The last time that Israel had a new prime minister take office before Prime Minister Bennett did so last week, it came at the beginning of a new U.S. president’s term as it has this time. In 2009, the men in the respective offices were President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the manner in which they proceeded to deal with each other and the policies that each pursued ultimately led to a number of unfortunate dynamics that have endured and in some ways deepened. Chief among these were the deepening of partisanization around Israel in the U.S., political incentives to publicly deride the U.S. in Israel, and a sense that the U.S. was giving a blank check to the Israeli government while constantly being spurned on U.S. policy priorities. Wherever one stands on specific policy issues, none of these dynamics are welcome if the objective is a healthy and productive U.S.-Israel relationship.
The end of Netanyahu’s tenure presents a unique opportunity to reshape the ways in which the U.S. and Israel deal with each other. Conventional wisdom is that the discord between Netanyahu and Obama and the fawning between Netanyahu and President Trump were driven by the specific personalities and the alignment or clash in worldviews, and that may be to a large extent true. But what happens between President Biden and Bennett or Yair Lapid can and should be less dependent on whether leaders get along or their political ideologies. A U.S.-Israel relationship that is stable and works for both sides needs to rest on a better understanding of the domestic politics involved, with an eye toward a first principle of better managing policy disagreements in a way that sidesteps electoral calculations.
There is justifiable skepticism about the staying power of the new Israeli government and whether it will still exist a year from now. There is wide disagreement over many issues, with a coalition crisis already over renewal of Israel’s family unification law that restricts granting citizenship to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens. The coalition, comprised as it is of eight parties encompassing the breadth of the entire Israeli political spectrum and with veto mechanisms for Bennett’s bloc and Lapid’s bloc over each other, may be too structurally unwieldy to last.
But there are a number of countervailing variables that combine for a strong centrifugal force that may make this coalition far stronger than it appears. The glue that binds everyone together is Netanyahu, since replacing him was this coalition’s reason for being and the single issue on which everyone could agree. Not only is Netanyahu still around as the opposition leader and head of the largest party in the Knesset, he is reinforcing the sense of danger felt by the new government by having Likud MKs and members still refer to him as prime minister. So long as Netanyahu remains in the Knesset and touts his eventual return to power, the new coalition will do anything it can to quickly fill in its internal cracks.
The incentive to stick together goes beyond Netanyahu though. If elections were held today, many of the parties now in power would collapse. Not only would Bennett have no chance at being prime minister in a new government, his Yamina party would lose seats and likely come dangerously close to the Knesset threshold, something Bennett experienced in the April 2019 election when he fell a few thousand votes short of making the Knesset. A similar fate would befall Gideon Sa’ar’s Tikva Hadasha, which has even less of a natural constituency and would quickly disappear. For the right-wing parties, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to wield power without being subservient to Netanyahu and Likud, and they understand the enormous political risks involved if this government quickly shatters.
For the left-wing parties, who have been out of power for years, this is an opportunity to relearn the skills of running ministries and being in a coalition rather than in what seemed like permanent opposition. If elections took place and a new government was elected, their chances of being included would be slim, so their interest in keeping the current government in power is strong. For Ra’am, keeping the coalition together is the only route to institutionalizing a situation similar to what exists for the Haredi parties, where Ra’am will deliver benefits to its constituents by supporting governments rather than being a symbolic protest party. And Lapid, whose Yesh Atid would likely gain significantly in a new Knesset election, has no incentive to destroy a government that is his creation more than anyone’s, and certainly not while he is foreign minister and prime minister in-waiting.
This all adds up to a new Israeli government that is going to be trying hard to stick to narrow issues of consensus and avoid any hurdles that prove insurmountable. Netanyahu and Likud will be doing their best from the opposition to raise issues that present such hurdles, and will have no qualms about trying to throw the U.S. into the mix. Earlier this week, Netanyahu charged that Lapid had endangered Israel by agreeing with Secretary of State Tony Blinken on a “no surprises” policy, and claimed that he had safeguarded Israel by standing up to the U.S. If the Biden administration is intent on not creating unnecessary challenges for the new Israeli government while ensuring that American policy priorities and interests can be advanced, it has to recognize this dynamic constantly at work and come up with approaches that will not elevate differences into easily exploitable public disagreements. This does not mean stepping back from U.S. principles or refraining from pushing the new government on areas of importance, but it does mean doing everything possible to avoid having the U.S., its role, and its requests be hot-button political issues that give Bennett a reason to publicly push back.
There is as close to a consensus as there has been in the past three decades in both the U.S. and Israel that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be resolved any time soon, and there is also no perceived threat to Israeli control over the West Bank, with the Palestinians in disarray and fresh off four years of Trump policies that were explicitly designed to deepen Israel’s hold over the territory. One of the reasons that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and differences over annexation and settlement policy have ceased to be Israeli campaign issues is because nobody sees anything upending the situation on the horizon, let alone moves with far-reaching consequences such as Oslo or the Gaza disengagement. One can bemoan this situation, but it also presents an opportunity for progress. With nobody on the right worried that losing the West Bank is imminent, it makes progress on smaller issues more possible than it would if every building permit for Palestinians or every rescinded home demolition order was viewed as a canary in the coalmine.
The way to leverage this is to embrace the principle of purposeful ambiguity. Not only will something like a loud public push for a settlement freeze or embracing usage restrictions on U.S. security assistance not accomplish the intended end result, it will ramp up external pressure on the new government and make it politically easier for it to defy the U.S. in high profile ways rather than trying to work with the U.S. in quieter ways. The U.S. should clearly communicate our concerns and requests to Bennett and Lapid, and push for progress on things like evictions and demolitions, reforming the building permitting process, and reducing IDF presence in Area A, but in a quiet manner that allows the Israeli government a measure of ambiguity and even deniability. Israeli cabinet ministers have plenty of power and leeway to implement policies, even if the Netanyahu era made people forget that lesson. The U.S. should be coming up with initiatives that are doable and that will improve conditions on the ground, but that will not cause a giant public stir or insert the U.S. into the political conversation. If we want to establish a better way of doing things moving forward and take advantage of the opportunity new Israeli leadership affords for a reset, we ignore Israeli politics at our own peril.