Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, victor in its fifth national election in four years, is forming his seventh government (surpassed there only by David Ben-Gurion). Netanyahu’s coalition won a clear Knesset majority (by Israeli standards), 64 seats out of 120, but few recent governments have emerged easily. This new one is no exception, but the current tumult over Cabinet positions should not distract outside observers or Israeli politicians from what will follow thereafter.
For whatever is the duration of Netanyahu’s new government, and whatever the allocation of Cabinet positions, the critical reality is that Israeli national-security policy will rest essentially in his hands. He has firm, long-standing views on critical issues which will inevitably, and probably quickly, bring him into sharp conflict with President Joe Biden, both men’s emollient assurances to the contrary notwithstanding. How Washington responds to Jerusalem’s new government could materially affect Biden’s own foreign-policy legacy over what could be his last two years in office.
Even before then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned against an Iranian “nuclear Holocaust,” Netanyahu grasped that Tehran’s nuclear weapons were the existential threat facing Israel. In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “[W]e will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory. If regime change prevails in Iran and the new leaders understand that seeking nuclear weapons endangers Iran’s security, the need to destroy the nuclear program will diminish substantially, perhaps totally. And the likelihood of a post-ayatollahs’ regime supporting international terrorism is highly remote.
Obtaining full Israeli diplomatic recognition across the Arab world constitutes a closely related Netanyahu priority. Iran’s nuclear, conventional, and terrorist threats reordered the priorities of all the other regional governments in ways the Administration has yet to grasp. These tectonic shifts in the Middle East’s geostrategic alignments engendered the Abraham Accords, normalizing Israel’s relations with four Arab states.
Ironically, Israel under Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia will be more closely aligned strategically than today either is with Washington. Even if Riyadh and Jerusalem do not achieve full diplomatic relations in the immediate future, widespread cooperation against the common Iranian threat is certain. Given Biden’s dim view of the Saudis (and other oil-producing and therefore climate-despoiling Arab monarchies), such politico-military teamwork, especially if it facilitates miliary action against Tehran, won’t improve US-Israeli relations any time soon.
The Abraham Accords demonstrate that the Palestinian issue has tacitly become a second-tier matter, particularly for the Gulf Arabs, which is hardly Biden’s view, and a major reason he shuns the Abraham Accords. Instead, his eagerness to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal is mirrored by his desire to resurrect the long-dormant “Middle East peace process,” and a “two-state solution,” for the Palestinians.
Even under the now-fallen Bennett-Lapid government (whose settlements policy was not far distant from Netanyahu’s), the Administration has repeatedly warned against any attempted Israeli annexation of the West Bank, and criticized Israeli settlement policy in that disputed territory. Controversies over the handling of the Temple Mount cannot be far behind, especially given the major role in Netanyahu’s coalition of decidedly pro-settler parties. The underlying Washington-Jerusalem divergence on the very legitimacy of a “two-state solution” promises nothing but controversy.
One issue on the front burner right now is the report that America’s Department of Justice will conduct an unprecedented investigation of the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on the West Bank. In the hard-to-believe category, the White House and State Department quickly denied any knowledge of the investigation, and Justice and the FBI declined to comment. To justify jurisdiction for the probe, officials have quietly pointed to statutory authority regarding crimes committed against Americans overseas by terrorists(), but that authority is dubious in Abu Akleh’s circumstances. In any case, Israel will flatly not cooperate. This is the sort of spark that can inflame any bilateral relationship, but especially an already sensitive one.
To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs”, that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden Administration.
There are many other easily foreseeable potential flashpoints. Under its previous government, for example, Israel was widely criticized for decidedly underwhelming support for Ukraine, largely attributed to the need to mollify Moscow so Israeli strikes against Iranian and other terrorist forces in Syria could proceed unimpeded. And, during the recent campaign, Netanyahu called a deal to delineate the Israeli-Lebanon maritime border, thus enabling exploitation of undersea natural-gas fields, a “historic surrender”. There are more, such as the West’s tenuous relationship with Turkey, and how it might affect Israel. Netanyahu has yet to make many critical decisions, to which Biden’s responses are equally unknown.
Some say Biden and Netanyahu need each other politically, albeit for decidedly different reasons, so there is little to worry about. That is not what history teaches. And Netanyahu is likely a man in a hurry. Biden may be as well, writing a prescription for contentiousness.
Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.
Note: This piece has been updated to fix a small lettering mistake.