President Joe Biden is slated to make his first trip as president to Israel and the West Bank next month. The purposes of the trip are manifold, including demonstrating support for Israel as a critical partner, signaling ongoing American commitment to Israel’s security, putting the relationship with the Palestinians on firmer footing, and reiterating American regional policies that include clear support for a two-state outcome. It is this last element that makes the visit more complicated than it might otherwise be in light of recent events, and rather than simply treat a presidential trip as the ultimate feel-good event, the Biden administration should take care to think strategically about how the trip itself—let alone the content—can and should reinforce U.S. priorities and policy preferences.
All high-level U.S. visits are important, but the singular event of a presidential visit is a unique opportunity and one that is imbued with political significance. In Israel, where the relationship with the U.S. is considered the only truly existential issue for the country, the perception of close ties between a prime minister and an American president is politically invaluable. Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took this to new heights in the way that he dined out on his relationship with former President Donald Trump, and he made it one of the centerpieces of his constant campaign during the cycle of four Israeli elections in two years.
For Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Biden’s visit coming when it is will be of incalculable worth. Bennett is a prime minister without a political base, presiding over a party where two of his MKs have already defected and the remaining ones nearly all distrust him, and heading a coalition over which he has little control. Signs of elections abound even without knowing that Bennett no longer commands a Knesset majority, and MKs of all stripes are making demands and staking out positions that have nothing to do with governing and everything to do with positioning ahead of a looming vote. Bennett is a prime minister living on borrowed time, even if his precise expiration date is still unknown. In this environment, there are few things more politically beneficial to him than having Biden come to Jerusalem and get multiple events, meetings, and photo ops where Biden touts his friendship and work relationship with Bennett while Bennett plays the part of a trusted and critical partner to the president. The political boost this will give Bennett should be worth giving something back to Biden in return.
Yet instead, we have had more than a week straight of Israel creating headaches for Biden, some of which are beyond Bennett’s control and some of which can be laid at his feet. Bennett is not responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, nor is he directly responsible for the overbearing Jerusalem police and their perturbing use of excessive and unnecessary force at her funeral, though a clear directive from Bennett ahead of time to treat Palestinian flags and Palestinian nationalist chants as freedom of expression rather than as violent threats to be suppressed might have helped. But he is responsible for the fact that right after Biden’s upcoming visit to Israel was reported, the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council approved 4,427 new settlement units, including well over one thousand in spots deep in the West Bank; expanded Ariel’s industrial zone east and deeper into the West Bank; and retroactively legalized three illegal outposts. The Israeli government attempted to blunt the criticism from the U.S. through anonymous leaks claiming that the number of units had been reduced by a couple of thousand from what was initially contemplated, but that is cold comfort given American policy on settlement construction. Not only is this a lot of building, it activates core U.S. concerns about building in spots that are designed to make a two-state outcome more difficult and about ignoring Israel’s own rule of law by incentivizing the establishment of more illegal wildcat outposts. It also does not help matters that no units for Palestinians in Area C were approved, nor has any meeting been scheduled or agenda officially published to do so.
The U.S. cannot fight every single settlement announcement down to the last unit. Not only is there no bandwidth to do it, but it is also setting up for a loss before the clock even starts. It is imperative to funnel Israeli construction into spots that will not negatively impact a viable two-state outcome. Some of the units in this new slate of approvals fit into that category, such as the 1,061 units in Beitar Illit or the 250 units in Mevo Horon, but many others do not. The issue here is not so much that Israel is building, since that happens no matter who the president and no matter who the prime minister. The issue is where it is happening, what message it sends about two states, and how that in turn sharply conflicts with U.S. policy that has been communicated to Israel repeatedly and clearly.
Israel is free to operate as it sees fit, but doing so in the face of U.S. objections should not be rewarded shortly after. If the Biden administration wants its objections taken seriously, it should consider postponing the president’s trip to reinforce the point that Bennett’s tack to the right on the West Bank may win him political points at home, but those political points will not involve a U.S. seal of approval. There are plenty of ways to publicly soften a postponement; top Bennett adviser Shimrit Meir, who was the point person for Bennett’s visit to Washington last summer and has been the chief interlocutor from Bennett’s office with the U.S., resigned last week, not to mention there are myriad crises to deal with that the White House can cite to justify pushing a visit back. But until the Israeli government does something to address construction in places like Shvut Rachel and retroactive approvals for Mitzpe Danny, Mitzpe Lachish, and Oz VeGaon, Biden should not hold out one of his most potent carrots for the taking.
If Biden does go to Israel in June, it is even more imperative now that he use the opportunity to publicly hammer home some important points. There is no better time than when standing alongside Bennett in Jerusalem to reinforce that the U.S. still envisions Area A, Area B, and over 90% of Area C as the territory for a future Palestinian state, and that construction in places that make that more difficult will never garner Biden’s seal of approval. There is no better time to reinforce that unilaterally creating facts on the ground as a mechanism for rendering the situation as irreversible is not going to work, which is why U.S. policy is no longer that no settlement anywhere will ever have to be evacuated, as envisioned in the unimplemented Trump plan. There is no better time to reinforce that the U.S. does indeed still view settlements as inconsistent with international law, particularly as Israel is now in the mode of retroactively legalizing those that are inconsistent with its own domestic law. Israeli policy is not dictated by the U.S., but the U.S. also does not have to acquiesce to that policy with a nod and a smile.
Given the strong U.S. interest in supporting Israeli security and acknowledging Israel’s importance to the U.S. in the region, wielding an ax to tackle the policy disagreement over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank is a flawed strategy. The U.S.-Israel relationship extends well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which means that it is important and prudent to consider all facets of it when deciding how to employ American leverage over the Israeli government. But sending Israel the message that none of what it does in the West Bank really matters is just as flawed a tack to take, and having Biden show up in Jerusalem as if everything is fine does precisely that. Bennett should not get an extra gold star for overseeing settlement policies that are particularly damaging, and deciding how to deploy what is probably going to be Biden’s only visit to Israel during this term is a powerful tool that the administration should not waste.
“that is cold comfort given American policy on settlement construction.” To the contrary, now is the perfect time for Israel to tell Biden an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank is not viable or realistic. From the perspective of any objective observer, the Palestinians are unfit to rule a country without presenting a threat to Israel as proven by Gaza. Moreover, the Palestinians outside Israel are stirring up trouble with Arabs inside Israel and Israel is starting to descend toward another 1948 conflict.
Do the Arabs want to prove that it was a mistake to allow any Arabs except for some Druze and Bedouin groups that swore loyalty to remain in Israel after 1948 and that Israel made a second mistake not expelling the West Bank and Gaza Arabs when it had a chance in 1967?
Maybe Israel needs to stop trying to act like it lives next to Belgium or Sweden and start acting more like its Arab neighbors would if they had the power to do so. The last thing Israel needs to do is keep stringing the USA along a fantasy or delusion. You cannot have a large number of people living in a country who believe the country is not legitimate and should be replaced by a new country controlled by outsiders. That applies to Mexicans in the USA and it applies to Arabs in Israel or the West Bank.
Even if Israeli construction was funneled into spots that would not negatively impact a “viable two-state outcome”, the Biden Administration would condemn the announcement. Like the Obama Administration, all construction across the 1949 armistice line is verboten. It’s the same team behind the curtain.