By Jackson Diehl,
Consider the strategy most congressional Republicans have adopted in response to Joe Biden’s election victory: Avoid recognizing him as president-elect, while issuing statements designed to placate President Trump. Preemptively attack the incoming administration weeks before it takes office, while erecting obstacles to its likely policies.
Those scorched-earth tactics look reprehensible when coming from Biden’s domestic opposition. But it’s breathtaking to see them adopted by the leader of one of the United States’ prime foreign allies — a country that depends on bipartisan support in Washington for billions in annual aid and its fundamental security. That leader, of course, is Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel’s long-serving prime minister, whose reaction to Biden’s victory has outstripped even that of Vladimir Putin in its malovent audacity.
Netanyahu’s partisan commitment to Trump before the election was as blatant as the enormous banner he once draped over a Tel Aviv office building picturing the two of them together. When U.S. media designated Biden the winner on Nov. 7, Netanyahu delayed until the next day before publicly congratulating him — conspicuously behind other close U.S. allies. Even then, the prime minister’s tweet did not address Biden as president-elect, nor explicitly acknowledge he had won. Fourteen minutes later, Netanyahu separately tweeted thanks to Trump for “the friendship you have shown the state of Israel and me personally.”
Since then, Netanyahu has publicly taken a militant stand against one of Biden’s principal foreign policy pledges: that he would return the United States to the nuclear accord with Iran. And Israel is widely reported to be behind the Nov. 27 assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist. That provocative act will not slow, and may even accelerate, Iran’s renewed nuclear activity, including uranium enrichment. But the killing could sabotage Biden’s attempt to revive diplomacy.
Netanyahu’s preparations for a Biden administration actually began before the election. On Oct. 14, a government committee approved 2,260 new housing units in the occupied West Bank — two-thirds of them in areas that would almost certainly be included in the Palestinian state that Biden strongly supports. Remarkably, 600 of the new units were designated for Jewish settlements that were prohibited from expanding even under Trump’s grotesquely one-sided Mideast peace plan, which Netanyahu endorsed.
Netanyahu’s defenders might protest that it’s only natural that he pay homage to Trump, who showered him with political gifts, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Pressure on Iran, some say, might end up helping the Biden administration by making a diplomatic exit look more attractive in Tehran.
Still, the more logical conclusion is that Netanyahu is doubling down on a Washington strategy no other allied foreign leader has attempted: aligning himself openly with one party, the GOP; doing his best to undermine successive Democratic presidents; and simultaneously banking on bipartisan support in Congress, which approves Israel’s annual multibillion-dollar aid packages.
The gambit has had decidedly mixed results over the years. Netanyahu’s clashes with President Bill Clinton — and attempts at end runs on Capitol Hill — were widely seen as contributing to Netanyahu’s defeat in a 1999 election. After he returned to power in 2009, his open support for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election failed, as did his attempt to stop the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran through an unprecedented address to Congress. Still, congressional Democrats’ support for Israel remained steady even when Netanyahu stiff-armed President Barack Obama’s serial attempts to promote Palestinian statehood, including through a freeze on Israel’s West Bank settlements.
The question is whether that will change if Netanyahu continues to openly challenge Biden. Over time, his pro-GOP alignment has slowly but steadily eroded support for Israel, as well as himself, among rank-and-file Democrats. In 2015, polling by the Economist and YouGov showed that only 19 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of the Israeli leader, while 50 percent regarded him unfavorably. By 2019, after several years in which Netanyahu flaunted his bond with Trump, those numbers were 14 percent favorable and 52 percent unfavorable — and only 25 percent of Democrats said they perceived Israel as a U.S. ally.
Biden, of course, is an old-school Democrat with a long pro-Israel record — and a long acquaintance with Netanyahu. He doesn’t seem to share the gut-level animosity toward the Israeli leader that Clinton and Obama had. But if he chooses to turn on him, he is likely to have strong support from his party’s grass roots.
Netanyahu, the longest-serving Israeli prime minister ever, has his vulnerabilities. He’s facing a criminal trial for bribery and a possible election early next year. Remarkably, he doesn’t seem to think taking on Biden will do him harm. That may be true — but the continuing damage to the foundation of U.S.-Israeli relations is easy to foresee.
Read more: Gershom Gorenberg: With a pandemic as cover, Netanyahu is carrying out a coup in Israel Gershom Gorenberg: Netanyahu lost his ally in the White House. That’s inspiration for Israel’s opposition. Jackson Diehl: Trump’s overarching Middle East strategy reaches a disastrous dead end Gershom Gorenberg: Netanyahu’s cruel, booby-trapped inauguration gift to Joe Biden David Ignatius: Trump remains in a battle of wills with Iran