Jun 1, 2022 - World

Biden administration's top priority on Israel is survival of Bennett coalition

Biden meets with Bennett at the White House on Aug. 27, 2021. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
Biden meets with Bennett at the White House on Aug. 27, 2021. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

As Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's unlikely government reaches the one-year mark this month, the Biden administration's main priority in its relations with Israel continues to be the coalition's survival.

Between the lines: U.S. officials won't say so that bluntly, but it's clear they prefer Bennett's broad coalition to the return of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the head of a radical right-wing government.

  • The White House has refrained almost entirely from publicly criticizing the Bennett government on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where it is politically vulnerable.
  • As months have passed and the Israeli government's fragility has grown, the administration has become even less critical.

Flashback: The diverse coalition came together last June in an explicit effort to keep Netanyahu out of power.

  • President Biden called Bennett to congratulate him just two hours after he was sworn in. After his own election, he waited a month to call Netanyahu, with whom he'd had difficult relations, dating back to the Obama administration.

State of play: Crises threaten to topple Bennett's coalition nearly every week — most recently the government's inability to renew a law regulating settlements in the occupied West Bank.

  • Some left-wing members of the coalition have reservations about the law, and the right-wing opposition — which broadly supports settlements — says it won't give Bennett the votes he needs to pass it.
  • Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who heads a right-wing party, has said the government won't survive if it can't pass the law.

Behind the scenes: In their communications with Washington, Bennett and his aides have often justified certain actions or inactions — particularly on the Palestinian issue — based on the fragility of the coalition.

  • That was the case when Israel objected to the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, announced new building permits in the West Bank settlements, and allowed the Israeli nationalist "flag march" to proceed last Sunday through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.
  • In all these cases, the Biden administration either kept its disagreements private or issued very weak statements. It has also avoided steps that could destabilize the coalition.

What they're saying: In several recent public events, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides explained the Biden administration’s approach.

  • At an Atlantic Council event in early May, Nides said, “I really respect this government. It’s working. I was anxious and thrilled working with them in a difficult situation. I am a big fan of this government, and we hope to continue working with them."
  • At a Carnegie Endowment event that same week, he noted the pressure Bennett's government was under and said, "I don’t envy Bennett. He is a friend of the U.S. and we are friends of his," adding, "We really like this government."
  • Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro tells me that while certain bilateral disagreements remain, Biden and his team appreciate the way Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid are conducting the relationship. “There is genuine admiration for the diversity this government represents," Shapiro says.

What’s next: U.S. officials say Biden's planned visit to Israel later this month will take place regardless of the domestic political situation in Israel.

  • "While he'll stay out of Israeli domestic politics, and has no illusions about U.S. influence over it, it doesn't hurt to have partners with whom he has such a good rapport," says Shapiro.
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