Israel remains an important ally due to its intelligence capabilities and its historical and political resonance in the United States. And Biden’s long-term goal of shifting America’s focus toward Asia will rest in part on remaining on good terms with Israeli leaders, while encouraging their efforts to improve ties with Arab states and bring more stability to the long volatile Middle East.
“The administration will go to great lengths to avoid a confrontation with Netanyahu,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who took part in many Middle East peace talks. “It’s good policy to engage, and clearly, given the fact that the president is going to announce in the next several weeks or months his intention to seek a second term, it’s also good politics.”
The Biden administration is treading carefully in the new reality presented by Netanyahu’s far-right coalition. Make the visits, but downplay their importance. Meet with Netanyahu, but avoid his more extreme coalition partners. And hold onto the hope that diplomacy can reduce tensions.
The new Israeli government is dotted with religious zealots with antipathy toward Arabs, LGBTQ+ people and others. And as Blinken arrived, there were questions about whether some of these coalition leaders would further stoke recent violence.
On Thursday, Israeli security forces killed nine Palestinians in the West Bank in what Israel called a raid against a terrorist unit. The next day, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israelis near a synagogue in east Jerusalem.
Blinken urged de-escalation. “It’s the responsibility of everyone to take steps to calm tensions rather than inflame them,” he said upon reaching Israel after a stop in Egypt.
Asked about the significance of the secretary of State’s visit, a U.S. official described it as unexceptional.
“Israel is an important ally with a new government very different from what came before. It’s normal for a secretary of State to make an early trip,” said the senior Biden administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the topic involved sensitive diplomatic issues.
But Blinken has more than meet-and-greets to deal with on his trip.
Iran is one major example. Israel views the Islamist regime, which has called for Israel’s destruction, as an existential threat.
Over the weekend, reports emerged that suspected Israeli drones had attacked a military facility in the Iranian city of Isfahan. Details of that strike, including the type of military facility targeted and whether Washington had advance notice, remain fuzzy.
Netanyahu has long been at odds with the Biden administration on exactly how to deal with Iran. He has opposed the Iran nuclear deal, which lifted many sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program. The Biden team tried to salvage that agreement, which the Trump administration quit in 2018, but the Iranian regime’s oppression of popular protests has put the matter on hold.
But the United States is working to strengthen the ties between Israel and a few Arab countries — some of them also at odds with Iran — through the Abraham Accords. The Biden administration hopes such “integration” — as it calls it — will provide a bulwark against Iran, whose Shiite Islamist regime has harassed its neighbors for years.
Israel’s enmity with Iran also is affecting its policy toward Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Kyiv has urged Israel to donate systems to help it fend off Russian missile and other attacks. But the Israelis want to maintain good relations with Moscow because they want to be able to strike Iranian sites in Syria, where the Kremlin holds significant sway. The issue is further complicated by Iran’s decision to supply Russia with drones that the Kremlin is using against Ukraine.
Blinken pushed Israel to do more to help the Ukrainians.
“Russia’s ongoing atrocities only underscore the importance of providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs — humanitarian, economic and security — as it bravely defends its people and its very right to exist, a topic that we also discussed today,” he said alongside Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday.
Blinken did not plan to meet with the more extreme members of the Netanyahu-led coalition — some of whom have views that have alarmed many Israeli Jews, especially secular ones, not to mention Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Netanyahu has given these allies positions that include overseeing some security forces that deal with Palestinians.
U.S. officials have, however, said they will hold Netanyahu responsible for the actions of his government, noting that he’s stressed that he’s the one in charge.
But Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges, is counting on his coalition partners to help shield him from prosecution. That makes it harder for the United States to pressure him, even though he’s had experience as a prime minister and has a long friendship with Biden.
The new Israeli government Netanyahu leads also is trying to limit the powers of the Israeli judiciary — an effort that worries Washington, though it has little ability to stop it.
Blinken nodded to all of these concerns Monday, stressing that Israel and the United States had shared ideals, among them “our support for core democratic principles and institutions, including respect for human rights” and “the equal administration of justice for all.”
Administration officials also say they will keep pushing Israel to engage with the Palestinians, and the chief U.S. diplomat is supposed to meet Tuesday with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, in the West Bank.
But Netanyahu and his Israeli colleagues appear to have zero interest in talking about peace with the Palestinians. In fact, they are taking steps to make it harder, including by promising more allowances for settlers in the West Bank, which further undermines the possibility of a Palestinian state.
The reality is that the Palestinians themselves are ill-prepared for serious negotiations. Abbas has run the Palestinian Authority for nearly two decades, and he’s unwilling to hold an election for fear of losing to rivals such as Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Many younger Palestinians are deeply disillusioned with their leaders’ corruption and ineptitude.
Although the Biden administration frequently speaks out in support of human rights for Palestinians, Biden has ruled out conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel on its treatment of the Palestinians — and there are few other levers Washington has to pull with an ally whose cooperation it needs in the Middle East.
While the Biden administration routinely says it supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has “abandoned the issue in all but rhetoric,” said Khaled Elgindy, a scholar with the Middle East Institute. “Palestinians are low on the agenda.”