Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new government has been in place for only a couple of weeks, and so far public diplomacy in the U.S.-Israel relationship appears to be business as usual. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is set to visit Israel next week in order to get a clearer sense from Netanyahu and Israeli officials on their plans for Iran, the West Bank, the Temple Mount, and a host of other issues, while Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer—no stranger to diplomacy between the two countries—is in Washington this week to coordinate with American counterparts. The Israeli press reported that Secretary of State Tony Blinken will follow closely on Sullivan’s heels with his own trip to Jerusalem, which will partially serve the purpose of laying the groundwork for Netanyahu to pay his own visit to the U.S. in February, where he will presumably be feted not only by President Biden but by members of Congress.
What is curious about this flurry of activity is that it implies smooth sailing between the two sides, when the reality is that they have been navigating some choppy policy waters in the early going. The Biden administration sent the Israeli government an early and public warning following its announced intention to repeal the 2005 disengagement law and legalize the illegal Homesh outpost built on private Palestinian land, with State Department spokesman Ned Price pointing out that Homesh is illegal under Israeli law and saying, “Our call to refrain from unilateral steps certainly includes any decision to create a new settlement, legalize outposts, or allow the building of any kind deep in the West Bank adjacent to Palestinian communities or on private Palestinian land.” The White House was unhappy with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, deeming it unnecessarily inflammatory despite it not violating the status quo, and remains wary of the ultranationalist tenor of this most recent Netanyahu government, its designs on deepening and perhaps permanently cementing Israel’s hold on the West Bank, and its policies toward the Palestinian Authority.
And this is before getting to a lower-level set of issues with regard to U.S. concerns and priorities that are viewed as belonging to Israel’s domestic domain but that implicate shared values and support for democracy, such as the proposed changes to the oversight power of Israel’s Supreme Court or statements from Israeli ministers and coalition MKs threatening the status of minority rights. Administration officials undoubtedly blanched a couple of days ago while hearing one Likud MK talk about his preference for Jewish murderers over Arab ones, or reading an Otzma Yehudit MK’s exhortation to arrest opposition heads Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz while accusing them of treason.
This all leads to the question of what tools the administration has at its disposal beyond public and private admonitions if it wants to avoid specific Israeli policy moves or signal its displeasure at erosions of democratic norms. One of the easiest ones to wield—which is not punitive and does not implicate the U.S.-Israel security relationship—is treating high-level political visits not as routine activity, but as the political gifts that they are. The U.S.-Israel relationship is institutionalized at nearly every level, with political appointees and career officials constantly traveling to each other’s countries, constantly conversing, and constantly coordinating. The daily business of U.S.-Israel strategic planning, intelligence sharing, defense coordination, and economic interchange does not involve Biden or Netanyahu, operates without interruption, and is largely immune to the politics on either side.
Presidential, prime ministerial, and cabinet visits are, however, another matter. When Blinken travels to Israel for meetings with Netanyahu and with all of the photo ops and publicity that come along with his visit, it is not only about demonstrating the robustness of U.S.-Israel relations. His visit gives Netanyahu a political boost, as the secretary of state of the most powerful country in the world is coming to Jerusalem as his guest, and Netanyahu is particularly adept at using such visits to argue that he has a unique ability among Israeli leaders to play in the big leagues of geopolitics. Beyond the political gift to Netanyahu, Blinken’s visit also sends a message coming so early in his new government’s tenure that the U.S. has no real concerns with its makeup or policy plans, and will undoubtedly be held up by Bezalel Smotrich, Ben Gvir, and others as proof that their radical approach will have no impact at all on U.S.-Israel relations. It is normal for Sullivan to go in order to hear what Netanyahu has in store, communicate American reservations, and send a message to Iran that U.S.-Israel coordination will remain strong despite policy differences. Blinken going a couple of weeks later may accomplish those same things, but it also creates a perception that there is a seal of American approval—whether intentional or not—for the very policies over which the U.S. has already expressed concerns.
A Netanyahu Oval Office meeting with Biden creates this perception in an even stronger way, while granting Netanyahu the highest honor he can get in the world of international diplomacy. A presidential meeting provides Netanyahu with enormous political strength, and to ignore the Israeli domestic political implications needlessly discards a source of American leverage while also discarding a card that can be played to respond positively to Israeli steps down the road that comport with U.S. policy preferences and interests rather than fly in the face of them. Hosting any world leader in Washington should not be a gift that is bestowed freely or for no compelling reason, and given how little overall U.S.-Israel relations depend on face-to-face meetings between presidents and prime ministers, they should be viewed as ways to influence policy in a manner that does not harm Israel or call into question American security commitments to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has repeatedly reassured American officials and American audiences over the past couple of months that he is in control of his coalition partners rather than the other way around, and that his hand is on the steering wheel. In light of some of the early decisions that have been made by his government, it may be time to move from the trust phase to the verify phase. If the Israeli government is acting in ways that clearly contravene U.S. policy, a Blinken visit to Jerusalem and a Netanyahu visit to Washington not only risk sending the wrong signals, but make it more difficult for the Biden administration to secure Israeli alignment in the future. Biden and Blinken should talk to Netanyahu every day if they deem it necessary, but leader-level engagement in person brings with it a political element that makes it more valuable. Beating a path between Washington and Jerusalem, with all of the political benefits that doing so incurs, might deserve a reevaluation when the early signs are that policy differences between the two sides are widening by the day.