President Biden’s unprecedented, brutal and – at least for the moment – successful pressure on Israel to backtrack on judicial reform, which ineluctably weakens its government, calls to mind the old idiom that one should always “be careful what you wish for.” Depending on how adept Prime Minister Netanyahu is in handling the fallout from this humiliation, the future of U.S. interests in the Middle East and by inescapable extension, around the world – which is based on the surrogacy of an Israel that is confident and politically, economically and militarily strong – hangs in the balance.
The Biden attacks went as far as charging the Netanyahu government with seeking to jettison Israeli democracy, which he said was at the heart of the U.S./ Israeli relationship. Really heavy-duty criticism which succeeded in igniting large swaths of Israeli public opinion against the reforms. But why would Biden be so exercised over what, as we discuss below, is actually a tempest in a teapot? Unless, of course, he has his own agenda.
The Saudis doubtless foresaw a serious anti-reform backlash coming from the U.S. when right out of the gate the Biden team started lobbing broadsides at the newly elected, famously right-wing/chareidi government. So out of nowhere Saudi Arabia and Iran suddenly announced an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries which had been suspended since 2016. Thus, in one fell swoop, the ambitious promise of the Abraham Accord – that U.S.-blessed, Israel-anchored Arab-Israeli economic renaissance engine in the Gulf, to be tracked by a parallel anti-Iran military buffer – suddenly became more of a hope than an expectation. So much, at least for now, for the idea that the U.S. would be freed up to indulge its much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia.”
To be sure, it is not at all clear how deep the Saudi/Iran agreement will cut. The two countries have long been rivals for leadership in the Gulf region and have been indirectly at each other’s throats for years in several devastating proxy wars. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also makes no secret of his intention to make Saudi Arabia the leading military and economic power in the Gulf, even in the face of the similarly ambitious Iran.
Nor is it reasonable to assume that the Saudis, who have intensified security ties with Israel in recent years over wariness of Iran, would suddenly and simply abandon their concerns. And one has to believe that the Saudis continue in their resolve to wean their economy off its dependency on oil in acknowledgment that fossil fuels are on the way out. So who better than Israel can help in the transition?
But why, then, would Biden even take the chance that because of perceived Israeli weakness, a Saudi/Iranian deal would get a life of its own and jeopardize American security interests? In fact, as we have noted in these pages before, the problem of the proposed judicial reform in Israel is not one of substance but is rooted in the opposition’s successful peddling the misleading notion that does have substance. In broad sweep, the proposed reforms would tend to bring Israel’s system in line with American practice in terms of the roles of the judiciary, executive and legislative branches.
At all events, there are reports that top diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen have been discussing ways to ratchet down the rhetoric flare-up and the steps needed to be taken to expand the Abraham Accords.
However, Netanyahu also was quoted as saying, ”Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”
And for his part, Biden pointedly contradicted one of his aides and said the Prime Minister would not be invited to the White House anytime soon as had been suggested.
We hope the President will rethink his position. This is all not happening in a vacuum.