By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON — “Behind closed doors” is a phrase that crops up a lot in conversation with senior U.S. and Israeli officials these days. That’s the place both sides want to settle disagreements.
So far, that strategy has worked to repair the structure of the diplomatic relationship between U.S. Democrats and the Israeli government, frayed by years of open and sometimes heated contentiousness.
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular repeatedly clashed in public. But despite their ideological differences on paper, President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have projected a convivial and united front.
“Biden, I think it’s visceral with him, given his historic commitment to Israel, and also not wanting a repeat of the Obama years,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with ties to both the U.S. and Israeli governments. “And with Bennett and Lapid, they don’t want to repeat the Netanyahu years.”
Still, an array of issues have begun to swirl over the past several months that threaten the current calm.
Bennett has allowed for the construction of thousands of new settler homes. Biden is pushing to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, formerly the principal venue for U.S.-Palestinian relations. Last month the United States sanctioned two Israeli spyware companies.
Then there is the ongoing strife over Iran’s nuclear program, a point of contention that those who analyze the U.S.-Israel relationship say could eventually blow the doors wide open.
“The Iran issue is where the two parties don’t control the developments,” Makovsky said. “And that’s where Israel is concerned.”
Here are the issues that could drive a wedge between the two countries.
This week, talks on what conditions the United States wants to see before reentering the Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, resume in Vienna. The JCPOA swaps sanctions relief for Iran rolling back its nuclear program.
Former President Donald Trump, with Netanyahu’s encouragement, exited the deal in 2018, reimposing suspended sanctions and adding hundreds of new ones. Iran retaliated, suspending some of its compliance with the deal.
Biden campaigned on reentering the deal brokered in 2015, when he was vice president, seeing it as the best means of stopping a nuclear weapon. Bennett and Lapid are skeptical but have said they are willing to wait and see if Biden negotiates better terms with Iran.
Israeli officials have said they believe Iran is weeks away from nuclear weapons capability; the country is enriching uranium to 60% purity, perilously close to the 90% needed for weaponization. This week, Axios reported, Israel warned the United States that Iran is on the verge of 90% enrichment.
Makovsky said what Iran does this week could set off any number of calculations from the United States and Israel that could lead to open confrontation between the allies.
“I think the U.S.-Israel relationship will be tested in terms of how each side responds to this uncertainty,” Makovsky said.
The call that Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz took Oct. 26 was the first of its kind in almost five years: There was a U.S. secretary of state on the line, livid about the announcement that week that Israel had greenlighted more than 3,000 new units in the West Bank. Some were located in “E1,” the corridor that separates the Maaleh Adumim settlement from Jerusalem, and which Palestinians say is critical to the existence of a viable Palestinian state — the Biden administration’s favored outcome to the decades-long conflict.
An anonymous Israeli aide described the call by saying “The U.S. gave us a yellow card,” Axios reported. In soccer, a yellow card is a strong warning over conduct handed from a referee to a player; two yellow cards in one game equals an ejection.
In other words, Blinken’s dressing down was just a warning, not a signal of a new status quo in U.S.-Israel relations.
Last month, Gantz designated six leading Palestinian human rights organizations operating in the West Bank as terrorist groups. The designation would allow Israel’s government to shut the groups down, although it’s not yet clear if the government has taken those steps.
Gantz argued that the NGOs are affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, designated by the State Department as a terrorist group. But the international condemnation of the move was swift.
The Biden administration also said it was caught off-guard by the designation. Anonymous Israeli officials countered that the United States was forewarned and that intelligence about the groups had been shared. European officials have said the intelligence they have seen is not persuasive.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has signaled that the Biden administration remains less than convinced by whatever intelligence Israel was proferring. She has made a point of expressing support for Palestinian NGOs.
“This week, I had the chance to meet with civil society leaders in Ramallah,” Thomas-Greenfield said on Twitter on Nov. 20 after a visit to Israel and the West Bank. “I was inspired by their work to advance democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity for the Palestinian people. We support Palestinian NGOs’ role monitoring human rights abuses wherever they occur.”
On Tuesday, Thomas-Greenfield told the United Nations Security Council that settler attacks created a “serious security situation” for Palestinians and said she had raised it with Israeli officials.
The National quoted her as saying she had heard of “Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians, ransacking homes and destroying property in the West Bank” and that “this is an issue that I discussed extensively with Israeli counterparts.”
The Jerusalem consulate
Biden campaigned on reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which was the site of U.S.-Palestinian relations until Trump closed it in 2019. Both Bennett and Lapid, Israel’s more centrist foreign minister who is slated to rotate into the prime minister role in 2023, have said that can’t happen.
The Biden administration says it is determined to make good on the pledge, which the president sees as key to reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks toward a two-state outcome.
Lapid has sought to persuade his counterpart Antony Blinken that forcing the issue could endanger the Bennett-Lapid government.
That’s because there’s no way the consulate could reopen without explicit Israeli approval, and giving that approval would put the Bennett government in the position of acknowledging a Palestinian claim to the city — the third rail in Israeli politics.
The old consulate predated Israel’s existence, which meant that until Trump closed it, there was no need to seek Israel’s approval for its ongoing function. That’s no longer the case, according to Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace think tank, who from 1992-1994 was a U.S. diplomat at the consulate.
“A diplomatic mission operates as, literally, an island of foreign sovereignty within the territory of the host country, staffed by foreign diplomats who (for the most part) enjoy immunity from the jurisdiction of the host government,” Friedman wrote last month in her weekly roundup of congressional action related to the Middle East. “No nation can simply rent/buy a property in a foreign country and declare it, unilaterally, under their own country’s sovereignty. The host country must consent to giving up its sovereignty to a foreign nation.”
Israeli officials say that they are seeking a way out that would save face for both sides, perhaps by opening a consulate in an area of the West Bank not seen as Jerusalem.
The Biden administration this month sanctioned two Israeli spyware companies, NSO group and Candira, saying that repressive governments are using the tools to “threaten the rules-based international order.” Apple sued NSO for selling its cell phone hacking spyware to governments that used it to spy on activists and journalists.
Israel’s Defense Ministry must approve exports of Israeli security technology, and Biden officials have made clear they want answers. Nevertheless, the Biden administration says no actions against Israel’s government are forthcoming.
“We look forward to further discussions with the government of Israel about ensuring that these companies’ products are not used to target human rights defenders, journalists and others who shouldn’t be targeted,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesman.
One issue that has simmered over from the Trump to the Biden administrations: Israel’s increasing trade with China.
Like Trump, Biden is wary of what he sees as China’s increased belligerency and is set on confronting the country. As of now, he is considering a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Olympics in Beijing.
Both the Biden and Trump administrations made it clear to Israel that it was expected as an ally to roll back its ties with China, especially in areas of infrastructure that risk exposing U.S. technology.
But Israel has yet to alter its course. In October, Israel refused to sign a U.N. statement condemning China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in China that has been forced into “re-education camps,” which some have likened to concentration camps.
China was perhaps the most sensitive issue at a meeting between Lapid and Blinken in October.
“The importance of China to Israel’s economy is very substantial, and we have to find a way to discuss this subject in a way that does not harm Israel’s interests,” an official close to Lapid said at the time.