Agita Rising in America as Netanyahu Forms His Government

The coming ‘most right wing government in Israel’s history’ sparks fears that the special relationship between America and Israel could be nearing an end, but they will likely prove to be much exaggerated.

AP/Oren Ziv, file
Benjamin Netanyahu at Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. AP/Oren Ziv, file

“I succeeded,” Israel’s likely incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told President Herzog shortly before the expiration of his mandate to forge a government in the aftermath of the November election. “Oy vey” was the response from Washington and New York’s Upper West Side. 

American agita is growing about what is widely described as the coming “most right wing government in Israel’s history.” At Washington, a deep schism between President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu is widely predicted, at times all too gleefully. Is it that bad? 

Mr. Biden’s emissaries are leaking their plans to “handle” the widely predicted crisis threatening America’s special relations with the Jewish state. American Jews are rushing to express fears about an end to their bond with Israel, and to raise doubts about Mr. Netanyahu’s ability to maintain Israel’s values. 

Mr. Netanyahu is soon expected to present his proposed cabinet to the Knesset, and a week after that it is likely to be sworn in. His phone call to the Israeli president late Wednesday was based on general — though yet to be signed — agreements with prospective political partners. Some kinks are yet to be straightened, and the incoming government’s platform is far from completed. 

Washington, however, is already appalled by some of Mr. Netanyahu’s choices of partners to control important portfolios, such as the proposed finance minister, Betzalel Smotrich, and the national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir. 

Until recently, the two were considered fringe politicians. Mr. Ben Gvir has been convicted of anti-Arab incitement, and even as he now presents himself as a centrist right-winger, the idea of him controlling the police raises fears among Arabs and the Israeli left, not to mention in America and the rest of the world. 

American Jews say Mr. Smotrich and leaders of orthodox parties spell the end of liberal Israel. They predict the demise of the Jewish state as a rock of Mideast modernity, that it no longer will be a guardian of freedoms. They say the sanctity of the courts will disappear, gay rights will be narrowed, and the very definition of Judaism will be confined to a narrow, orthodox interpretation. 

Mr. Netanyahu has been making the rounds, granting interviews to NPR, the Washington Examiner, NBC, and Fox News. His mantra: He, rather than some of his most odious partners, would control the agenda of the government he heads. Washington immediately picked up the cue. 

“We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities,” Secretary Blinken said in a December address to the left-leaning Jewish lobby J Street. Disagreements aside, he added, the annual $3 billion in aid to Israel is “sacrosanct.”

Yet, in a broadside to Mr. Netanayhu’s coalition partners, Mr. Blinken also received applause from the Palestinian-sympathetic crowd when he vowed that America “will also continue to unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution.”

Unidentified administration officials told Politico this week that rather than addressing every disagreement with the likes of Mr. Ben Gvir, their strategy is to “make it all about Netayahu.” As one official put it, “Bibi says he can control his government, so let’s see him do just that.”

Mr. Natehayhu, an astute observer of American politics, is well aware of how his incoming government is perceived. He is expected to name his closest adviser, a former Israeli ambassador to America, Ron Dermer, as special envoy for relations with Washington, and will perhaps name him foreign minister. Both would do a lot to allay those fears. 

Another top candidate to become foreign minister is a rising star in the Likud party, Amir Ohana. A young, hip son of Moroccan immigrants, he recently posted on social media a mean guitar interpretation of Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” He is also openly gay, which could allay some fears about the loss of Israel’s liberalism. 

Meanwhile, although close to some of the most anti-Israel Democratic progressives, Mr. Biden’s politics are rooted in a long-gone era of wide bipartisan support of Israel. “Biden is not Obama, Tony Blinken is not John Kerry, and Jake Sullivan is not Susan Rice,” an Israeli historian and former ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, told the Sun.

“As a group,” he added, “the Biden administration is deeply committed to Israel’s security and the bilateral relationship. Yet, they do represent politics which to various degrees has variants with Israel’s.” 

Mr. Oren added that “one of the big issues that has been taken off the table is the Iran nuclear deal.” The possible removal of that source of rift with Israel provides “an incentive for Israel to cooperate closely with the Biden administration. It would be a great pity if there are other issues that would interfere with this cooperation.”

If Washington is indeed finally awakening to the dangers the Islamic Republic poses to America’s national security, it will need to tighten relations with Jerusalem. Mr. Netanayahu, of course, is well aware that Israel needs America’s backing to deal with Tehran’s threats.

Expect ups and downs, then, but be aware that reports of the death of America’s ties with its best Mideast ally will likely prove to have been greatly exaggerated. 

The New York Sun

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