With Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory, what the White House feared has turned into reality: the Religious Zionism Party—often labelled far-right—is certain to be in the government, and since it has performed even better than expected, its leaders could be contenders for serious ministerial positions. How are US–Israel relations likely to change in the coming years with parties in the Netanyahu cabinet that are considered to be ‘far-right extremists’ by the US?
Almost four years of political stalemate could end after the right-wing-religious coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu won a majority in the 1 November elections (the fifth in three and a half years). Netanyahu, already the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, could return to lead a right-wing coalition in which his party, Likud, appears closest to the political centre. One of the parties in the potential governing coalition, Religious Zionism and its two leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, often described as far-right extremists, have already attracted considerable media attention and gave rise to serious concerns during the campaign. However, Netanyahu needed the Religious Zionism party, without which he would not have been able to pass the 61-seat Knesset threshold.
The United States has sent a message to Netanyahu through several channels that the inclusion of radicals in the government could have a negative effect on US-Israel bilateral relations. One of the most significant such warnings came from US Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) during a trip to Israel in September. Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, warned Israeli then-opposition leader Netanyahu that if he forms a government that includes right-wing extremists, it could harm U.S.-Israel bilateral relations.
In the Foreign Policy magazine, Aaron Davis Miller has examined the potential impact of the new Netanyahu government—the ‘coalition from hell’ as he put it—on US-Israeli relations.
According to Mr Miller, the evolution of bilateral relations may also depend on the ministerial positions that extremists will be given in the new government and how they will push policies that could easily provoke condemnation from the White House. This could include changing the status quo on the Temple Mount, supporting the building of new Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria or curtailing the rights of the Arab population in Israel. It should be noted, however, that
neither Joe Biden nor Benjamin Netanyahu is interested in a deterioration of bilateral relations.
‘Biden isn’t former U.S. President Barack Obama. That’s important to note, as the biggest tensions with Netanyahu occurred during Obama’s presidency’
Mr Miller considers President Biden an explicitly pro-Israel politician, who has learned from the mistakes made by the Obama administration. The former POTUS’ approach to Iran and the Palestinians was harshly criticized by Jerusalem. But these issues, considered a red line in Israel, do not seem to be Biden’s priorities at the moment with Russia’s war in Ukraine and an ever more competitive China. However, Biden recognizes that Netanyahu is ‘part of the complex puzzle that is Israel and that Netanyahu is likely to remain a part of it.’
Netanyahu also has no intention of confronting the US president, notes Miller, because to be able return to international politics as a statesman and world leader, Netanyahu needs Washington’s goodwill and constructive bilateral relations.
The Israeli prime minister is also likely to avoid provocative policies in the West Bank,
a major military operation against Hamas in Gaza, and escalating the situation with Hezbollah in Lebanon. This attitude will also help Netanyahu to expand the Abraham Accords—or at least to maintain good relations with the current signatories.
Netanyahu will also seek to avoid open concessions to Joe Biden as he is likely to be tied up with domestic political events, keeping the cohesion of his coalition and the ongoing lawsuits against him.
To compensate for the extremists’ entry into government, Netanyahu could even revise Israel’s Ukraine policy, thus winning Washington’s approval—although this scenario is unlikely according to Miller since it could jeopardize Israel’s room for manoeuvre in Syria, a country enabled by Russia. But he also notes that making common cause with the United States on Ukraine and on Iran shipping drones to Russia would be smart politics to earn a positive attitude from the Biden administration.
Much will depend on how Netanyahu can contain the extremists he has invited into the government and what ministerial positions he gives to them. This could have a major impact not only on Washington’s attitude towards Israel but also on that of the international community.
But it is already visible that common values that have bound the two countries together for decades are changing,
and the bipartisan support that is essential for a constructive US–Israeli relationship is eroding as the Israel issue seems to be becoming a partisan issue in the US.
The author also underlines that if the image of Israel as a peace-seeking nation committed to democratic, pluralistic values changes in the eyes of the American people, the perception of the special nature of the US–Israeli relationship will also change. ‘Sadly, that change seems well underway,’ Miller concludes.