The U.S.-Israeli relationship has long been a key factor in determining peace and stability in the Middle East.
But with new heads of state in both Washington, D.C., and Jerusalem, the world is wondering: Where is this relationship going?
The first moves came from Washington. In January, newly installed President Joe Biden immediately shifted U.S. policy. He announced his intent to return to the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement, undid many of President Donald Trump’s initiatives emphasizing U.S. support for Israel, and downgraded the importance of the Abraham Accords.
There is change afoot in Jerusalem, as well.
In June, a new coalition finally formed a stable government. In the previous four elections, parliamentary coalitions were unable to reach a 61-seat Knesset majority required to form a government. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had always figured out a way to hold on to the prime minister’s office. This time, his skills came up short. While Netanyahu’s Likud party again won the most seats, it was unable to form a coalition government by the May 4 deadline.
Yair Lapid, the leader of the runner-up Yesh Atid party, was then given the chance to form a government. Following a series of talks, eight parties (including right-wing, centrist, and left-wing parties, as well as an Arab party) established a coalition with a Knesset majority. Netanyahu was out; New Right Party Leader Naftali Bennett was in. If the coalition holds, Lapid will take over as prime minister after two years.
This fragile and eclectic coalition, however, agrees on little beyond the need to replace Netanyahu. It is likely to disintegrate long before its four-year term ends—perhaps sooner if Netanyahu can pry loose one of the coalition's right-wing members.
It will be a major challenge to prevent the coalition from falling prey to its own internal contradictions, particularly on the Palestinian issue. The new prime minister has rejected the creation of a Palestinian state and supports expanding settlements, while Mansour Abbas, the leader of the coalition’s United Arab List party, has supported the return of Palestinians. Abbas also supports the creation of a Palestinian state and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Lapid is somewhat in the middle, advocating for a two-state solution but also for the maintenance of large Israeli settlement blocs.
Since entering office, Bennett has made very few references to the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict. He has warned that Palestinian violence "will be met with a firm response," but added that "security calm will lead to economic moves, which will lead to reducing friction and the conflict." Recognizing its deep cleavages, the coalition will likely focus on less divisive domestic issues. Stand-out concerns include the economy, healthcare, electoral and judicial reform, and the passing of a budget. But if tensions flare up again between Israelis and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the coalition may not survive.
The coalition will also have to deal with the growing distance between the United States and Israel, as well as Biden’s intent to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. In the near term, Biden must know that if he presses the Israeli government too hard, he could trigger a domestic political crisis—one that brings down the government.
More broadly, it looks as if Washington hopes to put the Middle East on the foreign policy back-burner. In that case, it will have to be careful how much it demands from its most important ally in the region. With both Washington and Jerusalem looking more risk-averse, the Middle East’s chronic mischief-makers may be emboldened.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner