Biden has been transparent about his desire to change course in the Middle East from the path that his predecessor followed. He has stated he wants to rejoin the nuclear agreement with Iran that President Barack Obama negotiated and President Donald Trump withdrew from. He is a firm advocate of the two-state solution to Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians. Biden has restored $235 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority that Trump withheld and is a known skeptic of Israeli settlement of the West Bank. The only way this president could be more different from Trump on Israel would be for Biden to renounce the U.S. alliance with the nation.
Bennett, on the other hand, is arguably the most right-wing prime minister Israel has ever had. He is the first religiously Orthodox person to hold the position. His Yamina party split with the conservative Likud, for which he and his deputy Ayelet Shaked served as high-ranking members, because it wanted to pursue policies to Likud’s right. Bennett and his party favor annexing the West Bank to Israel, oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and want to increase Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He has always opposed the Iran nuclear deal. Aside from platitudes about the enduring U.S.-Israeli friendship, it is hard to see what Bennett and Biden can possibly agree on.
Israeli public opinion stands behind Bennett’s views, too. Israel was once governed by the social democratic Labor Party, a party that was open to the two-state solution and engineered the Oslo accords, briefly sparking hopes that such a development could happen. But the second intifada, launched by then-Palestinian Authority Chief Yasser Arafat to push Israel toward more concessions on a final peace deal, changed all of that. The rash of suicide bombings within the boundaries of pre-1948 Israel shifted public opinion dramatically to the right. Incumbent Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak lost the 2001 prime ministerial election by a thumping 62-to-38 margin.
Since then, Labor and its left-wing ally, Meretz, have been pummeled at the polls. In the March election that brought Bennett to power, Labor and Meretz combined for only 13 of 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The center-left political base that once dominated Israeli politics has essentially disappeared.
The new Israeli majority is decidedly right-wing. Three right-wing parties that cater to ultra-Orthodox Jews won 22 seats in the election, and the hawkish Likud — still led by Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — won another 30. Yamina, which attracts its strongest relative support in the West Bank settlements from religious and secular Jews, took an additional seven seats while yet another Likud offshoot — the New Hope party — won six. New Hope’s leader, Gideon Sa’ar, has also supported West Bank annexation and opposed Palestinian statehood. In other words, 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats are held by parties demonstrably opposed to virtually all of Biden’s Middle East agenda.
These facts actually understate the degree of opposition within Israel to Biden’s policies of accommodation with Iran and the Palestinians. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party is staunchly secular, which places it in opposition to the ultra-Orthodox parties. It nevertheless supports annexing at least the Jordan Valley, and Liberman has previously proposed trading Arab communities within Israel for Jewish West Bank settlements in any two-state solution. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party, has always struck hawkish tones on Iran and has pledged to never let Iran have a nuclear weapon. Add those parties’ 15 seats to the right-wing’s 65, and one finds two-thirds of the Israeli Knesset inalterably opposed to key elements of Biden’s agenda. No wonder 63 percent of Israelis supported Trump over Biden in a November pre-election poll.
The right-wing majority is likely to increase over time because of immigration and the growing ultra-Orthodox population. Haredi families have an average of 6.5 children apiece, nearly triple the 2.2 children of other Israeli Jewish families. This will increase the ultra-Orthodox share of the Israeli population dramatically, further shifting political trends to the right. Roughly 30,000 people immigrated each year to Israel before the pandemic, many of whom are religiously motivated Jews who settle in the West Bank. Immigrants are estimated to comprise as much as half of the more than 475,000 Israelis who live in settlements. Those numbers have a huge political impact in a country of 9.3 million people.
Israel is already among the most right-wing countries in the developed world. That inalterable fact will inevitably complicate the relationship between the United States and Israel no matter what those countries’ leaders want to say in public.