Five months after gaining a new government, Israel is hoping to shore up its vital alliance with the U.S. ― and to court Democrats who are increasingly critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and rarely questioned American aid for the country.
“We think there is a need to hit the reset button,” Idan Roll, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, told HuffPost in an interview last week.
Roll visited Washington as the latest representative of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s administration. Bennett and his allies took over from Benjamin Netanyahu, who had enacted an aggressive far-right agenda while aligning himself with Republicans in the U.S., led by former President Donald Trump, and slamming former President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
Netanyahu’s successors say their government is more in line with most American policymakers and the American public. They hope that by making that case, they can avoid spats between the U.S. and Israel over issues like Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank ― the territory where Palestinians hope to establish a future state ― or Israel’s hawkish approach to Iran.
“As a liberal member of this government, I’m very confident that we are making amazing progress in a lot of different fields... that the progressives will appreciate,” Roll said. “It’s just a matter of doing a better job of conveying that.”
He pointed to the Bennett government’s ending of a restriction on blood donations by gay men, saying that allowed him to give blood earlier this month, and its appointment of a record number of women and Israeli Arabs to government posts.
And Roll argued that the new administration was clearly less discriminatory than Netanyahu’s, noting that it has earmarked billions of dollars for investment in Arab areas, granted more Israeli work permits to Palestinians and allowed Palestinians to build hundreds of new housing units in the West Bank for the first time since 2007.
But Bennett’s policy on building permits shows that Israel will likely continue to frustrate Palestinians and human rights watchdogs despite his team’s conciliatory rhetoric.
The policy links new Palestinian construction to more than 3,000 new housing units in Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law and are opposed by many Democrats, including President Joe Biden. Boosting settlements makes it harder for Israel to ever relinquish control of the region and accept the establishment of a Palestinian state, critics say, while hurting the millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank.
“When it comes to the occupation, the record of the new government so far has mostly been a dismal extension of the Netanyahu years,” Debra Shushan of the influential Jewish American group J Street wrote this week. She noted that Israeli settlers who often receive government protection are becoming more violent toward Palestinians, according to United Nations experts, and Israeli forces that control the West Bank are continuing to demolish Palestinian homes.
Roll, defending the settlements as “a matter of natural growth on both sides,” suggested that his government sees a broad resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as far off: Bennett would not accept a Palestinian state, while many of his coalition partners ― like Roll’s party ― see that as the best hope.
“The conditions for a two-state solution are currently not ripe on either side,” the minister said. But he highlighted that the idea of annexation ― absorbing the West Bank into Israel ― is now “off the table.”
The tense status quo is often bloody: In the latest flare-up between the two sides, earlier this year at least 280 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Additionally, the feud drives broader instability across the Middle East as extremists cite the Palestinian plight to incite hatred and violence while embroiling the U.S. in the conflict and disputes over rights abuses. In addition to the $3.8 billion Israel receives annually in American military aid, the country recently requested $1 billion to resupply its missile defense system. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a skeptic of foreign entanglements, has halted that request, but it could cause a high-profile fight in Congress in the coming months.
U.S. officials and global affairs experts are also alarmed about the implications of Israel’s broader national security policy.
After media reports this year revealed that the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group sold its software to authoritarian governments to pursue opponents including human rights activists, the Biden administration blacklisted NSO and another firm connected to Israel’s intelligence community. This week, Apple sued NSO for breaching its systems, following Facebook’s lead.
Meanwhile, a long-running shadow war between Israel and Iran threatens the Biden administration’s efforts to restore the global accord that limited Iranian nuclear activity. That tussle could spark a dangerous, bigger fight: U.S. and Israeli intelligence shows that Iran in October struck an American facility to retaliate for Israeli airstrikes, The New York Times reported last week.
Separately, the Bennett administration has ignited outrage for its decision to ban six Palestinian rights groups for allegedly funding terrorism. The U.S. and other Israeli partners are questioning the move, and Israel’s critics note that it has previously targeted civil society on grounds that have later appeared shaky.
Roll told HuffPost that Israel can provide “concrete evidence” for its claims and that his government does not want to clash with international rights advocates the way Netanyahu did to whip up nationalistic fevor domestically.
“This government, we don’t have any blacklist,” the minister said.
He emphasized that Bennett’s government believes it can tackle thorny issues by relying on its placatory tone.
Israel is wary of Biden’s attempt to reopen a U.S. mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, for instance. “I understand the Biden administration’s perspective on the matter and I know it’s one of the president’s campaign promises,” Roll said, saying he sought “creative solutions.”
“Above all, we want to do everything in a low-key manner and in a dignified manner because we cherish the fact that the United States is our most prominent and valued ally in the world,” the minister added.
He said his team also plans more outreach to “the new generation” of both legislators and American Jews.
During his visit, however, Roll met friendly faces ― from Biden aides to centrist Democrats and Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty (Tenn.) and GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney (N.Y.) ― rather than prominent figures who frequently challenge Israel, such as the “Squad” of progressive members of Congress.
His government’s continued wooing of Washington and Israel’s softer approach depend on its survival; the coalition agreement underpinning it is tenuous. But calling the fate of the Bennett administration “an ever-hanging question,” Roll said it had already disproved doubters by successfully passing a budget.
“We know that we have differences, but we have proven we can manage to sit down and discuss what we don’t agree on,” the minister said. Now he and his allies must do the same with skeptics abroad.