(WASHINGTON) — For over a decade, the face of Israel on the world stage has been Benjamin Netanyahu. For American presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Netanyahu was their partner as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
But for President Joe Biden, that likely won’t be the case.
After 12 consecutive years in power, and 15 years in total, Netanyahu is on the brink of being ousted by a governing coalition of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties, including for the first time an Arab party. The diverse group of opponents was brought together primarily by a desire to replace Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and to end a destabilizing cycle of repeat Israeli elections after four inconclusive ones in just two years.
“Two thousand years ago, there was a Jewish state which fell here because of internal quarrels. This will not happen again — not on my watch,” said Naftali Bennett, the far-right ultranationalist who has the most to gain from the new government. At 49, he is set to become Israel’s prime minister for the next two years, taking the job from his one-time mentor Netanyahu, whom he served under most recently as defense minister. Bennett will pass the baton of the premiership to centrist Yair Lapid for the last two years.
The end of Netanyahu’s tenure and the rise of Bennett’s new diverse government may reshape Israel, but it’s unlikely to dramatically change U.S.-Israeli relations. Biden has pledged his firm commitment to Israel’s security, not wavering even amid growing pressure from the international community and the liberal wing of his own party during Israel’s recent 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza.
As the White House and State Department watch the political change unfolding in Jerusalem, they are signaling the U.S. alliance with Israel will remain strong in the post-Netanyahu era.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday during the visit of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, “Regardless of what happens, regardless of what government is in place, our stalwart support, our ironclad support for Israel will remain.”
But the fragile coalition government, with alternating prime ministers from the right and center, may likely be more deferential to Biden, lacking a strong right-wing leader secure in power and able to push back, according to several Israeli analysts. Bennett may be openly more right-wing than Netanyahu, but it will be difficult for him to control the political agenda and foreign policy like his predecessor did. Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party will command just seven seats in parliament, while Netanyahu’s Likud party dominated as the largest party, with at least four times as many seats.
In any case, the new Israeli government is expected to focus first on domestic issues. As it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, the priority will be boosting economic recovery, investing in infrastructure, and healing political divisions, which run deep enough to threaten the swift downfall of this so-called “change” government.
“The only common issue that all the potential partners for this government can agree upon is that they don’t want to see Netanyahu as prime minister. Without Netanyahu, this government won’t be formed,” said Assaf Shapira, the director of the Political Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, adding its success “depends mostly on the nature of the relations between the leaders and the parties — and the goodwill to work together.”
Bennett, a former tech entrepreneur, rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state and supports Israeli annexation of the West Bank. He’s positioned himself to the right of Netanyahu and served as the head of the council representing West Bank settlers before entering national politics.
Despite ultranationalist Bennett at the helm, liberals in Israel, the U.S., and around the world see progress in his government. For the first time in Israeli history, a small Arab Islamist party will be part of the ruling coalition. It’s a level of political cooperation — even integration — not seen before in the halls of power.
It was Benjamin Netanyahu who first courted the Arab Party Ra’am after needing their four seats following elections in March. After demonizing Arabs for his political gain back in 2015, Netanyahu’s about-face helped his opponents take the historic step to include them in the government. The Arab party will be part of a centrist-left bloc in the government, including Lapid’s large Yesh Atid party, that is expected to constrain any far-right steps against Palestinians in the West Bank.
That likely means there will be “no major leaps on Palestinian issues, but not lurches to right either,” according to David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Biden White House would welcome that, especially after facing a Mideast crisis so quickly in its term and showing deep hesitancy to get involved in the intractable, decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Liberal advocacy groups are already urging the administration to use what they say is stronger leverage over this new government to discourage building in the Israeli settlements, seek compromises with the Palestinians, and avoid inflaming tensions with evictions of Arab residents from East Jerusalem. An eviction order in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah helped spark the recent round of deadly fighting between Israel and Hamas. Israel’s high court will rule later this month on the Arab families’ appeal.
“While we have good reason to hope that it would be far more moderate and reasonable than its predecessor in many areas, we also cannot expect that it will act to end the intolerable, unjust and deteriorating status quo of endless occupation and recurring violence,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy organization in the U.S.
Some of the leaders in the new coalition have also been less vocal about their opposition to Biden’s diplomatic efforts to return to the Iran nuclear deal, including Gantz, the Blue and White party leader and Netanyahu’s defense minister — a position he will retain in the new government. That softer tone could give Biden needed political cover back in the U.S. if it lifts sanctions on Iran, but only if his administration continues to meet Israel’s security needs, too.
To that end, the U.S. military support for Israel will continue unabated, “including when it comes to replenishment of the Iron Dome. Nothing about that will change even if there is a change in government,” Price confirmed.
Some progressive Democrats, in contrast, have called for halting U.S. military assistance and called for Israel to be investigated for war crimes for its airstrikes in Gaza during its conflict with Hamas last month. But just this week, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers proposed a $1 billion defense package for Israel.
“The eyes and ears of America is Israel,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., standing next to Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday. “Nobody does more to protect America from radical Islam than our friends in Israel.”
While the conversation has shifted within the Democratic Party in Washington, restoring strong bipartisan support for Israel is one way Bennett’s government could diverge from Netanyahu, whose 2014 address to Congress to denounce Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran left scars. Guided by Netanyahu, Trump moved U.S. support for Israel further to the right, including determining that Israeli settlements were not inherently illegal and recognizing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as its capital.
In contrast, Lapid has spoken often about repairing ties with Democrats and restoring the bipartisan nature of support for Israel — and he would find a partner in that in Biden. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, Biden has been one of Israel’s longstanding supporters in Congress, working with every prime minister since Israel’s fourth Golda Meir.
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