There are two big takeaways from the round of interviews Benjamin Netanyahu has given the American media over the last two weeks.
There was an interview with NPR, the Washington Examiner, Free Press, NBC, Fox News and the Al Arabiya, the one Saudi and non-American exception.
Did Netanyahu talk to the Israeli media? Not once since the election for a simple reason: He does not need to convince anyone in Israel right now about anything. Those who are opposed to the government in formation, remain opposed and will only change their opinions – if they ever do – based on what happens. Since this government has a good chance of serving out a full term, there is also no need right now to convince any voters of anything.
In America though, the situation is very different. The media that Netanyahu interviewed with were carefully selected by the incoming prime minister and his former ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who political sources said this week is expected to take up the role of Netanyahu’s special envoy to the US.
Netanyahu is nervous about the US
The first takeaway was that Netanyahu is nervous. He knows that Israel’s biggest ally in the world is the United States and that officials in the Biden administration are waiting to pounce. Secretary of State Antony Blinken might have publicly said that the administration will judge the new government by policies, but there is no hiding the disappointment with the plans that Netanyahu and his coalition partners have outlined.
There are the judicial reforms, religion and state reforms, gay rights, education reforms and of course, the West Bank where the first test will present itself in just a few weeks, when the deadline to evacuate the illegal Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar again comes before the government. There is little doubt that if it is up to Itamar Ben-Gvir, Khan al-Ahmar will come down and that if it is up to Netanyahu, the state will once again tell the court that it needs time to study the issue.
Netanyahu wants to avoid – for as long as is possible – giving the Americans a reason to get upset. He knows how much he will need them and how much they are waiting and that when that moment comes, it will not be pretty.
Netanyahu wants the Americans to give him space
And this leads to the second takeaway – Netanyahu is looking to get the Americans to give him space. In his interviews with the mostly conservative media in the US, he could have, for example, tried to explain that his incoming finance minister, Smotrich, or national security minister, Ben-Gvir, are not that extreme.
He could have argued that they will moderate their policies through their service in the cabinet – he did that only once about Ben-Gvir – and he could have tried to argue that the world has nothing to worry about from them.
He did something different though, which did not go unnoticed by Smotrich or the advisers who surround him. He said that he will be in charge and that Israel will not do anything extreme. Why? Because the politicians who are sitting in his government are joining him, Netanyahu stressed. He is not joining them.
In between the lines, what it seemed Netanyahu was saying was that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are extreme, but they are also the people with whom he has no choice but to form a government.
It was interesting because it seemed that Netanyahu was making something of a plea to the Biden administration – give me space, give me room to maneuver, understand that some steps will be taken that you will not like, but also that it could be far worse.
Take for example what Smotrich plans for the West Bank. One of the first big steps he wants to take is to legalize the status of what the pro-settlement camp calls the “young communities,” otherwise known as illegal outposts. Smotrich wants to legalize the outposts and be able to provide them with basic infrastructure, a move Netanyahu signed onto in their coalition agreement.
NETANYAHU KNOWS that the moment this happens he will be opening Israel to criticism, condemnations and even more. There are already American officials who are pushing the administration to take a tougher stance with Israel and to warn Netanyahu of consequences for such moves.
By saying in the interviews that he is in charge and hinting that his partners are extreme, what Netanyahu is hoping for is that the US tones down its response to what happens next. Netanyahu is basically saying that things could be worse – Smotrich could be asking to build new settlements for example – and that he is in charge and managing to stop that from happening. Therefore, be tolerant and patient.
And how does the interview with Al Arabiya fit into all of this? It is Netanyahu’s way of trying to outline a road map for the Biden administration and the new Israeli government. Normalization with Saudi Arabia is something everyone can fall in line behind. There will not be political differences since there are unlikely to be significant concessions from Israel that would divide the Right. By speaking to Saudi media, Netanyahu is shining a path forward that everyone will be able to comfortably walk on without weakening the Israeli-US alliance.
Will the Biden White House go along with this?
Unlikely. Reports out of the US indicate that the Americans intend to hold Netanyahu personally accountable, a message that American officials have been telling their foreign diplomatic counterparts in Israel and elsewhere in the world where there is interest.
What exactly happens is also unclear. Israel has been condemned before for construction in West Bank settlements. That is not new. It has also come under criticism before for religion and state decisions, which are viewed negatively by progressive Jewish groups in the Diaspora. US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, for example, sent a veiled message to the incoming government on Tuesday, when he participated in a candle-lighting ceremony with the Reform Movement at the egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall.
The difference is that this time, it seems to some members of the incoming coalition, that the world is looking to teach Israel a lesson. Western governments made little secret of their hope – back before the November 1 election – that they wanted the Lapid-Bennett coalition to continue for longer. They enjoyed working with the duo even if in practice, settlement construction continued and 2022 is the year with the most Palestinian casualties from clashes with Israel since 2008.
The world didn’t get what it wanted. Bennett is out of politics and Lapid will soon move to the Opposition. Like the Israelis who were opposed to Netanyahu and need to now come to terms with the government that has been formed, so does the rest of the world.
Does that mean that the world needs to support everything Israel does? Of course not, and that too needs to be made clear to the Israeli public who for some reason, often thinks that no matter what it does, no one has the right to say a word.
That is wrong, and just like Israel receives military aid from the US, it can stop receiving military aid from the US. Nothing is written in stone.
Nevertheless, if both sides are interested in preserving this relationship, compromises will need to be made. The US has a proven track record of being able to do that. So does Netanyahu. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich? That remains to be seen.