, but you have to know how to do it.”

He later added, in English, “There’s so much more we agree upon with our American friends than we disagree upon... I’m sure we and our American friends will continue to collaborate on a long list of big things.”

However, Washington seemed much less conciliatory in recent weeks, repeatedly sending Chargé d’Affaires to Israel Michael Ratney to rap Bennett’s Diplomatic Adviser Shimrit Meir over the government’s plans to build homes in existing settlements in Judea and Samaria.

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said advancing 3,000 homes was “completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution.”

As for the NGOs, Price’s comment that “we believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important for responsible and responsive governance,” seemed to imply that Israel does not.

 A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Then there was last week’s announcement that the US Commerce Department blacklisted two Israeli cybersecurity firms – NSO Group and Candiru – due to their “activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

“NSO is a private company,” Lapid said in response to a question. “It’s not a government project, and therefore, even if it is defined [as contrary to US interests] it has nothing to do with the policy of the government of Israel. I don’t think there’s another country in the world that has such strict rules in the area of cyber offense and enforces them more than Israel, and we will continue to do so.”

That NSO is a private company did not stop reports that it had French President Emmanuel Macron as one of its targets to prevent hurting Jerusalem-Paris relations. It is true that NSO is not authorized to use its Pegasus phone-hacking software on US phone numbers, but blacklisting a company that operates with a license from the Israeli Defense Ministry seems like a rebuke of Israel even if Lapid wouldn’t say it was.

So the pressure was already on, even before the post-budget era, and there is no indication that it will let up. As the votes were happening on Wednesday and Thursday, Price said the US position has not changed on any of these matters – settlements, Jerusalem or NGOs – basically saying, “We’ve been very clear” about each one.

Add to all of that the potential collision between Jerusalem and Washington when the Biden administration returns to indirect negotiations with Iran on November 29 to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Biden strongly supports returning to the deal, and has continued pushing for talks even when – as Bennett, Lapid and other Israeli officials have pointed out – Iran’s uranium enrichment has made the JCPOA so weak as to be mostly irrelevant in terms of stopping the bomb, while lifting sanctions and making the mullahs’ regime flush with cash.

A lot of this pressure and these disagreements are reminiscent of US-Israel relations in the era of former US president Barack Obama, which, despite his nickname “No-Drama Obama,” was quite tense and dramatic. Bennett may say he doesn’t want drama, and he may be trying to keep his disagreements with Washington as quiet and behind-the-scenes as possible. But the drama will still come to his doorstep.