In the dark valley of his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden can do a world of good by uttering some simple words of truth
President Biden’s long-delayed agreement to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 20 has sent many Israelis into a tailspin: they fear the president will be Netanyahu’s useful idiot, unwittingly helping him destroy Israeli democracy. But I’d focus on the glass half-full: This is an opportunity for Biden to do much good, and a rare case of a meeting that matters.
As the president surely knows — but some readers may not — many Israelis had feverishly hoped no such meeting would take place. Thousands of them, including many prominent cultural figures, recently signed an open letter imploring Biden to continue boycotting their prime minister. They spoke for millions.
To understand why, we need to be clear on the reasons for the massive protest movement against Netanyahu — a politician many Americans, including many American Jews, can be confused about. On U.S. TV shows he sounds almost reasonable, effectively deploying his American accent, rhetorical skills, and familiarity with the U.S. scene to inveigle, deny, and obfuscate his actual plans.
These plans, announced days after his return to power nine months ago, would dismantle Israel’s parliamentary democracy and replace it with the kind of system that now exists in places like Turkey and Hungary, and that existed in Russia before President Vladimir Putin became a full dictator (see TV debate above).
In such fake democracies, the leader has almost unlimited power, the courts are a sham, the gatekeepers are defanged and the media is either muzzled or mutated (via crony ownership schemes) into propaganda for the ruler. Elections may not be falsified, but they are rigged.
The plans — summed up in more than 200 proposed overhaul bills — have been described in detail in these pages in recent weeks.
In Israel, that’s a recipe for true disaster. The country of 10 million is reputedly one of the world’s nuclear powers and is a global hub of technological innovation that also sits smack in the center of the Middle East tinderbox. Netanyahu, a criminal defendant on trial for bribery, heads a coalition bristling with ex-cons, fanatics, and racists who want to cement Israel’s awkward rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians — a restive population with a history of exploding in violence.
Such outcomes have ripple effects. A Middle East war almost exactly 50 years ago caused a global oil crisis; more recently, the Middle East gave us deadly global terrorism and terrorists, including 9/11, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and trillions of dollars poured down the drain by American governments in rather futile wars. Be very, very careful with the Middle East.
Israelis who understand something about this history desperately want the Netanyahu government to fall, and fast. And their concern is that Netanyahu will be able to sell the Biden meeting as evidence that Israel’s indispensable ally has no real problem with his direction for the country. Biden denied Netanyahu a meeting at the White House, yes, but trust the Israeli leader to spin that nuance away and make much hay of the encounter, cementing his hold on power.
There is way for Biden to do a world of good this week by uttering a few words in public with Netanyahu by his side:
“I realize that many folks in Israel, some of the best folks in Israel, wanted me to avoid meeting with Bibi over here,” Biden might say, with a hand gesture toward Netanyahu. “And I certainly understand their reasons. So it’s very important to me to make sure there’s no mistake about my thinking.”
At this point, most Israelis will be riveted to the screens, and Netanyahu’s familiar smirk will darken into a Putinesque scowl.
“I told the prime minister that my agreeing to meet him on the sidelines of the UNGA is in no way a gesture of support for, or acceptance of, his government’s plans to overhaul the Israeli system in favor of an authoritarian democracy, as we’ve seen happen in some other unfortunate places,” Biden might say. “As a Zionist myself, I am deeply troubled by these plans. I do not accept the explanations. My administration considers these plans to be both bad for Israeli democracy and a repudiation of the shared values that have underpinned our special relationship. Unless they are cancelled, I deeply fear for that special relationship.”
That’s basically all he has to say. It will be the end of the “reforms.“ Netanyahu’s coalition has a thin majority in parliament and the few remaining moderates in his Likud Party will not vote for the coming bills, effectively blocking them. This will likely trigger events that could lead not only to a dramatic improvement in the prospects of saving democracy in Israel, but will bolster Mideast peace.
Shelving the overhaul would block the central strategy of Netanyahu’s two key coalition allies: ultranationalists who want to annex the West Bank without giving citizenship to the Palestinians, and devout Haredi Jews who want military draft exemptions and special dispensations, like funding for schools that teach no modern skills. Both need the Supreme Court and other elements of Israel’s liberal democracy out of the way. Frustrated, they may very well bolt the government, bringing about new elections.
Polls suggest the opposition would easily win such an election. The nationalist and religious parties comprising Netanyahu’s coalition won just under half the votes last November, with Netanyahu’s Likud not publishing a platform and the premier hiding his plans. Opposition splits caused 12 percent of its votes to be thrown away. Netanyahu’s overhaul gambit — motivated plainly also by his desire to shut down his trial — has delivered a true shock to the system. Hundreds of thousands are taking to the streets weekly and two-thirds of the people oppose the plot, every poll shows.
A new moderate government is far more likely to enable Biden’s goal of a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, perhaps in time for the 2024 election. The current effort is already stumbling because the Saudis need Israel to concurrently play nice with the Palestinians, which the Netanyahu government manifestly cannot.
The demand that Biden continue boycotting Netanyahu never seemed realistic. After all, U.S. presidents have met (even) worse miscreants than Netanyahu, from Soviet leaders to Arab dictators to Latin American caudillos of every stripe, some even installed with the assistance of American skullduggery. Former President Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un, whose twisted North Korea dictatorship is a cruel cartoon.
Biden has not gone quite that far, but even he met, in June 2021, with Putin. Perhaps he failed then to deliver the right message, because months later Russian rolled into Ukraine.
Will he deliver the right message now? U.S. presidents are generally not eager to openly interfere in allies’ internal politics. But if anyone has earned the right not to care, it is surely Uncle Joe.
And he should not fear America’s Jewish community. Though its leaders are loath to criticize Israel in public, the vast majority of them are liberals and moderates who would breathe a sigh of relief and murmur a prayer of thanks next week on Yom Kippur.
(A version of this article appeared in Newsweek)