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What Israel’s incoming government means for U.S-Israel relations

The U.S. – Israel relationship will soon face its biggest test in nearly 70 years. 

On Wednesday, designated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had succeeded in forming a new coalition, and is now set to return to power as the leader of the most far-right government in Israel’s history.  

The White House has reportedly held several high-level meetings to deliberate how America’s approach to our closest Middle East ally might be affected as a result.

Top U.S. officials are grappling over whether America should avoid engaging with two Israeli ministers in particular – Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – who hold alarmingly extreme right-wing positions on issues such as the Palestinians, LGBTQ rights, and the situation in the West Bank.

To be sure, the Biden Administration’s trepidation is justified, and their concerns surrounding Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are not only valid, but are also shared by many Israelis. 

However, the importance – to both country’s national security interests – of preserving the increasingly fragile U.S. – Israel relationship cannot be understated. 

Both nations maintain a vested interest in countering the repressive Iranian regime, bolstering Israel’s ties with Saudi Arabia, and engendering a freer and more secure Middle East. 

It is thus incumbent on President Joe Biden and his administration to not lose sight of the values and goals both nations share, and to not respond to an impermanent government in a way that could inflict permanent damage on one of America’s most valued alliances.

To his credit, President Biden has historically been a strong supporter of Israel, and has stood firmly against the growing anti-Israel sentiment within his own party, including calls from prominent progressives to suspend American military aid to Israel.

While there is no indication that the president will waver in his support for the Jewish State, he does now face the arduous challenge of walking a fine line between rejecting extremism in the ranks of Israel’s government, while being mindful not to disparage Israel itself. Antisemitism is on the rise in the United States and globally, due in part to unjust criticisms of the Jewish State.

The Israeli government’s shift to the right comes as Democrats have moved to the left in their attitudes towards Israel, and progressives are bound to pressure the administration to respond harshly to Israeli policies that they see as undermining the peace process. 

President Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has pledged that the U.S. will base its approach to the incoming Israeli government on policy, not on individual personalities, and that the administration will hold Israel “to the mutual standards we have established in our relationship over the past seven decades.”

The administration has also already signaled that Netanyahu will be held personally responsible for any extreme policies enacted by far-right ministers, especially in sensitive areas like the question of Palestinian statehood or West Bank annexation. 

Though Netanyahu himself is not considered a far-right politician, and enjoys broad support among Israelis, his commitment to staying in power, and a quirk in Israel’s electoral system have paved the way for far-right politicians to gain outsized influence.

After the elections, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich leveraged their power to force concessions from Netanyahu, including Thursday’s announcement legalizing outposts in the West Bank, a move bound to anger the Biden administration, but one which Netanyahu was powerless to stop. 

The appointment of Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 for incitement of racism and for belonging to a terrorist organization, is sure to strain bipartisan U.S. support for Israel, something Democratic Senator Robert Menendez – a longtime supporter of the Jewish State – tried to make clear to Netanyahu, to no avail. 

To note, there is no guarantee that Ben-Gvir or Smotrich will be able to implement their more extreme policies. Netanyahu may currently depend on their support, but he has proved himself to be an extremely capable politician, and President Biden’s warning to hold him personally responsible may provide political cover for him to push back on far-right officials. 

It also goes without saying that Israel is one of many nations whose democracy has been threatened in recent years by far-right extremists in the highest ranks of government, the United States included.

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No international alliance has ever been frictionless, and the U.S. – Israeli relationship is no exception in that regard, but the relationship between our two nations is exceptional in many respects. 

The United States is the standard-bearer of democracy globally, while Israel fills that crucial role in the Middle East. Our shared values have led to the endurance of a complex bond that has survived numerous leadership changes, including the rollercoaster that characterized both – in different ways – the Obama and Trump presidencies. 

The United States’ commitment to Israel’s safety, security, and prosperity has been a bedrock principle of American foreign policy for nearly eight decades, and it is imperative that it remains as such.

Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.

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