Opinion |

Netanyahu Is Breaking Apart America’s ‘Special Relationship’ With Israel

Many in Washington fear it’s only a matter of time before Netanyahu and his coalition of racists and authoritarians go too far, forcing the U.S. to reassess the alliance with Israel’s government. That means Biden must have clear, and irrevocable, red lines

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf
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Netanyahu is gunning for a confrontation with Biden. But even without Israel’s embrace of a radical right-wing government full of racists and authoritarians, U.S.-Israel relations would be in a fragile state
Netanyahu is gunning for a confrontation with Biden. But even without Israel’s embrace of a radical right-wing government full of racists and authoritarians, U.S.-Israel relations would be in a fragile stateCredit: Photos: Tsafrir Abayov, Susan Walsh/AP, Yuriy Boyko_Ukraine/Shutterstock. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

The special relationship between the United States and Israel is between the peoples of our two countries – not our governments. This is being demonstrated with potentially very destructive consequences in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to pursue personal power at any price.

Netanyahu is creating circumstances in which not only will the often strong working relationship between Israel’s government and America’s be severely tested, it may become impossible for the Biden administration to view the current Israeli government as sharing interests – or even as an ally.

The U.S. government will resist issuing public statements to the effect that Israel is now understood as a pariah state and an active enemy of many vital U.S. national interests. They will, and should, work to try to maintain ties where possible, and to guide the Netanyahu government away from decisions that may irreparably harm the relationship.

But many in Washington fear it is only a matter of time before Bibi makes America choose between Israel and the values the U.S. holds dearest, effectively demoting Israel from ally status to that of fair-weather friend and sometimes opponent, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and other nations the U.S. must work with but whom Washington does not trust.

Ironically, Bibi has caused this once unthinkable chasm by signing on to a global movement that actually has prominent adherents in the U.S. The origins of the movement are, of course, in Moscow.

Central to the efforts of Vladimir Putin to try to weaken and destabilize his opponents in the West has been identifying the moral and ethical weak links among his adversaries and supporting them as they place their narrow self-interests above foundational ideals like democracy, the rule of law, human rights and tolerance for social diversity.

Netanyahu, like Trump and the American right, like Orban and Bolsonaro, like Modi, Le Pen and Italy’s neo-fascists, has for years now promoted an ethno-nationalist authoritarian agenda that is now calling into doubt all the values that once bound Israel and the U.S.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Wednesday visit to Israel revealed that the Biden administration strategy for now is to put the best possible face on the relationship and identify areas—like containing the Iran threat—where cooperation between the two countries is possible.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meets with Israel's President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem this weekCredit: Kobi Gidon/La'am

But behind the scenes in Washington the question is: How far will Bibi go, and what would be the tipping point that would cause a rift? What would the Israeli administration have to do so that the U.S. would have to actively oppose it? What could they do that might lead Democrats in the U.S. Senate to start thinking about cutting off U.S. aid to Israel or at least temporarily curtailing flows of much needed financial and military support?

Because given the clown car full of ne’er-do-wells — racists, homophobes, criminals, thugs and extremists — that comprise that latest Netanyahu cabinet, the question is not if such a breakdown in the relationship is going to happen, it is when.

What is important now is that behind the scenes the U.S. administration makes the red lines clear.

They must communicate in no uncertain terms that should the Netanyahu administration further weaken democracy, eliminate judicial independence, effectively annex the parts of the West Bank Israel has not already illegally seized, attack LGBTQ+ rights, draw closer to Russia and further oppose U.S. goals in Ukraine, or further strip away more rights of Palestinians, that the U.S. will actively condemn the behavior (as Tom Friedman enjoined, in the New York Times) and that it will have direct, immediate, negative consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship including the provision of aid.

Further, it is important that President Biden himself makes it clear to Bibi, that these are not red lines like Obama’s in Syria, not for show or political impact. He must make crystal clear that crossing them will alter the relationship between our two countries until Netanyahu and his coalition are gone and a successor administration repudiates their policies.

This is key, both because it may keep Bibi & Co. from doing their worst and because it will make absolutely clear what the stakes are behind each and every decision that runs contrary to the values and national interests of the United States.

Personally, my view is that even if the Biden administration handles sending that message perfectly, the moment of crisis, perhaps multiple such moments, are inevitable. That is because Netanyahu continues to mistakenly believe that he has American politics on his side. His formula is GOP support plus that of American Jews.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, in 2017.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

But here’s what’s wrong with that: the GOP only control one house of Congress and that barely. Bibi’s buddy Trump is in big legal trouble and is a fading force, and 80 percent of American Jews don’t support the GOP.

Furthermore, if the hard-right religious zealots in the current Israeli cabinet continue their reductive reasoning about “who is a Jew” (as if they or the government of Israel were in any position to make that judgment) they will further alienate the largely non-Orthodox, if not secular, American Jewish population.

“We don’t want you here in Israel but keep those checks and that lobbying coming” is just not a formula that is going to work. In fact, take it from me, it is going to piss a lot of people off.

Once upon a time the U.S. and Israel were bound by common values and by common strategic interests. But the Cold War is over and while we still see Russia as a threat, Israel has cozied up to Putin in a very disturbing way. Israel actively worked to undermine America’s efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran—actions that even many senior Israeli national security officials now realize was a mistake.

Americans once boasted that our ally Israel was the Middle East’s only democracy. Now it is an apartheid state with a government actively working to roll back basic democratic rights and protections. American values like tolerance and the celebration of diversity are ones the current Israeli government rejects.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem in 2010. Back then, Biden said there was a 'moment of opportunity' for peace between Israelis and PalestiniansCredit: Debbie Hill / AP

The reality is that much will have to change just to try to salvage what was special in the relationship even prior to any further shocks, outrages or policy blunders by the Netanyahu team.

Through all this, will the people-to-people ties between the U.S. and Israel remain strong? Initially. Will the predisposition to fix what is broken and return to close ties remain? Yes. But this is not your father’s U.S.-Israel relationship.

A new generation does not assume much about the relationship and is definitely in a “show me why it matters” mode. American Jews have been whipsawed by having to defend Israeli abuses of Palestinians while being devalued by the likes of Netanyahu, who rejects the support of a majority of them in order to cater to Evangelical Christians, and holds close a U.S. political leader who says he knows better than American Jews what is in their interest (while regularly floating dual loyalty and antisemitic tropes.)

Peddling arguments that being critical of Israel’s government policies is equivalent to antisemitism does not help the case, especially given that so many of the critics of the Israeli government are actually the Jews upon whom support for the U.S.-Israel relationship depended in years past.

In fact, even without Israel’s embrace of a radical right wing government full of racists and authoritarians, the U.S.-Israel relationship would be in a fragile state. Stresses on the relationship have grown even as the strategic necessity for America of maintaining the relationship has weakened.

The focus right now should be on finding ways to rebuild it. But the opposite is happening. And that is why there is every reason to expect that things will get worse from here on out, and an ailing alliance may soon end up on life-support in the geopolitical intensive care ward.

Joe Biden clearly wants to save the relationship. The big question is: Who is able and willing to do so on the Israeli side?

David Rothkopf's latest book is "Traitor: A History of Betraying America from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump." He is also a podcast host and CEO of The Rothkopf Group. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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