© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes opening remarks at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 12, 2023. Maya Alleruzzo/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
By Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Eleven weeks into his third stint as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to be received at the White House, signaling apparent U.S. unhappiness over the policies of his right-wing government.
Most new Israeli leaders had visited the United States or met the president by this point in their premierships, according to a Reuters review of official visits going back to the late 1970s. Only two out of 13 previous prime ministers heading a new government waited longer.
The White House declined to confirm Netanyahu has yet to be invited. A State Department spokesperson referred Reuters to the Israeli government for information about the prime minister’s travel plans.
Israel’s embassy in Washington declined to comment.
“The message they clearly want to send is: If you pursue objectionable policies, there’s no entitlement to the Oval Office sit-down,” said David Makovsky, a former senior adviser to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Since the start of the year, demonstrators have filled Israel’s streets to protest the government’s plan to curb the power of the Supreme Court, which critics say removes a check on the governing coalition.
Amid escalating West Bank violence, the right-wing government’s action authorizing settler outposts and inflammatory comments from a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet with responsibilities over Jewish settlements have drawn criticism from U.S. officials, including from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a visit to Israel last week.
U.S.-Israeli ties remain close. The United States has long been Israel’s main benefactor, sending more than $3 billion each year in military assistance.
President Joe Biden has known Netanyahu for decades, the two have spoken by phone, and senior officials in both countries have made visits since Netanyahu’s government was formed in December, despite Israel’s spiraling political crisis.
But the lack of a White House visit underscores both the desire of the Biden administration to see different policies in Israel and what critics say is a reluctance to take more forceful steps.
U.S. statements on events in Israel have often comprised “frustrating boiler-plate language,” said Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who formerly worked at the State Department on policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.
“It has been frustrating to see this lack of teeth to any of the U.S. responses,” Yerkes said.
“They don’t get to be treated with the same kid gloves that they’ve always been treated with because … they’re on the path to not being a democracy anymore.”
The Biden administration prefers quiet conversations over public criticism, a senior State Department official said, especially when it comes to the crisis over a proposed Israeli judicial overhaul.
“Anything that we would say on the specific proposals has the potential to be deeply counterproductive,” the official said, adding the goal was to encourage Israel’s leaders to build consensus over the reforms, rather than to be prescriptive on what the outcome should be.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he hopes the administration will persist with a clear message to Israel.
“I would certainly like to see the administration to be sending a strong signal that we have to maintain our support for a future Palestinian state and the decisions that the Netanyahu government are making now greatly compromise that future,” Murphy said.
A separate group of 92 progressive lawmakers warned in a letter to Biden that the judicial overhaul could empower those in Israel who favor annexing the West Bank, “undermining the prospects for a two-state solution and threatening Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”
U.S. leaders have rarely criticized Israeli policies since Secretary of State James Baker in 1989 advised the country against moves toward annexing Palestinian territory and expanding settlements. Baker later banned Netanyahu, at the time a deputy minister of foreign affairs, from the State Department after he criticized U.S. policy toward Israel.
Biden, a Democrat who describes himself as a Zionist, says U.S. support for Israel is “ironclad.”
“Biden’s own personal instincts are such that it’s very difficult for him to want to adopt an extremely tough posture towards Israel,” Dennis Ross, a veteran U.S. Middle East peace negotiator now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“He would prefer to have the Middle East in a box so he can focus only on Russia, Ukraine and China. Unfortunately, the Middle East has a way of imposing itself, unless we initiate enough to try to manage the environment.”