U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been one of the most supportive politicians towards Israel throughout his political career, recently had to openly express his displeasure with Netanyahu after trying to convince him to abandon his judicial reform plans, which he ultimately failed to do. During the events in Israel, the Biden administration’s initial response was to avoid direct criticism and call for compromise. While it was not expected for Washington to harshly criticize Israel, the tone and content of President Biden’s statements indicated the depth of his discomfort.
Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the judiciary system under the guise of judicial reform received significant backlash from many sectors of the public. Some argue that this effort was largely aimed at halting the corruption cases still ongoing against him. The opposition to the judicial reform plan included a significant number of army reservists, which led Defense Minister Gallant to take a stance that the reform plan should be postponed. Netanyahu’s response to this was to dismiss Gallant from his position, which then led to even non-political unions joining the protests and the situation spiraling out of control. Seeing that things were getting out of hand, Netanyahu temporarily postponed the reform package to appease the public.
When Biden was unable to convince Netanyahu to abandon his plans, he expressed being “very concerned” and hoped that a middle ground could be found. He also announced that he would not be inviting Netanyahu to Washington anytime soon.
Netanyahu’s response was that Israel is a sovereign state and that decisions would be made by its people, not through external interference. Following these tense exchanges, Netanyahu tried to ease the tension by stating that the relationship between Israel, which he claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, and the world’s largest and oldest democracy, the United States, is unbreakable. It’s worth noting that Washington was particularly concerned about Gallant’s dismissal. During the coalition negotiations in Israel, the U.S. was worried about the army being handed over to an ultra-right Defense Minister and had been relieved when Gallant took office.
As someone who witnessed the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu firsthand during his time as Vice President, Biden is well aware of the delicate and politically costly nature of the Israel issue. Netanyahu clashed with Obama over his desire to make a deal with Iran, and openly aligned himself with Republicans to deepen their relationship. In 2015, despite not being invited to the White House, Netanyahu came to Washington at the invitation of Republicans and gave a speech to Congress opposing the Iran nuclear deal. Despite Obama being the president who provided the most military support to Israel, Netanyahu worked with Republicans to shift American support for Israel to a more partisan point. It is known that during this time, Biden tried to bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu.
Although Biden’s first trip as president was to Israel, he avoided bringing up the Israel-Palestine peace process, likely to avoid the political costs associated with it. Every American administration since Clinton has made efforts towards the Peace Process but has failed. Obama also demanded that settlements be frozen but was ineffective in making this happen. Implicitly acknowledging that there is no realistic path towards the Peace Process, Biden has essentially removed the Israel-Palestine issue from the foreign policy agenda. By being slow to return to the Iran deal, Biden is also trying not to provoke a reaction from Israel and the American Congress.
It is no secret that the young, left-wing, liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which supports Sanders, is not afraid to openly criticize Israel. A Gallup poll conducted this month shows that among Democrats, those who view Israel sympathetically (38%) are behind those who view Palestinians sympathetically (49%). Biden is a politician who is close to the Israel lobby and refuses to place any conditions on aid to Israel. He does not want to have any problems with Congress on this matter. Knowing the domestic political difficulties surrounding the Israel issue, Biden does not want to be forced to take a clear stance on this issue as he heads into the 2024 elections, due to Netanyahu’s influence.
In the week leading up to the Democracy Summit, Biden was not pleased with Netanyahu’s confrontational behavior. The cancellation of Netanyahu’s invitation to the summit, his exclusion from the leaders’ session, and his being limited to just one panel show the level of discomfort in Washington. It is known that the Biden administration is also uncomfortable with the composition of the Israeli government, which includes racist and extremist figures. Biden is also not happy with Israel’s position on the Ukraine conflict. While Netanyahu has always been a difficult figure for American presidents, it is not expected that Biden’s harsh statements will lead to a significant policy change. However, there is a growing American public opinion that criticizing Israel is no longer taboo, and it is impossible for America’s relationship with Israel to remain unaffected by this.