Another foreign policy headache for Biden as Israel forms its right-wing government yet

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, far-right Israeli lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich and leaders of all Israeli political parties pose for a group photo after the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, May 15 November 2022. Israeli lawmakers were sworn in in the Knesset on Tuesday, following national elections earlier this month.  (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, far-right Israeli lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich and leaders of all of Israel’s political parties pose for a group photo after the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Nov. 15. (Tsafrir Abayov / Associated Press)

The Biden administration is grappling with how to deal with a new Israeli government that will be the most right-wing administration in that country’s history and that could stand in the way of the US’s core goals for the Middle East.

The new government will be led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who was removed from office just a year ago and is on trial for corruption. To regain the position, Netanyahu formed an alliance with controversial political figures known for their extreme anti-Arab views, likely to doom any peace deal with Palestinians.

Dealing with the Netanyahu-led government will be a major challenge for the Biden administration, which wants a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wider acceptance of Israel in the Arab world.

Republicans in the US eager to present themselves as true friends of Israel will certainly question any criticism of the new administration from the Biden administration.

Netanyahu and the GOP have grown closer over the past decade, undermining decades of bipartisan support for Israel.

In 2015, Netanyahu, who was invited by Republicans in Congress to address a joint session of Congress, used the speech to criticize President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Former President Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, much to Netanyahu’s delight. Just this week, Netanyahu gave a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, a partisan group.

Netanyahu and President Biden have both said that US support for Israel should remain bipartisan.

However, Netanyahu’s new allies may make that difficult. Some US officials have already indicated privately that they will not meet Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezazel Smotrich, two likely members of Netanyahu’s government.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich advocate recognition of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, where most Palestinians live, and eventually annexation of most or all of the area. They are against a separate Palestinian state. Netanyahu needs their support to gain a majority in Israel’s Knesset, or parliament. Their support could also help him pass a law that would allow him to evade his corruption trial.

The two men have also called for a much tougher crackdown on Palestinian militants and their supporters, including strict curfews in Palestinian villages, mass deportations and targeted killings of terrorism suspects. They have advocated making it easier for Israeli security forces to use live ammunition against stone-throwing Palestinian protesters.

Ben-Gvir has also expressed an affinity for the late ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose ideology has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as reflecting “racism, violence and political extremism” and whose organization has until recently been classified by the US as a terrorist group. was designated. government.

For years, Ben-Gvir had a poster of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American terrorist and Kahane disciple who, according to Israeli media, killed 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron in 1994, hanging in his home. In 2007, an Israeli court convicted Ben-Gvir of inciting racial violence and supporting a terrorist organization.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich want to head the ministries of public security and defense, respectively, portfolios that have the closest contact with US officials. On Friday, Netanyahu’s Likud party and Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party announced an agreement for Ben-Gvir to become security minister.

“This country is a democracy that has elected a leadership and I intend to work with them,” US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides said in an interview with Israeli media, quickly adding: “That having said, we have to stand up for the things we believe in, that’s what American values ​​are about. We have a very strong ally in the State of Israel, but there will be times when we will articulate where our differences are.”

Nides and other US officials have stated that the two countries disagree over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and possible annexation of the area.

“The government will have to decide what the real redlines are,” said Michael Koplow, a senior analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, a US-based pro-Israel organization that advocates for the two-state solution. “This will test US borders on all fronts.”

Negotiations to form the government are ongoing and could take days or even weeks. A fair amount of horse-trading is part of the process, so it remains unclear which politicians will fill which posts. According to Israeli media, Netanyahu offered Smotrich the Ministry of Finance instead of Defense, but Smotrich has so far given no indication that he will accede to his initial demand.

“We provide nearly $4 billion a year to the Department of Defense … and do we want to put our money in the hands of these guys?” said Daniel Kurtzer, the former US ambassador to Israel who now teaches at Princeton University. “I would say no.”

Netanyahu would consider Ron Dermer as his foreign minister. Dermer served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2013 and through the Trump administration, with whom he was a close friend. He arranged Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015. Dermer’s nomination would be an “eye to eye” for Biden, Kurtzer said.

Republicans continue to eagerly criticize anything but the Biden administration’s unqualified support for Israel. After the Israeli government revealed that the US Justice Department was investigating the May murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh near the West Bank town of Jenin, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) Atty . General Merrick Garland and “everyone involved in this debacle” will be “fired or impeached”.

Multiple investigations by independent human rights and journalistic organizations have concluded that an Israeli soldier likely fired the shot that killed the veteran journalist. Israel eventually acknowledged that one of its soldiers was likely responsible. No one is disciplined.

If the new Israeli government decides to try to annex the West Bank, it would jeopardize the Abraham Accords, a deal brokered under the Trump administration that opened business and some diplomatic ties between Israel and several Persian Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates. who had previously refused to recognize Israel’s existence.

The UAE’s entry into the agreement was based on Netanyahu, in his previous stint as prime minister, abandoning plans to annex West Bank territory.

“If they go too far, it will hinder any movement forward” in regional relations, said Aaron David Miller, a former US envoy to the Middle East who is now affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Miller thinks Biden and Netanyahu will try to avoid open conflict to secure their own domestic and global positions: “Biden wants to avoid a public wrestling match with Netanyahu,” Miller said, while Netanyahu “craves the international stage and plans on it” to show off.” .”

Publicly, U.S. officials remain cautious and say they want to see what kind of government Netanyahu will eventually form, reiterating their “ironclad” commitment to Israel while emphasizing American “values” that freedom and prosperity “in equal measure.” mate” for Israelis and Palestinians.

“The administration is right to be concerned … and telegraph these concerns,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. He is one of many Democratic lawmakers who are strong supporters of Israel but have raised the alarm about potential members of the new administration. These include New Jersey Senator Bob Melendez, who chairs the committee, and California Representative Brad Sherman (D-Northridge).

But Ben-Gvir further alienated Biden administration officials by walking a lap of election victory at a memorial service for Kahane, who was killed more than 30 years ago.

“Celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organization is abhorrent — there’s no other word for it,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in unusually strong words. “We remain concerned about Kahane’s legacy and the continued use of rhetoric among violent right-wing extremists,” he said.

Ben-Gvir has reached an agreement with Netanyahu that will allow him to vastly expand police powers and remove agents from scrutiny by other judicial authorities.

The naming of a person convicted of terrorism-related charges as head of the Israel National Police has alarmed many Israelis.

“It means the police will be politicized to favor the far right,” the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in an editorial this week. “Those who are supposed to protect democracy have become soldiers in the service of politicians. That’s what happens when those accused and convicted of crimes take control of the institutions charged with maintaining law and order.”

The prospect of a Ben-Gvir-led police force has also alarmed American supporters of Israel. Ben-Gvir “has promised a crackdown on terrorism and more police and border security,” Yulia Shalomov, a staff member of the US-based Atlantic Council think tank, said in a recent web appearance. His party “has consistently fueled domestic ethnic and societal tensions,” she said.

Netanyahu’s right-wing partners will also push for other legislation that would not only affect Palestinians and Arabs. They have threatened to criminalize homosexuality and to deny non-Orthodox Jews Israeli citizenship. Many US-born Jews are members of more progressive branches of the faith, such as Reform or Conservative Judaism, and may not be able to obtain Israeli citizenship under the proposed laws.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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