The United States and Israel share a deep and enduring bond, although sometimes American and Israeli leaders have mixed like oil and water. George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir were famously incompatible. Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama had a notoriously fraught relationship. And while Washington and Jerusalem haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, our elected leaders have looked past discreet personality or policy disagreements because of broader strategic goals.
Simply put, there’s mutual benefit derived from working together, rather than apart. As political leaders from both nations emerge from the campaign trail and return to business, they would be wise to focus on finding ways to overcome differences and work together in support of our many shared goals.
Earlier this month, an Israeli journalist asked me how the U.S. midterm elections would impact U.S.-Israeli relations. My answer wasn’t particularly dramatic. I told him I believed that not much would change. Most of the hotly contested seats were in “purple” districts where support for Israel remains high across the political spectrum. And while over the course of years, Israel has become an increasingly divisive and partisan issue on the political margins, Israel still enjoys broad, bipartisan support in Congress.
What I wasn’t asked — but probably should have been — was this: “What impact will Israel’s election results have on the U.S.-Israel relationship?” The answer remains uncertain but Washington is understandably nervous. Netanyahu is a polarizing figure in Washington, in no small part due to the perception that, when last in office, he broke long-sacred norms of keeping Israel above the partisan fray by accepting an invitation from a Republican-held Congress to argue against the Iran nuclear deal, a key foreign policy objective of then-President Obama. Over the course of his resilient political career, Netanyahu has earned a reputation for being willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve his aims — and based on his actions, it won’t take long to observe and draw conclusions about what’s most important to him.
To succeed in forming a government, Netanyahu almost certainly will need to offer far-right, ultra-nationalists influential positions in his cabinet. The fact that demagogues such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir could become, respectively, Israel’s next Ministers of Defense and Internal Security is chilling to American Jews of all political stripes, and likely has discomfited Israel’s most vocal supporters in Congress. Smotrich and Ben Gvir have engaged in rhetoric so violent and offensive that their possible inclusion in the coming Israeli government preemptively drew a direct and highly unusual warning from the Anti-Defamation League.
The reality is that Netanyahu, facing a series of corruption trials, likely will rely on these individuals and their parties for not just his political future but possibly his personal freedom. He will need unprecedented and controversial legislative changes to weaken the Israeli judiciary and insulate himself from the prospect of going to jail. While this is likely priority No. 1 for Netanyahu, he may see himself as God’s divine instrument in protecting Israel from Iran, which at this moment, has never been closer to developing a nuclear weapon.
To have a credible military deterrent to Iran or a realistic means of militarily disrupting Iran’s nuclear program, Israel will need to collaborate closely with Washington. It also remains in Israel’s interest to foster greater strategic depth by continuing to develop closer ties with emerging partners in the Gulf, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Their dangerous hate-speech aside, placing Smotrich and Ben Gvir in charge of security files would give them the opportunity to incite renewed conflict with Palestinians, at a moment when escalated tensions have already resulted in violence this year. This week, a suspected bombing in Jerusalem, the first in six years, will only serve to increase pressure on a new government to respond with visible force. A new round of conflict with Hamas or other factions would consume Israeli military resources at the cost of planning and preparing for contingencies to deal with Iran. Deportations from the West Bank and the annexation of the territories into Israel has been a longtime pillar of their political platform.
The creation of the Abraham Accords in 2020 was predicated on the condition that Israel would not annex the West Bank. That agreement, and the burgeoning relationships that followed with the UAE, Bahrain and potentially other nations in the region, could be imperiled by these newly-empowered ultra-nationalists. If Netanyahu is serious about protecting Israel from Iran, and working with both the U.S. and Israel’s emerging Gulf Arab partners to do it, he will need to constrain extremist views among his coalition.
And while Israel’s once and future prime minister will need to contain the political fringe of his coalition to focus on Israel’s main enemy, Iran, here in Washington, President Biden will need to do the same if he hopes to execute his own plan for the Middle East. The new National Defense Strategy requires the U.S. military presence in the Middle East to shrink to free-up resources for Russia and China. The strategy offsets the risk of this drawdown by investing more in the individual and collective military strength of America’s partners in the region. That translates into more foreign military sales and defense diplomacy to build a regional security architecture.
The political atmosphere in Washington is making both those tasks harder — with not just Saudi Arabia but Israel, too. Recall the roadblocks that House progressives and certain Senate libertarians threw up earlier this year in getting appropriations passed to support Israel’s Iron Dome military system. Though a predominantly pro-Israel Congress succeeded in appropriating the money, it was made more challenging by partisan posturing and a growing number of members who no longer see U.S. support to Israel as sacrosanct.
Other unforeseen stressors on the relationship have and will continue to emerge. Last week, outgoing Israeli leaders issued a stern and rare rebuke of Washington, following reports that the Department of Justice was investigating the shooting death of journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh while reporting on an Israeli military operation in the West Bank. While making no comment on Justice’s reported decision to pursue an investigation, which remains unconfirmed by the department, it’s easy to see how the issue could eclipse and hold hostage critical opportunities for U.S.-Israeli security collaboration.
Elections in Israel and the United States are over. Now, political passions must be quelled and leaders must choose to prioritize their nations’ national security interests. Major policy challenges such as Russia, China, Iran and climate change remain. To meet the moment, political leaders — American and Israeli, new and incumbent — will need to inhibit the often reflexive, always un-strategic, politically cathartic decision-making. If leaders in both capitals fail to prioritize shared challenges and curb the ideologues in their respective governments, it could jeopardize U.S. and Israeli national security at a moment of great consequence.
Jonathan Lord is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He previously served as a staff member for the House Armed Services Committee; as the Iraq country director in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; and as a political military analyst in the Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanLordDC.