Nearly six months into the reset that naturally occurred with the combination of a new American president and a new Israeli prime minister, we are at an odd moment in U.S.-Israel relations. Both sides remain committed to keeping any disagreements at no higher than a bare simmer, but those disagreements are beginning to pile up. Rather than address the issues at the heart of the widening gap between the two sides in a substantive way—which may risk the current amicable atmosphere—each side is putting its chips behind a specific bet that looks more like a wish. If these bets pay off, then the relationship between the Biden administration and the Bennett-Lapid government will continue relatively smoothly. If they do not, each side may wish that it had decided to have some hard conversations early on as a way of avoiding even harder conversations later.
The U.S. bet is the same as it has been since President Biden entered office, which is that it can safely pay no more than the bare minimum of attention to Israeli-Palestinian issues without them blowing up in Washington’s face. This bet was challenged early on with the fighting in May between Israel and Hamas, but the situation resolved itself relatively quickly—thanks more to the efforts of Egypt than anyone else—and the U.S. went back to its prior posture of effectively going along to get along. While predicting or controlling Hamas’s periodic violent outbursts is particularly difficult, the American wager is not aimed at Hamas or the Palestinians more widely, but is really directed at Israel and its actions.
The U.S. has internalized the idea that the ideological diversity of the Israeli coalition will prevent any migraine-inducing shifts on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, and that Prime Minister Bennett’s embrace of a conflict-shrinking paradigm will lead to incremental progress of the type that the U.S. favors rather than to a deterioration on the ground or the foreclosing of a two-state outcome in the future. In essence, the U.S. bet is that the Israeli government will not make any sudden or drastic moves that force Washington to pay more attention to this issue than it would like, since if things continue along a smooth trajectory in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, it will mean the continuation of the smooth trajectory in the U.S.-Israel arena. The U.S. is relying on Tony Blinken and Yair Lapid’s “no surprises” gentlemen’s agreement in order to continue a relatively hands-off approach.
The Israeli bet follows from the U.S. bet, and it is that the American side fundamentally does not care about what goes on in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere beyond some very broad strokes and will abide nearly anything that does not impact those broad strokes if it means avoiding the return of Binyamin Netanyahu to power. The Israeli government has a sense of what will raise American ire—an attack on Iran before the U.S. exhausts its own diplomatic process, West Bank annexation, enabling a larger Chinese foothold in Israel and the region—but is betting that it can proceed without repercussions on other issues in ways that would have provoked a harsh response from previous administrations.
Examples of this abound, from Israeli bulldozers literally laying the groundwork for construction that has already received final stage approval in Givat Hamatos, to advancing plans for E-1 that were a redline for George W. Bush even amidst the Second Intifada, to publicly and privately giving the U.S. a no on reopening an American diplomatic facility in Jerusalem that existed less than three years ago. On all these issues, Israel assumes that the U.S. will not care enough to do anything beyond mild and mid-level rhetorical protest in order not to risk a rupture between the two governments, and that if the White House does actually care, it still does not want to do anything that will collapse the coalition and bring Netanyahu back. The specter of Netanyahu using the perception of Israel kowtowing to American pressure to create a political crisis, or the specter of Ayelet Shaked defecting from the coalition and bringing down the government over the division of Jerusalem that reopening the consulate will allegedly represent, are presumed by the Israeli government to be powerful enough to keep the U.S. from pushing too hard on anything. The wager is that the combination of these factors allows Israel to safely ignore American policy preferences, since ultimately the U.S. does not really care.
There are two problems with the environment that these bets have created between the two sides. One is that what the U.S. defines as sudden or drastic moves and what Israel defines as sudden or drastic moves are not the same. We saw this demonstrated in real time last week with the Israeli announcements on housing tenders and planning and permitting approvals; the Israeli side likely assumed this decision would be met with the tried and true formula of “both sides should avoid unilateral actions” and was instead met with a harsher condemnation and an unpleasant call between Blinken and Benny Gantz. This does not make Israel’s bet faulty, but does mean that it may need to recalibrate its assumption of where the margins of what the U.S. does and does not care about lie.
The bigger problem is that the U.S. and Israeli bets are in an irreconcilable conflict with each other, and the longer these bets persist, the clearer this will become. The U.S. bet is that Israel has the knowledge and discipline to restrain itself, and the Israeli bet is that American apathy and Democratic distaste for Netanyahu means it does not have to restrain itself. The space where these two assumptions push against each other has already narrowed, and the friction is beginning to create sparks. It is possible that one or both sides will step back, or that each will determine that other interests are too important to risk a genuine clash no matter what the other side does. It is also possible that a few months or years from now, this period will be seen as the halcyon days of U.S.-Israel relations under Biden and Bennett. Whatever the eventual outcome, hopefully the U.S. and Israel understand both their own bet and the other side’s bet, so that nobody stumbles into a rift that comes as a surprise.