Heading off a potentially embarrassing crisis of confidence between the Biden administration and the Israeli government, President Biden reversed course this week and issued an open invitation for the Israeli prime minister to visit with him for the first time since Binyomin Netanyahu took power again after he and his coalition partners won last November’s Knesset election. Biden issued the invitation during what Netanyahu’s office described as a “warm and long” phone call on Monday, the day before Israel’s president, Yitzchak Herzog, was to arrive in Washington to meet with Biden in the Oval Office, and then address a joint session of Congress the next day.
The Israeli opposition to Netanyahu’s coalition had pointed to Herzog’s high-profile visit to the Oval Office, while Netanyahu was humiliated by being left waiting for an invitation, as an indication of Biden’s strong support for the weekly protests against the government’s proposals to limit the wide-ranging authority and weaken the unchecked political power of Israel’s liberal Supreme Court.
The timing of Netanyahu’s visit has not been announced, and it was not certain that he would meet with Biden at the White House. The New York Times reported that White House officials had warned that “the prospect of a face-to-face meeting should not be interpreted as Mr. Biden’s abandoning his objections to some of the Israeli leader’s hard-line positions.”
Similarly, John Kirby, the veteran spokesman for Biden’s National Security Council, cautioned White House reporters that, “You shouldn’t take away from the fact that they [Biden and Netanyahu] had a conversation today and that they will meet again, that we have less concerns over these judicial reforms or less concerns over some of the extremist activities and behavior by some members of the Netanyahu cabinet. Those concerns are still valid.”
The strong attitude of White House ambivalence towards Netanyahu is not a new phenomenon. He had also suffered from rocky interactions with the president during his prior visits as prime minister to the Obama White House.
BIDEN STILL HOPING TO REVIVE THE TWO-STATE SOLUTION
Biden has also been highly critical of the recent approval by the Netanyahu government for the construction of thousands of new Jewish homes across the West Bank, and the coalition’s retroactive legalization of several West Bank settlements that had been built without government approval. The Biden White House sees these developments as further obstacles to its hopes to revive the long moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process leading to the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Biden administration has been particularly upset by the comments of Netanyahu’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich. He is the chairman of the Religious Zionist party which opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and favors Israel’s annexation of the entire West Bank because, as Smotrich says, “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”
On the other hand, Netanyahu’s supporters, such as Amichai Chikli, the minister for diaspora affairs, has claimed that Biden’s criticisms of the government’s policies were “prearranged and orchestrated by the Israeli opposition. Chikli created a furor when he told Biden’s U.S. ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, to “mind your own business” after the diplomat publicly suggested earlier this month that Netanyahu “tap the breaks” to slow down passage of the judicial reform proposal and make another “try to get a consensus” on the controversial issue.
NETANYAHU PUSHING FOR KNESSET APPROVAL OF JUDICIAL REFORMS
After a lull in the weekly opposition protests during the late spring and early summer, as President Herzog tried to negotiate a compromise on judicial reform that both the coalition and the opposition could accept, Netanyahu announced that he would resume his efforts to get the Knesset to pass a modified portion of the reforms before it adjourns for the rest of the summer at the end of July.
Netanyahu said during an interview with the Wall Street Journal late last month that he had removed one of the most controversial aspects of the original judicial reform proposal which would have permitted the Knesset to override any Supreme Court decision with a simple majority vote. “It’s out,” Netanyahu declared, and then explained that he had made the change without consulting his coalition partners, because “I’m attentive to the public pulse, and to what I think will pass muster. . . [and which would] stick for a generation.” Some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party expressed opposition to his unilateral decision to remove the override clause.
Netanyahu said that he decided to resume the effort to get the Knesset to pass his modified version of the judicial reforms because opposition leaders had proven to be unable to conduct meaningful negotiations on a compromise in the talks under President Herzog’s auspices. The prime minister said that opposition leaders had even rejected some of their own previous judicial reform proposals.
During the same interview, Netanyahu said that he was confident that Israel’s relationship with the U.S. remains strong, and expressed his confidence that, “of course, I should expect to meet President Biden,” even though it may take some time for the invitation to be issued.
The prime minister also said that, “This issue of the invitation clouds people’s views. In fact, the security cooperation, the military cooperation and the intel cooperation, including cyber, is stronger than it’s ever been under our two governments.”
WHAT DOES BIDEN HAVE AGAINST NETANYAHU?
Meanwhile, as the 2024 presidential campaign appeared increasingly likely to become a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, an editorial appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week which raises a question that must be troubling many traditionally Democrat-leaning Jewish voters, as well as non-Jewish supporters of Israel: “What Does Biden Have Against Israel?”
Specifically, the editorial asks, “Why does President Biden go out of his way to snub, criticize and give marching orders to the government of Israel? At least rhetorically, the President and his Administration treat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his governing coalition worse than they do the ruling mullahs in Iran.”
The editorial then lays out the ample evidence supporting its premise, including Biden’s public refusal again last week “in gratuitous public fashion,” to invite the Israeli prime minister to meet with him at the White House, which Netanyahu has been waiting for, with growing impatience, for the eight months since he regained that title.
In addition, Biden had instructed Ambassador Nides to declare in public “that the U.S. must speak up to stop Israel from ‘going off the rails’” due to the influence of Netanyahu’s right wing coalition partners, and their intentions to keep the campaign promise they made to Israeli voters to reform and limit the extraordinary powers of the Israeli Supreme Court by making it more accountable to Israel’s duly-elected government officials.
BIDEN’S INTERFERENCE WITH ISRAEL’S DEMOCRACY
The editors of the Wall Street Journal also noted that, “when Mr. Netanyahu was most vulnerable, in late March, Mr. Biden needlessly decreed that Israel “cannot continue down this road” on judicial reform. The Prime Minister had already changed course and agreed to moderate the reforms—a domestic Israeli affair in which the U.S. President has no business. . .
“The effect of this piling on is for Israelis to see that the U.S. sides with their opposition parties. This is no way to treat a democratic ally and no way to pursue U.S. interests. . .
“The President’s Israel policy has been counterproductive. U.S. aid to anti-Israel international bodies has resumed, and all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is treated [by the Biden administration] as ‘occupied territory,’” the editorial observed.
BIDEN STICKING WITH AN OBSOLETE MIDDLE EAST POLICY
During Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, it was clear that if elected he would bring with him to the White House the same foreign policy advisers he worked with during the Obama administration and who share Biden’s commitment to the failed two-state solution peace strategy.
Upon becoming president, Biden followed his consistent pattern of public support for Israel in general terms, accompanied by harsh criticism in private of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians in general, and the West Bank in particular. That became apparent less than four months after he took office, during Israel’s response to the missile attacks launched by terrorists in Gaza starting on May 10, 2021.
For eight days, while 95% of the Hamas rockets threatening Israeli civilian targets were being intercepted by the Iron Dome system, Israeli airstrikes pounded Gaza in response. During that period, President Biden resisted the mounting calls from some congressional Democrats and U.N. Security Council members to more forcefully pressure Israel to declare a cease-fire.
On May 13, in a phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Biden said that “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.” But during their fourth phone conversation, which took place on May 19, Biden changed his mind and gave Netanyahu an ultimatum, saying that he expected a “significant de-escalation” by day’s end to create a path to a cease-fire, according to a White House summary of the phone call. A cease fire brokered by Egypt, Qatar and the U.N. ended the fighting less than two days later on May 21.
There was a smaller scale outbreak of missile attacks during May of this year launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists in Gaza in retaliation for Israeli airstrikes which deliberately targeted and killed six of the movement’s leaders. The violence had been triggered by the death of one of the terrorist group’s leaders while being held in an Israeli prison following his 87-day hunger strike. That fighting was ended after four days by a cease fire brokered by Egypt, without any U.S. intervention.
UNDERMINING ISRAEL’S ELECTED GOVERNMENT
But the Biden administration has not been ignoring Israel. On the contrary, ever since Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition allies secured a stable Knesset majority in last November’s election, the Biden administration has been quietly supporting the efforts of the liberal opposition parties to undermine the new government and challenge its legitimacy by organizing weekly public demonstrations against the coalition’s proposed reforms limiting the unusually broad powers of the liberal-dominated Israeli Supreme Court.
At the same time, President Biden and his administration have taken every opportunity to express their disapproval of the right-wing policies of new Israeli government, while Biden delayed for as long as he could sending Netanyahu an invitation to make the traditional visit by every newly installed Israeli prime minister to meet with the president.
President Biden first took the opposition’s side on Israel’s judicial reform issue in February, when he told the New York Times, “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
In March, Biden continued his criticism of Netanyahu’s government by saying that he was “very concerned” about its stated intentions to use its Knesset majority to pass the judicial reforms immediately, over the vehement objections of the opposition. Biden then added that, “They [Netanyahu’s government] cannot continue down this road.” The president also then said publicly for the first time that he would not be inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to visit the White House “in the near term.”
AN UNFLUSTERED NETANYAHU STILL EXPRESSING CONFIDENCE
When asked at that time about Biden’s refusal to invite him to the White House, Netanyahu tried to brush it off, saying that, “The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us.” The prime minister also stressed that “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”
While still claiming to be Israel’s best friend, during a televised interview with CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria last week, President Biden again harshly criticized Israel’s government. He called upon Netanyahu to rein in his cabinet members whose parties were duly elected last November on the basis of campaign promises to vigorously expand Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Biden called on Netanyahu to go back on his pledge to support limitations on the unrestrained political powers of Israel’s effectively self-appointed Supreme Court, despite the fact that those promises were incorporated into his government’s coalition agreements.
Biden also said with regard to the spike in terrorist activity in Jenin, which required the Israeli army’s intervention, that while “It’s not all Israel problem now in the West Bank, they are a part of the problem and particularly those individuals in the cabinet who say, ‘We can settle anywhere we want. They have no right to be here, etc.’”
“I think we were talking with them regularly,” Biden added. “trying to tamp down what’s going on, and hopefully, Bibi will continue to move toward moderation and change.”
CNN interviewer Zakaria noted that Biden has repeatedly refused to meet with the Israeli prime minister since he took office December, and then asked the president directly, “what will it take for Bibi Netanyahu to get an invitation to the White House?”
Biden responded by saying, “Well, first of all, the Israeli president [Herzog] is going to be coming, [and] we have other contacts. I’ve been, I think it is fair to say, an unyielding supporter of Israel for as long as I’ve been around. And Bibi, I think is trying to work through how he could work through his existing problems in terms of his coalition. I’m one of those that believes Israel is almost a security risk [without] a two-state solution.”
BIDEN STILL CLAIMING TO BE ISRAEL’S BEST FRIEND
Biden continued, “I think it’s a mistake to think as some members of his cabinet [do] and this is one of the most extremist members of cabinets that I’ve seen. I go all the way back to Golda Meir, not that she was extreme, but I go back to that era. I [also] think that the Palestinian Authority has lost its credibility, not necessarily because of what Israel has done, just because it lost its credibility, number one.
“And number two, [the PA] created a vacuum for extremism among the Palestinians. They are some very extreme elements. So, it’s not all Israel’s [problem] now in the West Bank. But they are a part of the problem. And particularly those individuals in the cabinet who say, they the right to settle anywhere we want, they have [the] right to be here, et cetera. We’re talking with them [Israeli government officials] regularly, trying to tamp down what is going on and hopefully Bibi will continue to move toward moderation and changing [his coalition’s policies].”
Zakaria also asked Biden about his strained relationship with Saudi Arabia due to his public criticism of the Saudi Crown Prince over his alleged involvement in the 2018 murder by Saudi operatives of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Zakaria then added, “Now Saudi Arabia wants a defense treaty from the United States promising that you will protect them and they want civilian nuclear capacity which again the U.S. would have to provide. And in return, they would recognize Israel. Are you going to do it?”
Biden answered, “We’re a long way from there. We’ve got a lot to talk about. For example, that trip [to Saudi Arabia in 2022], [for] which [I] was criticized for my going, a number of things happened on that trip. I was able to negotiate overflights so Israeli aircraft could now overfly Saudi Arabia. . .
“But the world is changing. . . We found ourselves in a circumstance where the war if Yemen is essentially ended. Peace is being kept. So, we’re making progress in the region. And it depends upon the conduct [of the Saudis] and what is asked of us for them to recognize Israel. Quite frankly I don’t think they have much of a problem with Israel. And whether or not we would provide a means by which they could have civilian nuclear power and/or be a guarantor of their security, I think that is a little way off.”
BIDEN’S TWO-FACED ISRAEL POLICIES
It is interesting that in the CNN interview, Biden continued his pattern of first publicly claiming to be Israel’s best friend, before blasting Netanyahu for failing to bring his cabinet in line to support to the administration’s failed Middle East strategy, still based upon the long obsolete two-state solution.
In most cases, Biden has confined his criticisms of Netanyahu to his private conversations, or conveyed them through public statements by lower-level U.S. diplomats, while at the same time making it clear that they originated from the president himself.
According to an Associated Press report in 2021, the Biden pattern of public support for Israel alongside private scolding of its leaders for their policies towards the Palestinians goes all the way back to Biden’s first visit to Israel in 1973, as a newly elected senator, just five weeks before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. He was greeted by then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, who lectured him on the Six-Day War and the dangers that Israel still faced from its enemies.
A classified Israeli government memo describing their meeting that was written at that time but first made public last year, noted that Biden “displayed an enthusiasm” that “signaled his lack of diplomatic experience” as he laid out his concerns over the land Israel conquered in the West Bank and Gaza by Israel in 1967.
The AP report then observes that, “For Biden it was the start of a familiar dynamic. Over his 50 years in national politics, he has often reserved his toughest messages for Israeli leaders for private talks while publicly burnishing his image as an unwavering supporter of Israel. The pattern holds true to the present.”
A MEMORABLE BIDEN CONFRONTATION WITH MENACHEM BEGIN
Another time that then-Senator Joe Biden expressed his harsh criticism of Israel’s support for Jewish settlement in the West Bank was on June 22, 1982, in a tense confrontation with another right-wing Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin. During a closed-door meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, Begin was questioned about Israeli military tactics in Lebanon, where war had broken out a few weeks earlier on June 6.
According to a New York Times report, only three of the 36 senators present, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), S.I. Hayakawa (R-Ca), and Rudy Boschwitz (R-Mn), were expressing any support for Israel’s invasion. However, the most acrimonious exchange, which took place between Begin and Senator Joe Biden, had nothing to do with Israel’s conduct of the war in Lebanon, with which Biden insisted he had no specific problems.
Instead, Biden raised objections to Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank. He claimed that Israel was losing its support in America due to its policy of establishing new Jewish communities in the “occupied territories,” and, according to a press statement that Begin released following his return to Israel, “[Biden] hinted – more than hinted – that if we continue with this policy, it is possible that he will propose cutting our financial aid.”
But instead of giving in to the blatant attempt at intimidation, Begin responded to Biden with righteous anger and determination. “I am not a Jew with trembling knees. Do you think that because the US lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do?” he replied.
When Senator Biden reportedly responded by banging on the table with his fist, Begin retorted, “This desk is designed for writing, not for fists. Don’t threaten us with slashing aid. It will not work. Do you think that because the US lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do?
“We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats. Take note: we do not want a single soldier of yours to die for us.”
“Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens,” Begin continued. “Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”
“A LIVELY DISCUSSION”
In an interview following the committee meeting, Begin sought to minimize his differences with the senators, saying only that “I enjoyed the session very much. I believe in liberty, that free men should freely discuss problems and if they have differences of opinion, they should voice them in sincerity.”
The only hint Begin dropped that the meeting was not quite so cordial was his comment to a reporter that it had been “a lively discussion.”
The next notable show of anger by Biden over Israel’s construction policies came during his visit to Israel as Barack Obama’s vice president in March of 2010, to announce the resumption of U.S.-sponsored indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
THE BIDEN-NETANYAHU 2010 CONFRONTATION OVER RAMAT SHLOMO
On the second day of Biden’s visit, an obscure Yerushalayim Municipal Planning Committee met and then publicly announced that it had voted to approve a long-delayed plan to build 1,600 new Jewish housing units in an area of East Yerushalayim that is now the Orthodox neighborhood known as Ramat Shlomo.
Vice President Biden reacted with fury, convinced that Prime Minister Netanyahu had arranged for the committee to meet and vote that day in order to embarrass him ahead of his meeting with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and to show that the U.S. could not dictate Israel’s policies on Yerushalayim. To demonstrate his anger, Biden showed up 90 minutes late for a scheduled state dinner with Prime Minister Netanyahu that evening. Immediately following the dinner, Biden issued a blistering statement, declaring, “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units.” He also said that building a Jewish community in an area of the West Bank annexed to Yerushalayim by Israel, “undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.”
Biden reiterated that criticism during the final public event of his visit, a speech he delivered at Tel Aviv University, in which he added, “Now, some legitimately may have been surprised that such a strong supporter of Israel … how I can speak out so strongly given the ties that I share, as well as my country shares, with Israel,” Biden continued. “But quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth.”
Before the end of Biden’s visit, Netanyahu privately apologized to Biden, and insisted that he was totally unaware that the planning committee going to meet that day to vote on approval for the Ramat Shlomo housing project. Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai then said about the committee’s action in a Channel One TV broadcast interview “There was certainly no intention to provoke anyone, and certainly not to come along and hurt the vice president of the United States. Final approval (for the project) will take another few months, if it is approved, and I agree that the timing (of the announcement) should have been put off for another two or three weeks.”
HOLDING A GRUDGE
By the time Biden left Israel to return to Washington, Netanyahu believed that his apology and explanation for the incident had been accepted, and that the issue had been resolved. But he was mistaken. In a book of memoirs that he published in 2020, President Obama revealed that he and Vice President Biden didn’t really believe Netanyahu’s explanation. Obama wrote, “I accepted the ‘fiction’ that the [housing project] permit announcement had been just a misunderstanding.”
Shortly after Biden returned to the United States, Netanyahu received a blistering extended phone call from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, no doubt with Obama’s approval, again taking Israel’s prime minister to task for the Ramat Shlomo announcement. The substance of her criticism in that call was then described in excruciating detail to reporters by a State Department spokesman, in a deliberate effort to publicly embarrass Netanyahu.
THE INCIDENT REALLY WAS UNINTENTIONAL
In fact, according to a Jerusalem Post op-ed written by Nir Messiqa, who was a staff member for the municipal planning committee at the time, Netanyahu was not aware of, nor responsible for, the poor timing of announcement. Messiqa writes, “Weeks before Biden’s visit, I started working as an advisor to the local committee for planning and construction in Jerusalem. I remember that in my first days in the office, I noticed a file containing building plans lying in one corner of the room.
“The specific file contained a projected plan for a new ultra-orthodox neighborhood. A [secular] interest group within the local planning committee did not like the project and wanted to delay it as much as they could. The interest group used all of its available tactics to delay the approval procedure in the local planning committee. But once they were exhausted, the file was finally referred to the next scheduled committee meeting, which, [due] to an unplanned turn of events, turned out to be during Biden’s visit. . .
“The Israeli government and especially the prime minister were not involved in promoting the plan and did not intend to cause a crisis or to thwart the diplomatic visit – for the simple reason that the plan was supposed to have been brought to the district committee several weeks before Biden’s visit.”
The fact that the announcement was made during Biden’s visit was, in fact, a coincidence. To prevent a recurrence, the prime minister issued a directive to prevent any such new housing announcements from being made in the future with prior clearance from his office, but it appears that neither Obama nor Biden had any interest in finding out the truth.
COMMENT BY KAMALA HARRIS ANGERS ISRAEL’S FOREIGN MINISTER
Vice President Kamala Harris has also weighed in on the judicial reform issue to endorse Biden’s position. She told Politico during an interview in February, “As the president has said, an independent judiciary is foundational for a democracy. And I think that there is no question that we need to make sure that that is supported in terms of what we talk about [and] in terms of our values.”
Just two weeks ago, Harris again commented on the judicial reform issue. During a reception at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, she said once again that an independent judiciary was one of the values that have been the bedrock of the US-Israel relationship.
Israel’s Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, quickly responded to Harris’ thinly veiled criticism of the coalition’s judicial reform proposal, telling a reporter for Reshet Bet that he believed that she had no direct personal knowledge about the reform proposal.
“If you’d ask Kamala Harris what bothers her about the reform, she wouldn’t even be able to cite a single clause that bothers her. I bet that she hasn’t even read the bill,” Cohen said. He defended its provisions by citing the fact that, “even the judges in the US don’t have the right to decide who will replace them.”
After his comments criticizing Harris caused an uproar, Cohen was forced to walk back his criticism by writing on Twitter, “I have deep respect for our ally the United States of America and for Vice President Harris, a true friend of Israel.”
But he then added that, “Israel’s legal reform is an internal issue that is currently in the process of consolidation and dialogue. Israel will continue to be democratic and liberal, as it has always been.”
BIDEN’S LONG PUBLIC PRO-ISRAEL RECORD
Whenever asked in public about his attitude towards Israel, Biden insists that throughout his long career in Washington, dating back to his 36 years as a U.S. Senator from Delaware, he has always been one of Israel’s most loyal advocates in Washington, DC, and a personal friend to all of its elected leaders, starting in 1973 when he first met Prime Minister Golda Meir.
In his speeches to Jewish audiences, Biden frequently recalled his father teaching him about the horrors of Holocaust in Europe including the murder of six million Jews and noted that he took each of his children to visit the Dachau concentration camp to pass the same lesson on to them. He also often mentioned with joking pride that his Irish-Catholic daughter had married a Jewish surgeon.
During his years in the Senate, Biden was a consistent advocate for continued U.S. financial support for Israel. For example, he declared in a 1986 Senate floor speech that American military aid was “the best $3 billion investment we make,” and urged his colleagues to stop apologizing for their support for Israel.
But a more careful look at Biden’s record reveals that in private, his support for Israel and its leaders has always been conditional on their support, in return, for his foreign policy goal of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute by getting both sides to accept a negotiated two-state solution, which envisions Israel and a newly created Palestinian state, including virtually all of the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, living side by side.
The last serious attempt by an American diplomat to negotiate a two-state solution collapsed in 2014 when then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposed Palestinian prisoner swap in return for real progress towards a peace agreement was deliberately sabotaged by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. At that point, most foreign policy observers finally recognized that a two-state solution was beyond reach, and the focus of diplomatic attention in the region shifted to the Kerry-led negotiations which resulted in the deeply flawed 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The failure by the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith with Israel, and their refusal to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state as a permanent and legitimate reality in the region, continues to block any hope of progress in resolving the dispute on the basis of bilateral negotiations. That stubborn refusal is also the main reason why the legal status of the West Bank, East Yerushalayim and Gaza and its Israeli and Palestinian residents has remained unresolved and in dispute for more than fifty years.
TRUMP RECOGNIZED HOW THE REGION HAD CHANGED
In 2017, when the much more pro-Israel Trump administration took office, it recognized that the strategic and diplomatic realities on the ground in the region had fundamentally changed. It wisely abandoned the Obama-Biden administration efforts to achieve a two-state solution and adopted a much more pragmatic region-wide peacemaking approach. That effort, led by President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with the full support of then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, sought to fashion a much broader and mutually beneficial alliance between Israel and the pro-Western Sunni-majority Arab states. It was based upon the shared economic and security interests of all of the participants, and their need to forge a common defense against the growing threat from Iran.
By the end of the Trump administration, that effort had resulted in the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, and considerable progress had been made towards getting Saudi Arabia to join the alliance as well.
To his credit, Trump recognized facts on the ground in Israel which previous administrations had refused to accept, by moving the U.S. Embassy to Yerushalayim, thereby demonstrating in a tangible way the new U.S. diplomatic support for Israel’s right to declare the city to be its capital. The Trump administration also formally recognized, after more than 50 years of State Department denial, the legitimacy and permanence of the Jewish neighborhoods and communities in East Yerushalayim and across the West Bank which today are home to more than 600,000 Jews.
BIDEN TRYING TO TURN BACK THE CLOCK
But unfortunately, from the moment he took office, Biden has tried to turn back the clock. Biden has rejected the Trump administration’s formal recognition of Israel’s legal rights to the West Bank and East Yerushalayim. He has begun once again to publicly pressure the Israeli government to halt all new Jewish housing construction in those areas in a futile effort to keep hope alive for someday achieving the two-state solution even though he, too, has been forced to admit that such an agreement is currently out of reach. He has also abandoned any serious U.S. effort to further expand the Abraham Accords.
Biden has also repeated the Obama administration’s most serious foreign policy blunder by seeking to renew, at all costs, the failed 2015 Iran nuclear deal, on Iran’s terms.
During his many years as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden fancied himself to be a foreign policy expert. But that assessment was not shared by former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates, who had served in senior posts for every president between Barack Obama and Richard Nixon, with the exception of Bill Clinton. In a book written by Gates and published in 2014, he famously wrote of Joe Biden “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
BIDEN RESTORED THE U.S. GOVERNMENT’S BOYCOTT OF THE WEST BANK
In the latest Biden effort to uproot the Trump administration’s friendly policies towards Israel, the State Department announced in June that it was issuing new guidance to all U.S. government agencies. It ordered them to cut off their support for all “bilateral scientific and technological cooperation with Israel in geographic areas which came under the administration of Israel after 1967 and which remain subject to final-status negotiations is inconsistent with US foreign policy.” The announcement reverses a decision by the Trump administration, which had ended the prior U.S. government policy of discrimination against all Israeli high-tech institutions on the West Bank such as Ariel University.
In reaction to the State Department announcement, Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz blasted the Biden for what he called “anti-Semitic discrimination” against Jews in the West Bank and said that the administration was “pathologically obsessed with undermining Israel.” Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who has long been a vigorous advocate for West Bank settlements, said that the new State Department policy encourages the so-called BDS movement which supports the severing of all ties with Israel, and not just those in the West Bank territories.
TRYING TO BRIBE THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY
Biden has also tried in vain to win the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority in his effort to revive the two-state solution through bribery. Since taking office, Biden has restored more than half a billion dollars of U.S. aid to the Palestinians and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), that President Trump had cancelled due to the refusal by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to participate in the Trump administration’s peacemaking efforts, and to punish the PA for its stepped-up efforts to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the international community.
Biden’s 2024 presidential campaign has also announced his intention to provide $316 million in new contributions from U.S. taxpayer funds “to support the Palestinian people.”
THE MANY REASONS WHY THE TWO-STATE SOLUTION WON’T WORK
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has chosen to ignore the fact that the Palestinians have sabotaged every U.S. peacemaking initiative since the failed Camp David summit in 2000. Biden still remains committed to the idealistic but impractical goal of negotiating a two-state solution, despite the many polls as well as election results which show that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians no longer want such an outcome nor believe that it would be workable.
Even if both sides still wanted it, the effort would be doomed to fail simply because, with more than 600,000 Jews now living throughout the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, a two-state solution involving the creation of a Palestinian state based upon the pre-1967 borders, and the removal of the Jews now living there, is no longer a viable option. Current U.S. policy also fails to recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is no longer the most important obstacle to peace and stability in the region, and probably never was.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN’S CONDEMNATION OF BIBI’S GOVERNMENT
Biden’s harsh treatment of Netanyahu was publicly confirmed and endorsed last week by veteran New York Time liberal columnist Thomas Friedman. He proclaimed that the Biden administration has already begun its “re-assessment” of continued U.S. aid to Israel under the rule Netanyahu and his coalition, due to its “unprecedented radical behavior — under the cloak of judicial “reform” — that is undermining our shared interests with Israel, our shared values and the vitally important shared fiction about the status of the West Bank that has kept peace hopes there just barely alive.” Friedman suggested that Israel’s leaders should show more “respect” for the demands of a U.S. president for policy changes in light of the $146 billion in U.S. aid that Israel has received over the years.
Friedman lamented that “Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, which squeaked into office by the narrowest of margins [not quite true-ed.], decided to behave as if it had won in a landslide and immediately moved to change the long-established balance of power between the government and the Supreme Court.” He ignores the fact that the Biden administration has been doing exactly the same thing since narrowly winning the presidency two years ago, and that Biden has been even more publicly critical of the decisions handed down by the majority of conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Friedman then suggests that the duly elected Netanyahu government threatens “one of the most important Israeli and American shared interests,” keeping hope alive that “one day there could be a two-state solution.”
Friedman also condemns Netanyahu’s most prominent right wing cabinet ministers and policy advisors, including Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, Religious Zionist Party leader and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, and Otzma Yehudit party leader and national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir. Friedman portrays them as corrupt right-wing extremists and convicted criminals who are unfit for public office and who pose a threat to Israeli democracy, despite the fact that as a result of last November’s election, their coalition under Netanyahu now controls the 120-seat Knesset with a politically stable 64-vote majority.
TESTING THE LIMITS OF DEMOCRATIC FREE SPEECH AND PROTEST
He insists that the opposition protests against the proposed reforms to Israel’s Supreme Court are a legitimate expression of free speech in a democracy. But the organizers of those weekly protests, which are, despite White House denials, clearly endorsed and supported by the Biden administration, have been urging Israeli soldiers and pilots to disobey their orders, blocking public access to Ben Gurion Airport and calling for all business activity in Israel to come to a halt, regardless of the damage that would do to Israel’s economy and national security.
No doubt expressing the private opinions of President Biden and his foreign policy advisors, Friedman suggests that due to the current Israeli government’s policies towards the West Bank and the Palestinians, “the most important Israeli and American shared interests” in support of democracy and freedom have now become a “shared fiction,” and that Israel is no longer morally worthy of America’s support.
Friedman also claims that Biden’s invitation for a White House visit this week to “Israel’s very decent, moderate president, Isaac Herzog, who has been pleading with Netanyahu’s coalition to step back from forcing any changes in the judiciary,” while withholding a similar invitation from Netanyahu, “is Biden’s way of signaling that his problem is not with the Israeli people but with Bibi’s extremist cabinet.” That’s like saying in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, that the U.S. really does love the Russian people, and only has a problem with Vladimir Putin.
Friedman disingenuously denies that the current Biden White House reassessment will reduce “our military and intelligence cooperation with Israel,” despite the fact that it is the often-expressed goal of radical Democrat party leaders such as congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes (AOC), Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the House Progressive Caucus.
MORE ANTI-SEMITIC FROM LIBERAL DEMOCRATS AGAINST ISRAEL
Over the weekend, Congresswoman Jayapal sparked condemnation from the House Democrat leadership over her statement at a liberal Netroots Nation conference that Israel is “a racist state.”
In response, House Democrat Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and three of his deputies released a statement Sunday declaring that “Israel is not a racist state,” and that their “commitment to a safe and secure Israel as an invaluable partner, ally and beacon of democracy in the Middle East is ironclad.”
The next day 40 other House Democrats, led by Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, released a letter condemning Jayapal’s statement as “unacceptable” and suggesting that it was also anti-Semitic. “Israel is the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people, and efforts to delegitimize and demonize it are not only dangerous and antisemitic, but they also undermine America’s national security,” the letter said.
But while the storm of criticism from Democrat colleagues forced Jayapal to retract her accusation that Israel is a racist state, she has not disavowed the anti-Semitic beliefs that prompted it. “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist,” she said on Sunday, but then added that Netanyahu’s “extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies,” which amounts to no retraction at all.
Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman ever elected to Congress, quickly came to Jayapal’s defense by declaring in a Twitter post that, “The Israeli government is committing the crime of apartheid. Apartheid is a racist system of oppression.”
BOYCOTTING PRESIDENT HERZOG’S ADDRESS TO CONGRESS
Jayapal, Omar and Tlaib are members of a group of left-wing Democrats who announced their intention to boycott Israeli President Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress and who have been publicly urging the Biden administration to pull back on its support of Israel.
Omar, who was removed from her House committee assignments as punishment for her earlier anti-Semitic comments, tweeted that, “We should not be inviting the president of Israel — a government who under its current prime minister barred the first two Muslim women elected to Congress from visiting the country — to give a joint address to Congress.”
Another member of that group, Jamal Bowman of New York who now sits in the same congressional seat representing the Bronx and Westchester County that was long occupied by pro-Israel advocate Eliot Engel, told the New York Times, “Any time one offers a critique of Israel, you’re likely to be called antisemitic or anti-Israel, which is not true. It’s important to hold them accountable, so they can become better, so we can continue to be allies.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has called upon Democrat leader Jeffries to take firm disciplinary action against members of his party like Jayapal who have been making anti-Semitic statements about Israel and organizing a boycott of President Herzog’s speech to Congress.
To highlight their differences with liberal Democrats over continued U.S. support for Israel, Republicans announced plans to hold a House vote on a resolution declaring that Israel is not a racist or apartheid state and condemning anti-Semitism.
FROM THE MIDDLE EAST HISTORIAN’S POINT OF VIEW
But Michael Oren, the respected Middle East historian who served during the Obama years as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, condemns the mass protests against the Israeli government’s proposed Supreme Court reforms a “very dangerous precedent” because they “are violating the rights of others. Israelis of course have the right to protest but Israelis also have the right to get to work and feed their families or to fly to family events abroad,” Oren told a reporter for World Israel News.
Oren notes that Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport has only been closed twice in Israel’s history, the first time due to a missile attack by Hamas, and the second time last week during the Day of National Paralysis organized by the movement against the proposed judicial reforms. Oren also believes that the issue of judicial reform is being used as a pretext to mask the ultimate goal of the protests sponsored by “people [who] are unwilling to accept the outcome of the previous [Knesset] election.”
Oren also said that public support for the protests is “unevenly distributed and not at all representative of the entire country.”
He told the reporter,” Go further down to the development towns of the South and see how many protests are going on now? In my synagogue, most people are Mizrachi. They said this isn’t about democracy, this isn’t about rights. This isn’t even about the rights of minorities or majorities. It’s about “white privilege.”
By that, Oren means that the protests are being driven by the racial prejudices of “the Ashkenazi elite that is gathering around the last bastion of Ashkenazi elitist power in this country, which is the Supreme Court.”
Oren argues that judicial reform is necessary because of the unprecedented power of the Israeli Supreme Court that surpasses that of any other top court in the world, and which it uses far too often to overturn Knesset legislation on such vague and insufficient legal grounds as a lack of sufficient “reasonableness.”
But Oren also contends that the most serious problems facing Israel today are the deep divisions within Israeli society ranging from the political right-left divide to religious-secular and Ashkenazi-Mizrachi disparities.
WAITING ON THE END OF AN ERA
While this week’s White House visit by President Herzog may be symbolic, its policy consequences are likely to be minor since his duties as Israel’s president are almost entirely ceremonial. Similarly, Netanyahu’s visit to the Biden, whenever it does occur, is unlikely to bridge the many fundamental policy gaps between the two men, ranging from their contrasting visions for achieving regional peace to their sharp differences over Iran and the existential threat to Israel posed by Iran’s advanced nuclear weapons program.