US must handle Israel’s grenade of a government with extra care
In the midst of one of the most closely contested midterm elections in American history, Washington could not afford to lose sight of the crucial developments in one of its key Middle East allies — Israel.
For decades, despite the asymmetric balance of power, relations between the two countries have left a strong impression that, on many occasions, it has been the tail that wagged the much more powerful dog; a dog that has provided enormous military, political and economic aid and support since Israel’s inception.
There have always been periodic disagreements between the two allies, and even occasions of severe friction. However, the result of Israel’s recent general election, one that has brought into the heart of Israeli politics the most extreme far-right elements and with this the prospect of their representatives holding key positions in the next Israeli government, is a cause for grave concern in Washington.
In recent years, especially during the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has increasingly taken for granted its strong friendship with the US, much of it deriving from Tel Aviv becoming an economic and technological powerhouse, while establishing strong diplomatic and economic relations with most of the world, including China and Russia. This has led to a sense of more independence from Washington — one might argue with a strong element of complacency — leading to Israel successfully avoiding and sometimes exploiting global and regional tensions to improve its strategic positioning. This has also allowed it more room for political maneuvering vis-a-vis the US, helped out by strong lobbies that protect Israel from public criticism. Thus, there have been very few repercussions, even when Israel’s actions have harmed US interests.
However, it is paramount for the new government, including the person expected to head it (who incidentally believes he understands the US more than anyone else in Israel and probably in the world), to realize that the support and friendship of the US is still a very important pillar of its security and prosperity, and that the strong bond between the two countries derives from their shared belief in democratic values and governance.
That there are also limits to Washington’s patience and uneasiness with Israel’s anti-democratic lawbreakers and warmongers is already showing among the Biden administration. The very fact that anti-democratic characters such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir are being seriously considered to head up Israel’s ministries of defense and of public security should send shivers down the spine of those who value the friendship and strategic alliance between the two countries.
During the election campaign, Smotrich and especially Ben-Gvir tried to lower the tone of their racist anti-Arab views and take their fascistic language down a notch or two. But only a few days after the election, in which their political faction Religious Zionism won an unprecedented 14 seats in the Knesset, Ben-Gvir attended a memorial service for the racist Meir Kahane, claiming that this was to pay homage to the slain US-born Israeli rabbi’s “love of Israel.” He added that, “since I was 16, every year I came to the memorial here to show my respect.” Ben-Gvir, together with other senior members of his party who accompanied him to this shameful celebration of racism and bigotry, have always declared themselves to be disciples of Kahane and, if anyone is skeptical of his “journey toward moderation,” they need look no further than his attendance at this event.
The last thing the Biden administration wants to see is an implosion in relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The response from the US State Department was swift, with its spokesperson Ned Price condemning Ben-Gvir’s participation in no uncertain terms. He told journalists: “Celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organization is abhorrent; there is no other word for it. It is abhorrent. And we remain concerned, as we said before, by the legacy of Kahane Chai, and the continued use of rhetoric among violent, right-wing extremists,” reminding everyone that in the US, as in Israel, the Kahanist group remains a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization.
Ironically, Ben-Gvir was jeered during the memorial service when he told Kahane’s supporters that he “does not think all Arabs should be deported,” only terrorists. Those people are unapologetically committed to crimes against humanity and this is Ben-Gvir’s natural political habitat. Moreover, anyone familiar with the history of such far-right organizations knows how wide their definition of a terrorist is — it simply means everyone who opposes them.
The US has a broad range of strategic interests in common with Israel across the Middle East and beyond, sharing most secret intelligence and military technology. The idea that they would have any dealings with a Defense Ministry influenced by people who harbor a messianic complex and a mission to redeem the entire holy land and create a Jewish theocracy is nothing short of a nightmare scenario. Could America trust these people with confidential information about how they plan to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear capability, for instance?
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the US has no intention of embarking on a peace initiative any time soon, as the conditions for this are unfavorable on both sides of the conflict. However, the last thing the Biden administration wants to see is an implosion in relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet putting political pyromaniacs in charge of ministries that have the power to ignite a potentially very explosive situation, with horrendous regional and global implications, is bound to keep decision-makers in Washington awake at night.
Netanyahu would probably promise the Americans that all decisions on national security and foreign affairs would go through him and his office, but no one knows better than him how easy it is to cause provocations and he will have these provocateurs at the heart of his government. There is also concern in the US that an Israeli government dominated by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox politicians — who insist on changing the law in Israel to the effect that conversions conducted by Reform and liberal Jewish rabbis, who are the majority among US Jewry, will not be recognized in Israel and, by that, prevent the converted from being eligible to emigrate to Israel — might lead to friction with the largest Jewish community outside of Israel.
It is now for the US to act quickly and handle this grenade of a government with extra care, but also firmly and assertively. Israel has democratically elected an extreme blend of right-wing nationalism with strong messianic elements. For the international community, especially the US, respecting the will of the Israeli voters does not necessarily mean allowing Tel Aviv to get away with policies that are harmful to their interests. This could test the US-Israel friendship and alliance more than ever.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.