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Joe Biden Is Playing It Cool with Benjamin Netanyahu

The Trump Presidency has strained many of the friendships that President Joe Biden cultivated with Republicans over the years. Similarly, Biden’s forty-year friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly allied himself with Trump Republicans, now seems perfunctory. Biden’s admiration for Israel may be undimmed, but, as of this writing, the new President has yet to place a call to the Israeli Prime Minister. And the Biden Administration has wasted little time in restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority, which the Trump Administration had cut off, and in reiterating U.S. support for a two-state solution, which Trump’s “deal of the century”—written largely by American supporters of Messianic Jewish settlements—had debased.

Even so, it’s hard to imagine new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ranking high on the list of the Administration’s foreign-policy priorities. Biden is angling to rejoin and augment the Iran nuclear deal, which the Obama Administration had helped forge and which Trump abandoned. Last week, Aviv Kochavi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told the Institute for National Security Studies—reportedly, with Netanyahu’s encouragement—that any such action would be “bad and wrong.” Three days later, Biden appointed Robert Malley, an architect of the nuclear deal, to be his Iran envoy. So, Biden’s frictions with Netanyahu’s government appear likely to intensify well before the question of Palestine exacerbates them.

But the Trump Administration affected some changes in the region that the Biden Administration has signalled that it does not wish to undo. The U.S. Embassy, Antony Blinken said, at his Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, will remain in Jerusalem. Far more important are the Abraham Accords, which went into effect last August, establishing formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. (Deals were also reached with Sudan, in October, and Morocco, in December; direct El Al flights to Rabat and Casablanca were announced on December 22nd.) The deals, the U.S. national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said last week, are “positive for security in the region, positive for economic development in the region.” Though most Palestinians feel betrayed by the accords, the agreements may eventually benefit Palestine, and Jordan, too—if the Biden Administration can prevail on the Israeli government to cease threatening formal annexation of the parts of Palestine that Trump’s deal designated to Israel, and to include opportunities for Palestinian “economic development” in, say, infrastructure and transportation projects with the Gulf states. “I don’t see how a Biden Administration will not embrace normalization for its own sake,” Malley told me in December, “though it will want normalization to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace along the line of two states.”

For the Biden Administration to actually indulge this hope, though, it would have to believe that Netanyahu did not, as he clearly intended to, make himself the chief beneficiary of the accords—that they are not for him primarily a way to take credit for a major work of statesmanship that could help him stay in office, escalate settlement construction without formal annexation, and rally his new allies in the Gulf against U.S. efforts to reëngage with Iran. In fact, the deal’s timing was critical to Netanyahu’s plan. By August, he was already plotting yet another election, determined to win, finally, a servile majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that would be willing to grant him immunity from prosecution on charges of bribery and breach of trust, which were filed against him in November, 2019. He must have guessed, too, that Trump was likely to lose the U.S. election, and so he would be denied his most important patron. And Netanyahu didn’t have other significant accomplishments to point to—in the spring, he seemed to have the pandemic under control, but another surge hit over the summer.

So, the prestige of normalization is crucial for Netanyahu and, indirectly, for Biden, too. But, for the former, it seems not to be having the intended effect. The election has been set for March 23rd, and preliminary polling shows Netanyahu already well short of a majority. It’s not too early to wonder whether, with the Abraham Accords, he has added to his standing while detracting from the power of his Manichean world view: Has Netanyahu burnished the Bibi brand at the expense of the Bibi-ist ideology? Perhaps nothing prompts that question more vividly than the first and most unlikely blockbuster deal to come out of the accords—involving, of all things, a soccer club.

On December 7th, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family (and a cousin of Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de-facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates), announced his purchase of a fifty-per-cent stake in Beitar Jerusalem, the capital’s struggling football club; the purchase price was not disclosed, but the sheikh committed to investing ninety million dollars in the team over the next decade. Beitar’s owner, the Tel Aviv-based venture capitalist Moshe Hogeg, told the Associated Press that he was eager to recruit new talent, including, he emphasized, Arab players.

It is a curiosity of Israeli sports leagues that many teams grew out of pre-state political movements. The Hapoel Haifa basketball team, for example, has its roots in the labor Zionist movement. (Hapoel means “the worker.”) Beitar Jerusalem is the offspring of the rightist youth movement Betar, which was founded by the Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, in Riga, in 1923, and named for the last Judaean insurgent fortress crushed by Rome, in 135 A.D. Betar is a progenitor, more consequentially, of the Likud, Netanyahu’s party. Moreover, Beitar Jerusalem’s supporters are mostly from the city’s poorer quarters, and the most fervent of them—many the children and grandchildren of some quarter of a million Jewish refugees who came from Morocco in the nineteen-fifties and sixties—are notoriously bigoted. They call their fan club La Familia, suggesting Mafia-like toughness and loyalty, and, in the past, they have prevented the team from recruiting Arab players. For them, Netanyahu is king; last summer, some La Familia members violently attacked anti-Netanyahu protesters in Jerusalem. Hogeg said that he was determined “to fix this racist problem,” to achieve something “bigger than football.” But would Beitar fans accept an Arab owner?

Games are currently played in empty stadiums, owing to the pandemic, so there could be no anti-Arab taunts from the stands. Yet there has been virtually no condemnation of the sale from Beitar fans—on social media or in the streets—not much even from La Familia. Some who protested at a team practice were outnumbered by supporters of the deal. “Bibi always said we had to be against them”—the Arabs—Moshe Sagir, a fifty-eight-year-old food wholesaler, who has been a Beitar fan since childhood and monitors the fan Web sites, told me. “Now he’s saying, let’s make peace—look how progressive and enlightened they are, look how this helps us.”

Actually, bin Khalifa’s financial holdings have become a matter of contention since the deal was announced, and the Israel Football Association may block it until the sheikh supplies documentation of his ability to deliver—a cautionary sign, but also an instructive one. Henrique Cymerman, a founder of the Israel-Gulf Cooperation Council Chamber of Commerce, told me that Israelis may find doing business in the Gulf different from what they’re used to. “Israelis will say ‘in the long run,’ meaning three years,” he said. “Emiratis will say ‘in the short run,’ meaning ten.” In any event, it is the response to bin Khalifa, not the depth of his pockets, that is most interesting. If the Beitar Jerusalem deal does not go through, the fans will not be the reason.

On the contrary, nothing seems to be tamping down the general enthusiasm for the Abraham Accords. An estimated seventy thousand Israelis travelled to Dubai during the Hanukkah holiday, as if to a combination mall and dream palace. (“Made in Israel” signs have cropped up in Dubai’s wine stores; joyful Israelis were reprimanded for kissing in public, an offense punishable with imprisonment in the U.A.E.) Moroccan Israelis are now celebrating their roots openly—as one put it, like “a kind of forbidden love” that has now been formalized.

The enthusiasm, however, is not necessarily good for Netanyahu’s hold on power. The emergent bloc of parties committed to, and quite possibly capable of, denying him victory include self-styled rightists, centrists, and leftists; their growing ability to coöperate, in spite of their occupying very different places in the culture wars, seems a tribute to the way normalization is altering the way Israelis view what their leaders do with power. If the normalization of relations with the Gulf states is making the region more, well, normal, then why not focus on internal matters, such as Netanyahu’s violation of democratic norms, his economic mismanagement, and his theocratic alliance with the ultra-Orthodox? If the presumably permanent state of emergency is relaxed, why tolerate violations of judicial norms in order to save a strongman Prime Minister from prosecution?

Nor, since the summer, has Netanyahu provided his supporters with much more than normalization to cheer for. He concluded an early purchase of vaccines from Pfizer and has taken some justifiable credit for a successful inoculation program; by the end of January, eighty-two per cent of those sixty or older had been vaccinated. Yet most Israelis feel gratitude more directly for a health-care system that his governments have manifestly underfunded. His most loyal supporters in the Knesset, the ultra-Orthodox parties, have openly defied his pandemic closures, with fatal consequences. (The ultra-Orthodox are a tenth of the population, but account for a third of COVID-19 infections.) Thousands of small businesses are closed or struggling, unemployment is above twenty per cent, and the government has not passed a national budget. In fact, Netanyahu, as all know, blocked budget legislation, which was constitutionally required by December 23rd, and thus forced the Knesset’s dispersal. It was the only way, under the complicated power-sharing “unity government” that has been in place since last April, for him to remain in office up to and beyond the March 23rd vote without surrendering the premiership to his erstwhile rival, the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz.

Source: Joe Biden Is Playing It Cool with Benjamin Netanyahu

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