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What Bibi’s New Government Means for US-Israel Relations

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With Benjamin Netanyahu sworn in as Israel’s prime minister, what policies will his government pursue, and what will this mean for relations with the United States?

 

Abraham Accords 

Israel’s new government will work to advance the Abraham Accords. Following repeated pledges to clinch a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu stated at his first cabinet meeting that his government’s goal was to “dramatically expand the circle of peace.” And several in his new cabinet are sympathetic.

Netanyahu appointed Ron Dermer as strategic affairs minister, and has tasked him with striking a deal with Saudi Arabia. Dermer played a key role in advancing the deals that the Trump administration had brokered between Israel and UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. While he was not well liked by the Obama administration, current US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has voiced the opinion that he believes the two of them can work well together.

Netanyahu appointed Eli Cohen as the foreign minister, who was also integral in negotiating the previous Abraham Accords. Cohen recently stated that it “is not a question of if, but when” more countries will join the Abraham Accords, and has voiced support of multiple other countries joining the Accords in the past. He also announced that a second Negev Summit will take place in Morocco in March. Cohen led Israel’s first delegation to Sudan.

Furthermore, new cabinet members Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich stated that they would not oppose a deal normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Even outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid expressed optimismregarding the Saudi track.

However, the Biden administration has yet to deliver on expanding the Abraham Accords beyond the countries that the Trump administration had secured. Oman’s recent vote to expand its boycott against Israel, a recent statement by Qatar opposing the new Israeli government, and the Biden administration’s continued hostility towards the Saudi governmentindicate that the Biden administration faces an uphill battle on expanding the Abraham Accords.

The Biden administration did not endorse the Abraham Accords that strongly in its recent statements congratulating Israel’s new government. The White House referred to it indirectly if at all, stating that “The United States is working to promote a region that’s increasingly integrated, prosperous, and secure, with benefits for all of its people.” Blinken made similar oblique references to the Accords, stating that the US supports the Negev Forum, and  that the US will work “with the new Israeli government to promote peace, security, and prosperity in the region,” and to continue to promote “a vision of Israel at peace with its neighbors.” Blinken also failed to advocate for Sudan to lean into the Abraham Accords in his press statement recently commemorating Sudan National Day.

 

Iran

Netanyahu mentioned that his first priority of his new government will be “…to block Iran. This is an existential question.” In a surprising level of transparency, outgoing defense minister Benny Gantz stated to a graduating class of Israeli air force pilots that Israel is “preparing for the possibility of an attack on Iran” and that attack could happen two to three years from now. Some in the Israeli press have speculated that Netanyahu appointing Yoav Gallant as the new defense minister will be a way to ensure support for a strike on Iran, in contrast to in 2010 when Israel faced a split cabinet on this issue. Newly appointed foreign minister Eli Cohen served as the intelligence minister previously under Netanyahu from May 2020 through June 2021, during which Israel assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, believed to be the head of Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel will likely get measured support from the Biden administration on Iran. Blinken’s statements mention that the US will work with Israel on the threat from Iran, and the Biden administration is working to stop Iran’s drone sales to Russia. However, there is no indication that the US will back out of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Continuing such negotiations, despite the Iranian government’s complete lack of good faith and continued persecution of dissidents, remains the elephant in the room.

 

Annexation/Settlements

The coalition agreement of Israel’s new government promises that it will “advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel,” and expressly includes Judea and Samaria. Specifically, the agreement obligates the prime minister to “formulate and promote policies within whose framework sovereignty will be applied to Judea and Samaria.”

MK Bezalel Smotrich will be a minister within the Defense Department, and will have power over building settlements. Smotrich has also promised to combat Palestiniande facto annexation” of Area C, which is the part of Judea and Samaria where Israelis live and are entitled to do so under the Oslo Accords. Furthermore, Israel’s new housing minister has also promised to assist Israelis wishing to settle in Judea and Samaria.

However, it remains unclear just how committed Israel’s new government will be to settlement construction and promoting Israel’s sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. The coalition agreement lacks a timeline of implementation and a specific map of priorities within Judea and Samaria. Additionally, in the first cabinet meeting of the new government, Netanyahu laid out his four main priorities of Israel’s new government, and Israel’s sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and/or building settlements there was not one of them. And during Netanyahu’s last tenure as prime minister, he promised multiple times to promote sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, but did not deliver.

The Biden administration will likely clash with Netanyahu’s new government over settlements and any move to establish Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, the latter of which the Biden administration has communicated to Israel as being one of its “red lines.” While not naming settlements specifically, the Biden administration has telegraphed its opposition to both settlement building and sovereignty in press statements and communiques (see here, here and here) opposing policies that “endanger [the] viability” of the two-state solution.

 

Two-State Solution

Another point of contention between the administration and Israel’s new government will be the two state solution itself, which the Biden administration remains obsessed with. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently stressed that the US would oppose any attempts of Israel to undermine a two-state solution in a phone call to Israel’s new foreign minister Eli Cohen. This follows virtually identical press statements from the White House and the State Department that argued that the United States will continue to support a two-state solution.

This issue will be considerably problematic considering that the Palestinian government is not a partner in peace. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh stated that Fatah would remain “loyal to the martyrs and prisoners, its founders and our people,” and argued that Palestinians should engage in “popular resistance” against Israel, both of these statements being code-phrases for supporting terrorism. The Deputy Fatah chairman stated that Israel poses a threat to al-Aqsa mosque, a canard used since the 1920s to incite violence against Jews, and also called the new government “fascist.”

 

Conclusion

Netanyahu’s new government has ambitions plans in opposing a toxic two-state solution, promoting settlement building and annexation of Judea and Samaria, keeping Iran in check, and expanding the Abraham Accords. Hopefully the Biden administration will rise to the occasion and support Israel’s new government, rather than get in the way of durable peace in the region.

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EXCLUSIVE: Former Trump appointee explains an ‘America First Strategy’ in the ME

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Photo: Israeli Government

The author interviewed Ellie Cohanim, one of the authors of the new book: “An America First Approach to US National Security.” Ellie is the former U.S. Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism under the Trump administration. She is currently a Senior Fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum focusing on Iran, Israel, and global antisemitism, and is a national security contributor for the Christian Broadcasting Network. In 2021, Ellie launched and hosted for Jewish News Syndicate 30 plus episodes of the show “Global Perspectives with Ellie Cohanim.” Ellie spent 15 years in media and NGO management before serving in the public sector. How would you define an “America First” strategy in the Middle East?

Cohanim: An America First strategy in the Middle East would seek to advance American national security interests in that region, while maintaining our status as THE global superpower. To do that, the US would ensure that our principal allies in the region, countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, are economically and militarily strong, and that our adversaries in the region are deterred.

Postal: How has the United States’ standing in the Middle East differed between the Trump and Biden administrations?

Cohanim: Under President Trump, for four years we had peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. Under President Biden, in just three tumultuous years there has been war in the region, which holds the potential for becoming a regional conflict and even a nuclear confrontation. Meanwhile, the US’ status in the region and the world has diminished due to Biden’s disastrous mishandling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, his emboldening of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and his weak response to Iranian attacks on our personnel and assets in the region. 

 

Postal: Do you think the United States and Israel are/were in a stronger position to deter Iran’s nuclear and territorial ambitions in Biden or Trump’s administration?

Cohanim: America’s position of strength has not changed under either administration vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. What has changed is our Iran policy. Under President Trump’s administration, the US contained and constrained Tehran. Trump applied a “Maximum Pressure” sanctions campaign which left the Iranian Regime with only $4 billion in accessible foreign currency reserves by the end of his term, giving the Iranians less cash and less ability to fund their terror proxies and their nuclear program, and Trump eliminated Qassem Soleimani. While all President Biden needed to do was to continue implementing such successful policies, his administration instead did the exact opposite.  Under the Biden administration, Israel, our leading ally in the region, was attacked for the first time directly from Iranian soil. This was an unprecedented escalatory attack by the Iranian regime, and could only happen under the Biden administration.

Postal: In your chapter of the book, you discuss the weakening of US relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia under the Biden administration. How has the Biden administration affected the likelihood of future normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and deals between Israel and other Muslim countries (i.e., new Abraham Accords)?

Cohanim: The good news is that the Abraham Accords have withstood the test of multiple Hamas provocations against Israel, and now the current war. Despite numerous claims from the Biden administration regarding “successful” efforts to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, I do not think that the Biden administration will be able to clinch such a deal. In the Middle East, people have a long memory. Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has not forgotten President Biden’s snub when he first came into office, and Biden’s incredibly poorly advised behavior towards the Crown Prince when he made his first visit to the Kingdom as president. The last thing the Crown Prince wants is to hand Biden his first foreign policy success with a Rose Garden peace deal ceremony. So, I do not believe President Biden can broker Saudi/Israeli normalization.

However, I am also convinced that it is a matter of “when” and not “if” such a peace deal will happen between those two countries, as it serves both of their interests to make such a deal. The Saudis understand better than anyone that it is the Islamic Republic of Iran that threatens the Kingdom’s security and stability, not Israel.

Postal: What do you think of the Biden administration’s latest statements withholding arms to Israel?

Cohanim: President Biden will go down in history for his abject moral failure in not standing by Israel while she fights a five-front war. Biden has shown his despicable personality for trying to keep his anti-Israel arms embargo concealed until he could first deliver a speech on the Holocaust. Biden’s behavior is despicable on so many levels.

Ultimately, Biden is betraying the American people. He came into office presenting himself as a “centrist Democrat,” but has proven repeatedly to be beholden to the radical, extremist, pro-Hamas wing of his party.

Postal: How does the Biden administration’s support of a Palestinian state differ from the Trump administration’s support of a Palestinian state under its Peace to Prosperity framework?

Cohanim: The Biden administration stated that they will “unilaterally recognize” a Palestinian state. What the borders of that state are and who would lead it, nobody knows. 

The Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” was a detailed plan that was premised on the realities on the ground in Israel. The plan required that the Palestinians reach benchmarks proving a real desire to live in peace with their Israeli neighbors. It included over $50 billion in investment in the region, which would have been a road to prosperity for all. Perhaps most significantly, the Palestinian state envisioned under the Trump plan would have been demilitarized, the wisdom of which could not be more clear following the October 7 massacre and attack.

The author would like to thank Ellie Cohanim for participating in this interview.

 

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