Following a strong showing in Israel’s 1 November elections, Benjamin Netanyahu will again become the prime minister of Israel. While Netanyahu is a familiar face to US President Joe Biden and other US leaders, his return to the premiership raises a host of dilemmas for Washington.
Over the past several years, Netanyahu has become a polarizing figure in the US due to his close relationship with former President Donald Trump. Netanyahu is now seen by many on the left as a dangerous right-wing figure, not unlike Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. As a result, Netanyahu no longer enjoys the consistent support of both Democrats and Republicans.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s tight-knit relationship with Trump paid manifold dividends for Israel. The US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, and facilitated formal diplomatic ties between Israel and several Arab countries. However, it is worth examining whether Netanyahu’s decision to go "all in" with Trump has damaged his ability to work with the Biden administration.
The answer to this question is complicated. While Netanyahu’s clout has diminished, support for Israel remains strong in the US Congress across most of the political spectrum (except for some two dozen "far-left" Democrats). Given the power of pro-Israel groups in the US, it is likely that most pro-Israel Democrats, including President Biden, will put their personal grievances with Netanyahu aside in favor of sustaining and strengthening the US-Israel relationship.
There could still be some tense moments between the US and Israel in the coming months. President Biden is a deeply-committed Zionist, but he will not passively accept the far-right religious elements of Netanyahu’s new coalition government. The White House is particularly concerned about whether Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Oztma Yehudit ("Jewish Strength") party could become Israel’s next minister of public security. Ben-Gvir has praised some of Israel’s most notorious Jewish terrorists and supports the annexation of large swaths of the West Bank.
The US Ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, has already spoken out against some of Ben-Gvir’s ideas, including the annexation of the West Bank. During an interview, Nides stated that "our position is quite clear. We do not support annexation and we will fight any attempt to do so."
Some have called on the Biden administration to refuse to work with Ben-Gvir should he become minister of public security. Others have suggested that Ben-Gvir be denied entry into the US since he has been criminally convicted of supporting terrorism. While both measures would send a clear message to Israel and avoid direct US support for Ben-Gvir’s brand of extremism, the White House would have to do more to fully disassociate itself from Ben-Gvir and his allies.
Since Netanyahu has chosen to politically align himself with Ben-Gvir, any US cooperation with Netanyahu implicitly legitimizes a government of which Ben-Gvir is poised to become a powerful member. The US also provides Israel’s military with 3.8 billion USD in annual aid, which very few in Washington have shown any sign of wanting to retract or to make conditional on changes in Netanyahu’s government. It is clear that the US will ultimately be supporting Ben-Gvir even if it does not engage with him directly.
While Netanyahu was declaring electoral victory, President Biden was on the US campaign trail warning that if conspiracy theory-toting Republicans aligned with Donald Trump won, the very nature of US democracy would be threatened. Now Biden must figure out the optics of supporting Netanyahu in light of these domestic political realities. In other words, Biden must find a way to engage with an Israel that many see as incompatible with democracy due to its open hostility to Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Democracy preservation has been a focus for the Biden administration abroad. Last December, the US hosted an international Summit for Democracy; Israel and Iraq were the only two countries from the Middle East invited to participate. It is certainly embarrassing for both Israel and the US that only a year later, there are rumors that the US could boycott high-ranking Israeli officials due to their undemocratic views.
Netanyahu’s return to office comes at a time when the US and Israel are already experiencing a significant rift. In November, after months of pressure from civil society organizations, the US Department of Justice announced it would open an investigation into the killing by Israeli forces of journalist and US citizen Shireen Abu Akleh. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is seen as a moderate by many in Washington, balked at the announcement and declared that Israel would not cooperate with the investigation. Abu Akleh’s killing in some ways resembles the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Like the earlier incident, Abu Akleh’s killing threatens to undermine US ties with a long-standing partner in the Middle East.
However, it is important to note that the US relationship with Israel is much more deeply entrenched than its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Even when expressing concern about Israeli actions, the US typically takes a conciliatory approach. For example, in Nides’s remarks about Ben-Gvir, the US ambassador emphasized that the US-Israel bond remained unshakable: "We are a very strong ally, but there will be times we articulate our differences." Such a stance is dramatically different from the tone the US has recently taken toward Saudi Arabia.
The bottom line is that while Netanyahu’s return will make for less cordial US relations with Israel, no significant policy changes from Washington are expected. US policy toward Israel reflects what is happening in the US much more than what is happening in Israel. As long as the pro-Israel lobby retains its influence over the US Congress, the US is likely to continue to support Israel. The specifics of US-Israel relations in the short term will be laid out in upcoming press conferences. However, with Biden in the White House and Republicans set to retake the House of Representatives, Netanyahu has little reason to worry that his alliance with Ben-Gvir could jeopardize relations with the US.