Spiraling violence between Israelis and Palestinians and fierce protests against proposed judicial reforms are at the forefront of President Biden’s concerns more than one month into the renewed leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
U.S. and Israeli officials stress the unbreakable bond between the two countries, but a recent visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted deep U.S. anxiety about the Israeli government’s pursuit of far-right political plans.
Blinken’s visit, which took place earlier this week, followed a flurry of other high-level officials meeting with the new Israeli government, including CIA Director Bill Burns and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
The high-level engagement is likely laying the groundwork for a one-on-one between Biden and Netanyahu, with U.S. officials keen on setting the terms for the relationship over a host of issues including the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, Israel’s right-wing government, the Iranian threat and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Here are five sore spots in a turbulent time for U.S.-Israel relations.
Biden officials wade into Israeli domestic politics
In unusual comments alongside Netanyahu on Monday, Blinken warned that Jerusalem is pursuing policies that risk U.S. and Israel’s “shared values” that, he said, have underscored the relationship for 75 years.
Those policies include proposals that critics say are aimed at weakening the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court. Protests in Israel are reported to have drawn approximately 100,000 people in opposition to the proposed judicial reforms.
These are said to include legislation to overrule the Supreme Court when it has struck down laws and allow the government to appoint judges, among other proposals.
The secretary, in response to a question about proposed judicial reforms, said democracies need to build “consensus on new proposals… to make sure that not only are they embraced but that they actually endure.”
Blinken said he and Netanyahu spoke frankly and respectfully about the “mutual standards” the U.S. and Israel must hold themselves to support “core democratic principles and institutions.”
David Makovsky, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Blinken’s artfully-worded statements illustrate how Israeli domestic debates are threatening American interests.
The U.S. has long argued a strong, independent Israeli judiciary allows it to address legal challenges the Palestinians want to bring before the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court.
“Maybe common interests bind governments but common values bind societies, and if you lose this you lose a huge chunk in the U.S. and Israel relationship,” Makovsky said.
Israeli-Palestine conflict is on the brink of an explosion
The administration is putting renewed energy into filling dangerous security vacuums in Palestinian cities in the West Bank, which are inflaming violence against Israelis while placing Palestinian civilians in the crossfire.
In what marked one of the deadliest attacks in recent memory, seven people were killed last week when a Palestinian gunman opened fire at a Jerusalem synagogue while Jews were celebrating shabbat. And at least two Palestinian civilians were killed in the crossfire during an Israeli security raid against a Palestinian terrorist group in the lawless West Bank city of Jenin.
Blinken, during a meeting in Ramallah on Tuesday, reportedly pressed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept and implement a security plan to have Palestinian security forces take more responsibility over terrorist threats in Jenin and the Palestinian city of Nablus.
Blinken also spoke out against Israeli policies which Democrats, largely, have long said threaten the viability of a two-state solution but are embraced by far-right members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
This includes maintaining the status quo of Muslim access to holy sites in Jerusalem — long considered a flash-point that can set off greater violence — and whether Netanyahu will move to assert greater Israeli control over West Bank territory that is considered key to a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Blinken said “settlement expansion, the legalization of outposts, demolitions and evictions, disruptions to the historic status quo of the holy sites, and of course incitement and acquiescence to violence,” are actions that threaten a two-state solution, acknowledging responsibility of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to address these issues.
Biden and Netanyahu still not eye-to-eye on Iran
Netanyahu has long opposed the 2015 nuclear deal, called the JCPOA, and remarks by Biden last month declaring talks with Tehran “dead” were likely music to the Israeli prime minister’s ears.
While the sidelining of the JCPOA removes a key irritant between the prime minister and Biden, the two leaders still do not see eye-to-eye on how to confront Tehran.
Biden is unlikely to embrace, completely, Netanyahu’s more militaristic position compared to the former Trump administration – which pulled out of the JCPOA, imposed a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and carried out a fatal drone attack on Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani.
Still, Biden has never excluded a military option. Blinken reinforced this by saying “everything is on the table,” when asked in an interview if the U.S. would carry out a military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
And Blinken arrived in Israel just as reports emerged that an Iranian military facility came under an armed drone strike, reportedly by Israel’s clandestine intelligence service, the Mossad.
Netanyahu, in an interview with CNN, did not confirm if Israel was behind the attack but said that Israel has been “taking action against certain weapons development” in Iran.
U.S. and Saudi tensions stall opening with Israel
Netanyahu’s push for the U.S. to more forcefully confront Iran runs alongside his push to bring covert Israeli ties with Saudi Arabia out into the open.
“For Bibi [Netanyahu] it’s always been about, ‘Stop Tehran, jumpstart Riyadh’ that’s his kind of motto,” Makovsky said. “The question is, what is doable there?”
The U.S. is considered a necessary partner in steps that can be taken to open relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Biden administration has talked about deepening and expanding the Trump-forged Abraham Accords, which established relations between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
But Makovsky said Riyadh has “big” asks of the U.S. to move ahead with opening relations with Israel.
This includes, but is not limited to, deepening the U.S. and Saudi security relationship to include more commitments to Riyadh’s defense and weapons supplies – moves that are likely to draw Congressional pushback over strained resources, in general, and U.S. concerns over human rights violations against dissidents and in its military operations in Yemen.
“Those are big things,” Makovsky said. “I think the U.S. in principle would like to assist a Saudi-Israel breakthrough, but at what price? That needs to be discussed.”
Netanyahu nods to U.S. requests for more support to Ukraine
Netanyahu said he is “definitely considering” providing military support to Ukraine amid Russia’s nearly one-year assault and offered to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow, in interviews with CNN.
The statements are a departure from the position Israel has held since Russia’s invasion, where Jerusalem has sought to maintain strategic communication with Moscow related to Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria – where Russia controls the skies – and concern for the Jewish diaspora in Russia.
The U.S. has long pushed Israel to step up its support of Kyiv beyond the humanitarian support it has provided, and Netanyahu’s statements appear to acknowledge Washington’s requests.
Blinken, speaking alongside Netanyahu on Monday, said he discussed with the prime minister how Russia’s ongoing atrocities underscore the importance “of providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs – humanitarian, economic, and security – as it bravely defends its people and its very right to exist…”