What new Israeli coalition could mean for US ties
If opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeed in establishing a new governing coalition, Israel will have new leadership for the first time in 12 years. This raises the question of what, if anything, will change in the country’s relations with the US.
Unless Netanyahu manages to block it, Israel will soon have a new governing coalition with Naftali Bennett as prime minister. Bennett is an openly right-wing politician, who opposes a Palestinian state, supports Israeli settlement expansion and annexation of the West Bank, and has made overtly anti-Arab comments. However, he will lead a coalition that is very fragile, including several parties with a wide range of ideological views. His primary partner in the coalition will be Yair Lapid, a more centrist politician who will have veto power over policy and is slated to become prime minister after two years.
Given the limitations on Bennett’s power and deep divisions within the coalition, the government is likely to focus more on domestic issues than controversial foreign policy and security concerns. However, Israel’s relationship with the US will remain crucial to Israeli interests, and the potential removal of Netanyahu from power is likely to affect bilateral ties.
Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden have a relationship that goes back to the 1980s. Despite some tense disagreements, they have maintained a friendship. Foreign policy practitioners know what to expect with Netanyahu, for better or worse. Bennett is less well known in Washington, though he speaks English well and is familiar with the US. It is not clear that Bennett and Biden have met. Lapid, who will likely become foreign minister, has limited experience in Washington.
During the Obama and Trump administrations, Netanyahu openly aligned himself — and Israel — with the Republican Party. In 2015, in response to an unusual invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House, he gave a speech to Congress in which he criticized the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. Democrats saw this as a serious affront to President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Even many Israelis criticized Netanyahu for actions that contributed to the erosion of traditional bipartisan support for Israel — a trend that was highlighted when an unusual number of Democrats publicly criticized Israel during the recent war with Gaza. Some Israelis, and many American supporters of Israel, are hoping that Bennett and the new coalition will stay out of US politics and work to rebuild ties with both parties.
Many Democrats who are committed to supporting Israel would be happy to see Netanyahu go. Many of them blame him for undermining bipartisan support for Israel and believe that many Democrats who recently criticized Tel Aviv would return to the traditional pro-Israel position with Netanyahu gone. They also argue that the new coalition would include right-wing and left-wing parties and therefore would be more palatable to Democrats.
This perspective, however, fails to appreciate that progressive and some centrist Democrats criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians on the basis of values, not simply because they did not like Netanyahu. Progressives prioritize social justice concerns and see Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as directly contradicting progressive values. Some centrist Democrats support Israel generally but saw its actions in the recent war with Gaza as a disproportionate use of force. Bennett’s positions toward the Palestinians are more openly hawkish and nationalist even than Netanyahu’s, so his position as prime minister is likely to reinforce concerns about how Israel treats Palestinians and the overall direction of Israeli politics.
For Democrats who still see Israel as a key democratic ally in the region but who were tired of Netanyahu, the new coalition suggests a return to unconditional bipartisan support for Israel. For progressives and some centrists who see Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as contrary to human rights and democracy, the new government is unlikely to change much.
Many Republicans are taking a cautious approach, praising Netanyahu while stating that the US relationship is with the state of Israel and not any one individual. However, Netanyahu has strong allies in the Republican Party and among evangelical Christians, who form a core voter constituency supporting Israel.
Israel’s relationship with the US will remain crucial and the potential removal of Netanyahu from power is likely to affect bilateral ties.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
The two primary issues shaping US-Israel relations today are Iran and the Palestinians. On Iran, the new coalition looks likely to oppose a return to a nuclear deal but will express its objections more privately and diplomatically — avoiding the type of high-profile, polarizing moves that Netanyahu made in recent years. Little progress is likely in relations with the Palestinians, given the deep divisions within the coalition on this issue. This might suit the White House, which clearly does not want to invest much political capital in a peace process, but it is unlikely to significantly change the shifting conversation within the Democratic Party.
The new coalition, if it takes power at all, is unlikely to last long. It has deep divisions and, unless Netanyahu is imprisoned on the corruption charges he currently faces, he will remain an active opposition leader. Unless the coalition proves durable, it is unlikely to significantly strengthen or weaken relations with Washington.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch