President Joe Biden had his first call with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, this week, but he has yet to call Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. How do we know this? Because Israel’s ambassador to the UN on Wednesday decided it was a good idea to tweet the presidential snub for all the world to see.
Geopolitical boorishness over Twitter is an oddly Trumpian manoeuvre in the nascent Biden era. But it was in keeping with the Israeli government’s tin-eared approach to American politics over the past decade, something that has eroded the Jewish state’s bipartisan support it once enjoyed in Washington.
Biden’s back-of-the-queue treatment appears deliberate, given the other close US allies who have already had presidential phone calls. But if Israel is feeling snubbed, it only has itself to blame. Other than the Kremlin, it’s hard to think of a government, friend or foe, who made a more overt attempt to influence domestic American politics than Netanyahu’s Israel — and such interventions have all been to help Republicans.
The effort dates back to the 2012 presidential race, when Netanyahu came close to openly campaigning for Barack Obama’s re-election rival, Mitt Romney. In the waning days of the campaign, Netanyahu appeared on the US Sunday talk shows to badmouth Obama’s Iran policy, and issued tongue lashings at press conferences — in English — that were then cut into attack ads by Romney partisans.
The political offensive, this time on American soil, escalated in Obama’s second term, including Netanyahu’s high-profile appearance at a joint session of Congress, made at the invitation of congressional Republicans over the objections of the White House. After Obama left the White House, it emerged that an Israeli private security group that employs former Mossad agents was engaged during Obama’s second term to gather dirt on senior administration officials, in what could only be viewed as a nefarious effort to undermine a sitting US government.
Shortly after the allegations were made public, I asked one of the Obama national security aides targeted by the dirt digging whether he believed the Israeli government knew about the dirty tricks campaign. “There is no such thing as a former Mossad agent,” he told me.
My question for you, Rana, is whether I’m being too hard on the Israelis? After all, allies spy on each other with regularity, and they often work doggedly to confound policies they object to. And there are formal and informal ties between centre-right parties across western democracies, making a Likudnik like Netanyahu a natural ally for Republicans.
There are also national security imperatives involved that probably should supersede partisan pettiness, particularly the ongoing thaw between the Arab monarchies and the Israeli government. As Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George HW Bush, once told me early in the Obama administration when I asked about the president’s Middle East negotiating tactics: “Every president will have to pick a fight with Israel. But it’s better to pick it at the end of the process rather than at the beginning.”
Still, I believe Netanyahu’s behaviour is such an outlier that there needs to be consequences. Can you think of another national leader from a close American ally who would believe it appropriate to so blatantly insert himself into domestic US politics? Would Justin Trudeau appear on Meet the Press in the heat of a presidential campaign? Would Boris Johnson go to Capitol Hill over a president’s objections? Would Yoshihide Suga attack a sitting president in English during a Tokyo press conference?
Netanyahu may have ultimately got what he wanted. A pliable Trump administration pulled the US out of the Obama-brokered Iran nuclear deal, moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and engaged in a shooting war with Tehran.
But the price has been a significant deterioration of support for Israel among Democrats — without any deterioration in Democratic support among American Jews, who voted overwhelmingly for Biden (and Obama before him). Before Netanyahu, the primary foreign policy goal of Israeli prime ministers (and AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, which increasingly looks like a political arm of Likud rather than an advocate for Israeli interests) was to ensure both US parties backed the small democracy in a region filled with dictators and autocrats.
But when an Israeli prime minister so aggressively allies himself with your political opposition, and intentionally conflates the interests of Likud with the interests of Israel, how are Democrats supposed to respond? Biden should make clear that there are more Israeli voices than Likud’s by engaging opposition leaders and more moderate US-based lobbying groups, which have struggled under AIPAC’s hegemony. He should also treat Netanyahu as one of multiple inputs as he rethinks Iran policy, not primus inter pares.
Netanyahu’s overt partisanship has been damaging for Israeli interests in Washington. In the long run, that means it is also bad for Israel’s security in a dangerous neighbourhood.
Edward Luce is on book leave and will return in mid-March.
Peter, I’ll make this response brief since Israel is not my area of expertise. I don’t think you are being too tough; it’s hard to see what the Israeli government could get out of this approach at the moment. Also, if Biden’s climate plans take shape, I’m betting that America’s interest in the Middle East and north Africa will shift and make stronger relations with Israel less a priority than they have been in the past. Certainly, it seems there will be a reset of tone in relation to Iran. All of this makes me think Netanyahu has very little leverage with this administration and a lot to lose.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Social unrest and pandemics: another coming plague?’:“I have been struck at how little thought leaders (other than the Gates’), press, and politicians have focused on (a) the need to further reform or improve US healthcare, and (b) how much worse off we’d be without Obamacare. I understand the need for action on climate change, racial justice, shoring-up our battered democracy, etc, but it’s exasperating that even in a pandemic our country may not have the political will to do more to improve healthcare and leverage its role in reducing our scourge of inequality. If not now, when? — Rick Solway, New York, New York
In response to ‘Biden’s bipartisanship at the crossroads’:“Blame the Congressional Reorganization Act of 1970. First, as many have repeatedly pointed out, the proximate cause is rampant inequality and the concomitant sense that America is broken and along with it, the American dream. According to sociology professor Arlie Hochschild, this is what fuels the culture wars between left and right. Then, at the root of the inequality, as laid out in Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American dream? lies the control of the legislative agenda by big-money corporate interests. That control, in turn, stems from The Congressional Reorganization Act of 1970 — at least, according to an article in the May/June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, ‘The Dark Side of Sunlight’ by James D’Angelo and Brent Ranalli.” — Walter Gingery