Biden faces a dilemma for Israel with the new Netanyahu administration

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WASHINGTON (TBEN) — The new administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is just over a week old, but it is already giving the Biden administration headaches.

Just days into his mandate, a controversial member of Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet wrong-footed US diplomats with a visit to a holy site in Jerusalem, which some believe could herald other controversial moves, including massive expansions of the construction of Jewish settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians. .

And Netanyahu’s administration adopted punitive measures against the Palestinians in direct contradiction to several of Biden’s recent initiatives to strengthen US-Palestine relations, including restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority that had been halted during the administration’s Trump and allowing Palestinian officials to visit the United States. States.

The new administration is an unwelcome complication for a Biden national security team seeking to shift focus from the Middle East to rivals like China and Russia. It also comes as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and are eager to portray Biden as unfriendly to Israel ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Preparing for more turmoil, Biden sends his national security adviser to Israel in mid-January in an effort to prevent potentially deeper rifts between his administration and its main partner in the Middle East. That visit by Jake Sullivan could be followed by other high-level trips to Israel, including one from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, government officials said.

Their message goes beyond warnings about fueling tensions with Palestinians: it is also about not befriending Russia, especially as Moscow relies on Israel’s main enemy, Iran, in its war against Ukraine; and not upset the delicate security balance in the Middle East.

Since Netanyahu won hotly contested elections last year with huge support from the Israeli right, US officials have tried to suppress predictions of a collision course by saying they will judge his government by actions rather than personalities. Biden himself spoke about his longstanding relationship with Netanyahu.

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“I look forward to working with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been my friend for decades, to jointly address the many challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East, including threats from Iran,” Biden said at the time. Netanyahu took office on December 29. .

But while Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for years, they are not close. Biden and former Obama administration officials who now work for Biden still hold a grudge against the prime minister who, during his previous iteration as Israel’s leader, attempted to derail their signature foreign policy achievement: the Iran nuclear deal.

Still, the government is signaling that it will engage with Netanyahu and avoid more extreme members of his government. That approach would not be unprecedented in the region: The US is dealing with the Lebanese government while eschewing members of the Hezbollah movement, a designated foreign terrorist organization that is nonetheless a domestic political force. But it would be remarkable if the US took a similar approach with such a close ally.

“We will deal directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” said Ned Price, a foreign ministry spokesman, this week when asked about possible contacts with Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s, whose visit to the site which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary caused a great outcry.

The inclusion of Ben-Gvir, a leader of the West Bank settlers, and other far-right figures in Netanyahu’s government who are hostile to the Palestinians and opposed to a two-state resolution has sent Israel and the United States on opposing paths .

On Thursday, at an emergency Security Council meeting called by Arab states to condemn Ben-Gvir’s visit to the holy site, Deputy US Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood underscored Biden’s strong support for “the historic status quo.” , especially the “Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount.”

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Wood noted that Netanyahu had pledged to maintain the status quo — “We expect the government of Israel to honor that commitment,” he said — and emphasized that the government prioritized preserving the possibility of a two-state solution.

But on Friday, Netanyahu’s security cabinet approved a series of punitive measures against Palestinian leaders in retaliation for Palestinians prompting the UN’s highest judicial body to issue an opinion on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Those steps underlined the crackdown on Palestinians promised by Netanyahu’s government at a time of escalating violence in the occupied territories.

The security cabinet decided to withhold millions of dollars from the Palestinian Authority and transfer those funds to a compensation program for the families of Israeli victims of Palestinian militant attacks. And it will deny benefits, including travel permits, to Palestinian officials who “lead the political and legal war against Israel.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is moving in a diametrically opposite direction. Since taking office, the administration has reversed the Trump ban on aid and provided more than $800 million in economic, development, security and other aid to the Palestinians and the UN Agency for Palestine Refugees.

In the fall, the State Department received an advisory from the Justice Department that would allow Palestinian officials to visit the United States and spend money in the US, despite laws prohibiting such travel and transactions and a Supreme Court ruling that it Congress plays an enforceable role in the foreign policy process.

The administration “may reasonably estimate that preventing the PLO delegation from receiving Washington would seriously harm the president’s diplomatic efforts,” the Justice Department said in a little-noticed Oct. 28 advisory.

Then, just a week before Netanyahu took office in late December, the State Department imposed terror sanctions on the Palestinian leadership, but immediately waived sanctions against the Palestinian leadership, citing involvement with the Palestinians as a critical US national security interest.

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On Dec. 22, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman informed Congress that she had imposed travel bans on senior leaders of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization for “not complying” with requirements to suppress and publicly condemn terrorist attacks against Israelis. .

But in the same notice, the State Department said Sherman had waived the travel bans “on the basis of its determination that such waiver is in the national security interest of the United States.”

“A lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains a long-standing goal of US foreign policy,” the department said. “A blanket denial of visas to PLO members and PA officials, including those traveling to the United States to further American causes and objectives, is inconsistent with the US government’s willingness to cooperate with the PLO and PA leadership.”

Despite an annual aid package of more than $3 billion to Israel and diplomatic support in international forums, US influence over Netanyahu seems limited.

The Biden administration has not yet fulfilled its promise to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which has historically been the main point of contact with the Palestinians, and has taken no steps to reopen the Palestinian embassy in Washington. Both facilities were closed during the Trump administration.

Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, said further US rapprochement with the Palestinians is the only way to influence Netanyahu. “If they really want to put pressure (on Israel), Biden should say tomorrow that we will consider reopening the Palestinian Embassy in Washington in the coming months. Then they’ll see the earth shake here,” Liel said.

“But there’s no sign of that,” he said. “As long as they say, ‘We are concerned about your democracy,’ those words have no meaning because there were so many words. There is nothing behind the words.”

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Laurie Kellman contributed from Jerusalem.