Not once in the past 75 years has fear on the part of the US for Israeli democracy clouded relations between Washington and Jerusalem. On Tuesday night, an unprecedented shadow was cast over these relations when US President Joe Biden told journalists that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would not be a welcome guest in the White House until he reached a "genuine compromise" with opponents of his plans for reform of Israel’s judicial system.
An explicit non-invitation of a foreign leader, especially of a country classed as a close friend, is almost unprecedented. As far as I have been able to ascertain, only one leader has merited one - Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary (a NATO member). At this point, Netanyahu would probably prefer to forego another comparison with Hungary; he has had enough of those recently.
President Biden took on a considerable political risk. He remembers well what happened after Barack Obama punished Netanyahu with a cold reception at the White House in 2010. Internal and external political considerations obliged him to shower public friendship on Netanyahu on his next visit.
Netanyahu paid Obama back twice over: in 2015, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, he criticized the president’s attempts to reach an agreement with Iran; and in 2016 he rejected an invitation from Obama. The White House responded with dismay.
The clear impression at the time was that Netanyahu won the arm-wrestle. Israel’s weight in US politics continued to give it power that no other country possesses.
Is that still the case? Well, the answer is on its way. This piece is written on Tuesday night. We have still not heard a response from most of Israel’s traditional friends. There can be little doubt, however, that a river of condemnation will flow, particularly from the political right. This right includes Donald Trump and his potential rivals in the race for the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency next year. It includes the Republicans in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, where they form a majority. And it includes the powerful Christian right, for which Israel is the apple of its eye. Biden is not a popular president, and the opportunity to attack him will not be missed.
Who knows? Perhaps Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy (Republican) will repeat the gesture of 2015 and invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress? The prime minister will have to consider such an invitation carefully. A direct confrontation with the president of the US is not a top priority for any foreign leader.
Moreover, such a confrontation is liable to harm Israel’s traditional base of support within the Democratic Party. At one time, the Democrats were Israel’s most faithful allies, but in recent years the demographic composition of the party’s supporters has seen a change, and surveys repeatedly show sympathy for Israel waning, especially among younger cohorts.
The US minds everyone’s business
This month, Washington went far in turning up its nose in the face of the constitutional crisis in Israel. Senior Likud politicos couldn’t believe their eyes. The minister of diaspora affairs, for example, flung at the US ambassador in Israel: "Mind your own business."
In reality, the surprise is not at the fact of the US ambassador’s intervention in Israel’s internal affairs. If at all, the surprise was that his intervention was so late in coming. On January 10, Ambassador Tom Nides gave an interview to Gili Cohen on the Kan 11 television channel. He went out of his way to avoid taking a stance on the judicial reform. "The people of Israel do not want moral preaching from America.," he said.
Following that interview, I wrote that the ambassador had detached himself from the historical context of US foreign policy at least since President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. Actually, since President Harry Truman in the 1940s, the US has placed the advancement of democracy and protection of the rule of law close to the center of its aspirations. Did the ambassador eschew those nuances because he does not come from a diplomatic or academic background, or perhaps because those who sent him briefed him to stay silent and avoid the issue?
Either way, how interesting it was to hear him declare at a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv six weeks after that interview: "I really think that most Israelis do not want America to stay out of their business." I don’t know whether he recovered his poise, or changed his mind, or perhaps received a new brief from Washington, but it was fairly clear that after his initial evasiveness he reverted to representing the principles of his country’s foreign policy.
Benjamin the poster boy
It’s a little strange that Netanyahu didn’t see what was coming. Very few politicians in Israel know US politics better than he does. His knowledge was deep, because he was an eyewitness to the birth pangs of a new school of policy.
He was made deputy ambassador in Washington in the first days of the Ronald Reagan administration; he served as ambassador to the UN at a time when New York was the center of the neo-conservatives, who shook the foundations of the American right. They took Netanyahu into their hearts. It’s no exaggeration in my opinion to say that he was the poster child of the neo-cons.
He knew very well how the human rights and democracy diplomacy of the US was formed. The neo-cons reflected the shifts in this diplomacy, and its contradictions. Their high priestess in Netanyahu’s time was the polished US ambassador to the UN Prof. Jeane Kirkpatrick. She came to Reagan’s attention thanks to an article she wrote in 1979 in which she argued forcefully against the diplomacy of human rights.
The next generation of neo-cons, however, changed direction, and placed human rights and democracy at the top of its agenda. Democratization of the Arab world was one of the main justifications of the war in Iraq, under a Republican president. A Democratic president supported, if unenthusiastically, the Arab Spring, and refused to throw a lifeline to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
Sovereign - but realistic?
Netanyahu’s response to Biden’s remarks on Tuesday bore all the known flaws of non-democratic leaders, who reject US criticism, or essentially any criticism, of their way of governing. Netanyahu reminded Biden that "Israel is a sovereign country" that makes its decisions without foreign interference.
Of course, Israel is sovereign; but Israel also has to be realistic. For decades, it has demanded special treatment as "the only democracy in the Middle East". As a democracy, it necessarily exposes itself to criticism from other democracies. That is what openness is about. Moreover, that is what the US does to all its allies. It publishes a severe annual report on the state of human rights in every country in the world, not just in Russia, China, and Iran.
Over-defensiveness towards critics is not a manifestation of strength. The more Israel uses claims of "sovereignty" against criticism, the faster understanding of its position among the democratic community will diminish.
Prime Minister Netanyahu now faces some tough tests, and he does not need extra tasks. But perhaps he ought to consider the advantages that could flow from honest, tolerant, and even welcoming attention to external criticism. In international relations as in personal relations, interlocutors like to find from time to time that their opinions are heard with polite interest even when those opinions do not make pleasant listening for the hearer.
I think that, at this stage, there is no need to exaggerate the dimensions of the crisis with the US. Israel is not about "to lose" America. Israel is, however, liable to speed up a process of weariness in US public opinion that will exact from it a long-term price.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 29, 2023.
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