The recent visit of United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Israel will be remembered mostly for exposing US criticism of Israeli government policy, moving it from behind closed doors to center stage.
Deep disagreements with the Biden administration also arose during the Bennett-Lapid government over the Palestinian and Iranian issues, but these were hammered out behind the scenes. Now, under the relentless bulldozer of the coalition agreements and the “legal reform”, which increasingly resembles a regime coup, the US smiles have become forced and the criticism is louder to ensure public attention.
Blinken’s January 31 news conference was intended to convey US discomfort with the Netanyahu government’s undemocratic direction. Addressing the media following his meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken spelled out US objections to Israeli policy on the Palestinian issue.
“The United States continues to oppose settlement activity, legalization of illegal outposts, violation of the status quo in east Jerusalem, home demolitions and incitement to violence,” Blinken said, adding that the US administration opposes “unilateral measures, which fan tensions, create a more dangerous environment for all, and lower the chances of advancing toward a two-state solution.” Blinken ticked off every single item on the list of US concerns to make it clear to the Netanyahu government the extent of the administration’s opposition to each of the measures it takes or seeks to take.
The Netanyahu government could conduct business as usual, ignoring and even attacking the Democratic administration, hoping for its replacement in two years by a Republican one but it would do well to heed these warnings. Blinken’s remarks to reporters were relatively pleasant compared to the criticism being voiced in closed rooms not only by Blinken but by senior Biden administration and Democratic Party officials.
The current administration’s sympathy for Israel and first and foremost that of President Joe Biden is sincere and strong. It does not stem from political interests alone and cannot be undermined as quickly as it was built, which was the case with Trump’s instrumentalist relations with Israel but from an abiding respect for Israel and the values it represents, as reflected throughout Biden’s five-decade political career.
But the greater the friendship, the more intense the criticism because it emanates from a sincere concern for the shared democratic values on the basis of which the historic alliance between the countries was built. The concern for Israel’s image and democratic character also stems from the fact that the vast majority of American Jewry supports the Democratic Party, with many seeing the current struggle over the nature of Israel as one directly impacting their own identity.
Thus, it is the sympathy and connection to Israel that makes the criticism more powerful, unequivocal and clear. The Book of Proverbs teaches us that “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” and this is how we must address American criticism, not denying and ignoring it but trying to understand its origins – concern for American interests but no less so for Israel.
Israel should not ignore US warnings
IGNORING THE warnings will only intensify the criticism and may cause a dangerous rift between the US administration and the Israeli government. At the time, the Obama administration was able to overcome disagreements with Israel, including Israeli audacity that culminated in Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015, approving the largest security aid agreement ever for Israel. But this Netanyahu government should not be complacent and think it can count on that precedent.
The Biden administration has learned the lessons of the Obama era, when the rift was not only between the administrations but was also reflected in the clear unjustified lack of sympathy of Israeli citizens for the president. That is why, along with the pressure and criticism, the Biden Administration is embracing the citizens of Israel by promoting a visa exemption process.
The person who delayed the process was Netanyahu, who, as leader of the opposition, refused to advance the legislation on the subject promoted by former interior minister Ayelet Shaked. The administration seeks to criticize with one hand and caress with the other but it is uncertain that it can do so for long. Even before Blinken’s departure from the region, National Security Minister Ben-Gvir decided to challenge US demands to grant freedom of movement to American citizens of Palestinian origin, boasting of standing up to the Americans but in fact risking the interests of Israeli citizens.
The coming period will test relations between the countries. In an unusual move, Blinken asked Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to remain in Israel and keep an eye on the government decisions. Blinken doesn’t need Leaf and Amr on the ground in order to know what’s going on but he needs them to make his warnings to Netanyahu on every settlement construction and Palestinian home demolition tangible and clear.
Due to its aggressive statements and the revolution it is promoting, the Netanyahu government has lost what credit it had with the US administration. The US will no longer let policies slide that it overlooked under previous governments.
Israel no longer needs to approve construction in the strategically sensitive E1 area of the West Bank to earn a stinging US rebuke. The bar will be much lower as the government accelerates like a driverless train toward a head-on collision with the Biden White House.
The writer is a board member of the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the director of J Street Israel.