At the end of March, President Joe Biden landed a verbal body blow against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden gave a forthright and unequivocal “no” to a question whether he would be hosting Netanyahu at the White House. “Not in the near term,” the president declared.
It has become almost a norm that newly elected Israeli prime ministers visit Washington during the first months of their tenure. That no date had been announced for Netanyahu was already raising eyebrows, alluding to problems in the relationship. But a very public uninvitation is quite another matter, a unique diplomatic occurrence among friends and allies.
Was this just Biden being Biden? Was he shooting from the hip without the requisite consideration?
Over the decades, the senator from Delaware has been known for his verbal missteps, his two unsuccessful runs for the White House (1988 and 2008) attesting to that.
“You got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook.”Joe Biden on Barack Obama
For example, in January 2007 he said about rival Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama: “You got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook.” Biden had to walk back those words.
But in the aftermath of Biden’s throwing cold water on a Netanyahu visit, there was no presidential retraction. Could it be that Biden’s personal slight was not a gaffe at all but a deliberate act of state?
Biden’s comments also included criticism of the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reform: “Like many strong supporters of Israel… I am concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I have sort of made this clear.
“Hopefully, the prime minister will act in a way that he will try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”
Not only was the US president intervening in an internal Israeli political debate and expressing opposition to the Prime Minister’s position, but he was openly professing skepticism over Netanyahu’s publicly declared goal to achieve an accommodation with the opposition.
Surely, it would have been more presidential for Biden to welcome Netanyahu’s deferral of the government’s reform package and to express hope for the success of the negotiations to find a consensus solution. And had the President wanted to make a subtle dig at the prime minister, Biden could have praised his “good friend” President Isaac Herzog for facilitating the process of national dialogue. Instead, Biden went for the jugular.
If his remarks weren’t just another Bidenist gaffe, what was the political logic of being so rough?
Appealing to the base
Netanyahu is abhorred across liberal America and widely perceived as the Israeli embodiment of the hated Donald Trump.
Moreover, left-of-center Americans tend to embrace the Israeli protesters who see their government’s prospective judicial changes as endangering democracy.
By coming down hard on the prime minister, Biden was scoring points with a large section of the Democratic base, possibly even helping to placate those who have been frustrated with the administration for not pushing a more vigorous liberal agenda.
With Biden’s forthcoming 2024 reelection bid, his remarks were undoubtedly good politics.
Biden describes himself as a Gentile Zionist and a lifelong friend of Israel, proudly reminding listeners that he has met with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir.
The president prefaced his critical comments with the phrase: “Like many strong supporters of Israel.” He did not forget to add that American Jews share his concerns.
In so doing, Biden was reflecting a “save Israel from itself” narrative which holds that genuine friends of the Jewish state must give “tough love” to prevent the Israelis from self-harming.
Some high-profile Israelis encourage such a view, perhaps because they are struggling to win the political argument at home. But “tough love” is nonetheless based on an assumption of entitlement, presuming outsiders are better positioned to know what is in Israel’s interest than the Israelis themselves.
Filling the political vacuum
From Washington’s perspective, Netanyahu is one of the more levelheaded members of Israel’s current cabinet. Yet the Americans see the prime minister as constantly under pressure from his hard-right coalition partners Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to take steps the US deems irresponsible.
In the past, Netanyahu’s coalitions included parties to the left of the Likud, and Washington could always hope that someone like Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, or Benny Gantz would have a moderating influence.
Today, with no such restraining voice on the inside, Washington assumes that it must fill the void. By applying strong public countervailing pressure, the administration believes it can help strengthen Netanyahu’s innate cautious instincts and contain the more radical elements surrounding him.
Putting Netanyahu in a box
Biden’s hardline approach may also stem from a desire to prevent the Prime Minister from talking to the American people about subjects the administration prefers to avoid.
Iran is the number one action item on Netanyahu’s international agenda. But for months now, the White House has been notably muted on this issue.
Washington had been focused on reentering the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, the administration’s initial plans to achieve an improved “longer and stronger” agreement having been shelved in the face of Iranian intransigence.
US-Iran negotiations were ongoing until mid-2022, when the administration suspended them, briefing that diplomacy would resume after the midterm Congressional elections.
However, by the time of the November poll two developments made a return to talks untenable: the Iranian regime began brutally suppressing protests against the compulsory wearing of the hijab and was transferring thousands of combat drones to Russia for its war of aggression against Ukraine.
But if Washington had put the JCPOA on hold, it didn’t advocate an alternative. And earlier this year, when the IAEA discovered that Iran had been enriching uranium to 84% – just below the 90% threshold required for a nuclear weapon – the administration downplayed the danger.
Biden does not want Netanyahu pointing out the inadequacies of America’s Iran policy; best to keep the prime minister in a box by talking up the danger to Israeli democracy posed by the judicial reform and force him to play defense. Make Netanyahu focus on that single issue in all his interviews on American television and in every meeting with US legislators. What better way to clip his wings?
Was Netanyahu’s uninvitation an act of conscious statecraft or an inadvertent gaffe? Someday, when the definitive history of the Biden administration is written, we may get an answer.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.