Earlier this week, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu received an invitation from the White House to “probably” meet with President Joe Biden, before the end of the year, somewhere. Meanwhile, Yitzhak Herzog, Israel’s non-partisan president who has limited power, spent Tuesday meeting with Biden in the Oval Office before addressing a joint session of Congress on Wednesday to mark Israel’s seventy-fifth anniversary.
Herzog’s invitation to Washington, arriving before one for Netanyahu, should be viewed by Jerusalem as a reflection of the United States’ deep commitment to Israel, but a recognition that its current policies are out of sync with Washington’s. Having different policies is unarguably Israel’s sovereign right, and Netanyahu’s as its leader. But if those differences become the default, it can threaten to permanently alter the nature of the relationship.
The right approach to Iran, for example, always the dominant foreign policy concern for Jerusalem, continues to divide Israel and the United States; even as strong bilateral communication and meaningful cooperation on the topic has helped mitigate public disagreements, as happened in 2015 over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But even excellent communication is unlikely to mitigate a public, and angry, Israeli reaction if the Biden administration agrees to even a limited agreement with Tehran.
As communication has improved on Iran, it conversely seems to have fallen off when it comes to other major foreign policy challenges. The proposed expansion of settlements and settler-Palestinian violence is slowing the pace of progress between Abraham Accords members, most recently demonstrated by Morocco’s decision to cancel the latest Negev Forum. The accords, however, are something the United States places great weight on; a new position was just created at the State Department dedicated to the issue.
Further abroad, Netanyahu’s decision to visit China later this year is prime to compound misalignment since it seems to be less about a genuine bilateral China-Israel relationship and more about a way to needle the United States and compel it to increase its regional involvement.
But Israel is neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE, both of which are trying to employ a strategy of hedging between the United States and China. As Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said on Twitter, “If Netanyahu thinks he can … play the US and China off each other, he better hope that Israel becomes a major oil producer, returns the $38 billion in US military aid and no longer requires American support at the UN.”
The announcement over Netanyahu’s decision to visit Beijing follows U.S. frustration with the Israeli leader for his refusal last winter to provide Ukraine with HAWK anti-aircraft missiles, currently sitting in storage. Israel has long been concerned that providing weapons to Ukraine could lead them to fall into the wrong hands and be reverse engineered, threatening Israel’s security. Moreover, Jerusalem was concerned that transferring them to Ukraine would lead Russia to impede Israel’s freedom of action to strike Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, where Russia still operates.
But by denying the request, Netanyahu essentially dismissed out of hand the United States’ biggest near-term global priority in exchange for hoping Russian president Vladimir Putin doesn’t interfere with Israel’s interdiction strikes; all while Russia’s military relationship with Iran grows closer.
And in Israel itself, civil unrest will probably come to a peak over the next two weeks as legislation to curtail the power of the Israeli Supreme Court as an independent check on the legislature advances.
I happen to be in Israel this week for a conference. On Saturday evening, I wandered from my hotel down to Kaplan Street to observe the judicial reform protests in person. What I saw was tens of thousands of overwhelmingly diverse, patriotic, and scared Israelis, fearful that the judicial reforms will fundamentally undermine, in their view, Israel’s democracy.
While a strong U.S.-Israel relationship will, and should, continue no matter what happens with the legislation, there is no way to minimize or avoid that democracy is a shared, core, and fundamental tenet of the U.S.-Israel relationship; even if both of ours are imperfect works in progress.
The United States engages and has strong relationships with lots of countries that don’t share its ethos for democracy and freedom. But those relationships all come with an invisible ceiling.
On Tuesday, Biden told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that there is a need, “to seek the broadest possible consensus,” when it comes to the judicial reforms; a follow-up to his comments in March when he said, a “compromise” is needed. Back in March Netanyahu responded to those comments with seeming annoyance, noting that Israel is a “sovereign country” and rejects “pressure from abroad.” But the President then, like now, was not seeking to interfere in Israel’s domestic politics. Rather, he was implicitly reflecting his own Zionism; almost certainly concerned that if Israel no longer meaningfully shares the bedrock principle of democracy, over time, the US-Israel relationship will transform from one with few limits, into a much narrower one with a ceiling.
And that is the challenge of misalignment as a whole. Allies can always agree to disagree on policies. But when they begin to be out of sync on too many of them, it can threaten to alter the contours of the broader relationship, no matter how strong. Such a policy chasm is not going to jeopardize the U.S.-Israel relationship today; but if it continues and widens, it can in the future.
At some point this year, Biden will probably meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu. How it goes will depend on whether or not the US and Israel are better aligned.
Jonathan Panikoff is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council and the former deputy national intelligence officer for the Middle East.
The views expressed are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other U.S. government agency.