With a new budget comes the inevitable US-Israel drama: analysis

“We are not looking for drama; we do not seek fights. We seek to defend our interests in the appropriate way, before a great friend, and we will continue to do so, “Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at a news conference Saturday night, referring to disagreements with the Biden administration.

When asked a similar question again, in English, Bennett was even more emphatic: “We always present our position quietly, without drama, and we hope it is understood.”

The press conference was held to celebrate the approval of the budget just two days before, and this is exactly the moment when drama is expected.

Sources close to Bennett and Chancellor Yair Lapid have denied the budget means anything to their dealings with the Biden administration and dismissed reports that Washington was waiting to pressure Jerusalem until after the vote, which is seen as likely to stabilize the coalition. . .

Still, at least one senior Israeli official made a comment last month that seemed to reflect the atmosphere in Washington when it comes to dealing with the Bennett government: “Everybody seems to be an expert on the Israeli budget.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 7, 2021 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM / THE JERUSALEM POST)

At that press conference on Saturday, Bennett and Lapid were asked about the Biden administration’s promise to reopen the U.S. consulate to Palestinians at its former West Jerusalem location, which the Trump administration made the ambassador. of the United States at the residence of Israel.

“My position, which was presented to the Americans by me and by the Minister of Foreign Affairs [Yair] Lapid, is that there is no place for a US consulate serving the Palestinians in Jerusalem, “Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at a news conference Saturday night. “We have expressed our position with determination, calm, without drama, and I hope it is understood. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, alone ”.

Lapid intervened: “We clarify to Americans that we are opposed to a consulate in Jerusalem. There is an embassy [to Israel] in Jerusalem. Sovereignty in Jerusalem belongs to a country, the State of Israel. “

They conveyed their position to Americans months ago, “without drama,” as Bennett put it, but it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference in the Biden administration either.

“We will move forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening … ties with the Palestinians,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late October, nearly two months after he Bennett told Biden he’s opposed and he’s right. after a meeting with Lapid who did the same.

That comment came in response to a question at a press conference, as Bennett and Lapid did, which could indicate that the matter was not high on Blinken’s agenda, if he did not choose to comment on it in his opening remarks.

The concern is that he was simply waiting for the post-budget vote era to prioritize the consulate.

And the Biden administration’s actions and statements toward Israel in recent weeks seem to indicate that they are ready to make a change, moving out of a grace period.

When it comes to settlements and Israel’s recent decision to ban six Palestinian NGOs in light of their well-documented ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, designated in the US and elsewhere as a terrorist group, Bennett and Lapid took the same approach of “agreeing to disagreeing”.

“We do not agree on all Americans, but, also on this, we know how to handle a dispute when necessary,” Bennett said on those issues. “We defend ourselves, but you have to know how to do it.

He later added, in English: “There is much more that we agree on with our American friends than we disagree … I am sure that we and our American friends will continue to collaborate on a long list of important things.”

But Washington seemed far less conciliatory in recent weeks, repeatedly sending its Charge d’Affaires to Israel, Michael Ratney, to criticize Bennett’s diplomatic adviser, Shimrit Meir, over the government’s plans to build housing in existing settlements in Judea and Samaria.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the 3,000-home advance was “completely inconsistent with efforts to reduce tensions and ensure calm, and damages prospects for a two-state solution.”

As for NGOs, Price’s comment that “we believe that respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important to responsive and responsible governance,” seemed to imply that Israel does not.

    A man walks past the logo of the Israeli cyber company NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava desert, southern Israel, on July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS / AMIR COHEN) A man walks past the logo of the Israeli cyber company NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava desert, southern Israel, on July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS / AMIR COHEN)

And then there was last week’s announcement that the US Department of Commerce blacklisted two Israeli cybersecurity firms NSO Group and Candiru due to their “activities that are contrary to national security or political interests. outside the United States “.

“NSO is a private company,” Lapid said in response to a question about it at Saturday’s press conference. “It is not a government project and, therefore, even if it is defined [as contrary to US interests] It has nothing to do with the policy of the Israeli government. I don’t think there is another country in the world that has such strict rules in the area of ​​cybercrime and enforces them more than Israel, and we will continue to do so. “

However, the fact that NSO is a private company did not prevent reports that it had French President Emmanuel Macron as one of its targets from damaging relations between Jerusalem and Paris. True, NSO is not allowed to use its Pegasus phone hacking software on US phone numbers, but blacklisting a company operating under a license from the Israeli Defense Ministry seems like a reprimand from Israel, even if Lapid wouldn’t say it.

So the pressure was already on, even before the post-budget era, and there is no indication that it is going to budge. As the voting progressed on Wednesday and Thursday, Price said the US position has not changed on any of these issues: settlements, Jerusalem, NGOs, basically saying that “we have been very clear” about each of them. .

Add to all that the potential collision between Jerusalem and Washington when the Biden administration returns to indirect negotiations with Iran on November 29 to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Biden strongly supports a return to the deal and has continued to push for talks even as, as Bennett, Lapid and other Israeli officials have noted, Iran’s uranium enrichment has weakened the JCPOA so much that it is mostly irrelevant in terms of stop the pump. while lifting sanctions and filling the mullahs’ regime with cash.

Much of this pressure and these disagreements are reminiscent of US-Israel relations in the era of former US President Barack Obama, who, despite his nickname “Obama without drama,” was quite tense and dramatic. Bennett may say he doesn’t want drama, he may be trying to keep his disagreements with Washington as quiet and behind the scenes as possible, but drama will still come to his doorstep.


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