Dec 7, 2022 - World

Scoop: White House holds sensitive meeting on approach to new Israeli government

Itmar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich talk in the Knesset on Nov. 15. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Itamar Ben-Gvir (left) and Bezalel Smotrich talk in the Knesset on Nov. 15. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The White House held a high-level meeting last week to discuss its approach toward the new Israeli government and the possibility of not engaging with some of its ultranationalist ministers, two U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: It was the first such meeting since the Israeli elections took place on Nov. 1, and it was highly sensitive because Israel is one of the U.S.' closest allies.

Driving the news: The new Israeli government is set to include several far-right ministers, including Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich — two politicians known for their Jewish supremacist rhetoric.

  • A U.S. Congressional Research Service report updated not long after the Israeli elections said the rise of the ultranationalist Religious Zionism faction as a likely Netanyahu coalition partner “has triggered debate about the implications for Israel’s democracy, its ability to manage tensions with Arabs and Palestinians, and its relations with the United States and other countries."
  • Ben-Gvir and Smotrich “openly support policies to favor Israel’s Jewish citizens over its Arab citizens and annex the West Bank," the report added.

Behind the scenes: The forum of U.S. officials that convened last week, known as the White House National Security Council "deputies committee," includes senior officials from the relevant government agencies, the U.S. officials said.

  • Among the issues discussed were guidelines for engagement with the new government, especially its far-right ministers, according to the two U.S. officials.
  • While no decisions have been made, U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides hinted this week that the Biden administration may not engage directly with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.
  • In an interview with the Israeli army radio on Monday, Nides was asked several times whether he or other Biden administration officials would work with the two far-right politicians. He answered by saying: "We are going to work with Prime Minister Netanyahu."

What they're saying: A White House spokesperson said they don't comment on internal discussions and pointed Axios to Secretary of State Tony Blinken's speech at the J Street conference on Sunday.

  • In that speech to the U.S. liberal advocacy group, Blinken said the Biden administration will deal with the new Israeli government according to its policy and not according to individual personalities.
  • Another issue that was discussed at the White House meeting was which core interests and demands regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, human rights and rule of law the U.S. needs to focus on in its engagement with the new Israeli government, U.S. officials said.
  • In his speech, Blinken articulated some of those issues when he focused on minority and LGBTQ rights in Israel and mentioned U.S. concern about settler violence against Palestinians. He also stressed the need for equal justice under the law.
  • Blinken also said the U.S. opposes steps that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, like settlement expansion, moves toward annexation of the West Bank, disruption to the historic status quo at holy sites, and demolitions of Palestinian homes.

Between the lines: According to the U.S. officials, Nides has been urging the White House and the State Department to take a more nuanced and careful approach toward the new government and not to rush with public criticism or action against the government.

The other side: The U.S. officials said Israeli ambassador to Washington Mike Herzog lobbied White House and State Department officials over the last two weeks not to rush into setting a policy and not to take a hard line toward the new Israeli government.

  • Herzog declined to comment, but in a meeting with students in Washington last week, he said the new government "should not be defined by the more extreme edges of the body politic in Israel."

What’s next: U.S. officials said no decisions were made in the White House meeting and the issue is expected to be discussed in the coming weeks, including with President Biden.

Go deeper: The rise of Israel's extreme right

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