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Opinion Biden should respond boldly to a radical Netanyahu government

Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the swearing-in ceremony of Israeli lawmakers in Jerusalem on Nov. 15. (Abir Sultan/AP)
5 min

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East analyst and negotiator for the State Department, is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, is a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University.

“There’s a hot wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses await the spark,” John Buchan wrote in his classic novel “Greenmantle about British-German-Turkish spycraft during World War I.

We can think of no better way to describe what may well be in store for Israelis and Palestinians living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Today’s hot wind is driven by three powerful forces that are worsening an already volatile situation: a weak Palestinian Authority unable to control violence and terror; a soon-to-be-announced radical, right-wing Israeli government committed to binding the West Bank and Jerusalem to Israel; and a risk-averse Biden administration whose instincts will be to try to avoid getting entangled in this mess, especially if it means fighting with Israel. Meanwhile, Iran is stirring the pot, and the Arab countries that signed on to the Abraham Accords are burying their heads in the sand.

President Biden should deal with these potentially perilous circumstances head-on.

First, some context. As Israel approaches its 75th birthday next year, Benjamin Netanyahu has midwifed the most extreme government in the history of the state, all in an effort to secure legislation to postpone the trial against him or cancel the indictments altogether.

Having brought to life the radical, racist, misogynistic and homophobic far-right parties, Netanyahu is now stuck with them. He has cut a deal with convicted inciter of hatred and violence Itamar Ben Gvir and made him minister of national security, with far-reaching authority for the West Bank, Jerusalem and mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel proper. Bezalel Smotrich, who has called for the expulsion of Arabs, is in line to run the finance ministry, with additional authority over the Civil Administration, which governs the West Bank. And Avi Maoz, who proudly espouses a fierce anti-LGBTQ agenda, has been made a deputy in the prime minister’s office in charge of “Jewish identity.”

This coalition’s agenda could be marked by increased settlement activity and land confiscation, violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, terrorist attacks against Israelis, efforts to change the status quo by legitimizing Jewish prayer on the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, and loosened rules regarding the use of force against both Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab citizens of Israel. And Palestinian terrorist groups are likely to intensify their attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and Israel proper.

At a minimum, this threatens to put to rest the already-moribund two-state solution. It may well also lead to violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, between Israeli Jewish and Arab citizens, and between the Israeli military and Palestinians on the West Bank. It may also trigger another serious round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as occurred in May 2021.

The Biden administration has more pressing policy priorities at the moment, and, with a blindly pro-Israel Republican majority soon to control the House and the Iranian nuclear issue looming, it isn’t looking for a fight with Netanyahu.

Nevertheless, the unprecedented nature of this coalition — democratically elected but possessing antidemocratic values inimical to U.S. interests — should prompt the White House to send clear messages to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Arab states.

First, Israel should be told that, while the United States will continue to support its ally’s legitimate security requirements, it will not provide offensive weapons or other assistance for malign Israeli actions in Jerusalem or the occupied territories. The United States specifically should warn against efforts to change the status of the West Bank and the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, to “legalize” settlement outposts, and to build infrastructure for settlers that is designed to foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution.

Biden should also make it clear to Israel that his administration will have no dealings with Ben Gvir, Smotrich or their ministries if they continue to espouse racist policies and actions. U.S. support for Israel in international forums, including the U.N. Security Council and the International Court of Justice, has its limits. And Israel should know that the Biden administration will be on the alert for Israeli actions that deserve to be called out and condemned.

The Palestinian leadership, for its part, should be plainly told that U.S. support depends on its willingness to hold elections, build a responsible democratic government and curb violence and terrorism.

Finally, the Biden administration needs to inform the Abraham Accord countries — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — that their evident lack of interest in the plight of the Palestinians will undermine their relationship with Israel and damage their credibility in advancing other regional objectives with the United States.

It is important to recognize that previous crises in U.S.-Israeli relations have occurred in the context of peace negotiations. For a U.S. president to put pressure on a democratically elected Israeli government would be unprecedented and controversial. But Israel has never before embarked on such a dangerous course. Political will matters, and this is a moment for Biden to show American strength and resolve.