It took nearly Joe Biden a month after his inauguration to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and roughly another week after that for him to speak with King Salman of Saudi Arabia.
According to Biden administration officials, the delay in establishing head-of-state level contact with two of America’s traditional allies in the Middle East — widely seen as a snub to a pair of leaders who had been key allies of former President Donald Trump — was meant as a signal. The new administration would be making a serious attempt to put that region on the back burner. Biden was turning the country’s attention to shoring up a transatlantic alliance stretched thin by four years of Trumpian hostility.
That was the goal of Biden’s first trip abroad last week, during which he attended the G7 conference and met with NATO heads of government. He’s now headed to Switzerland for a confab with Vladimir Putin, the man who US intelligence credits with aiding his predecessor’s successful campaign for the presidency in 2016.
Speaking during a press conference following the NATO summit on Monday, Biden declared that the “most important shared mission” between the US and her allies is “to prove to the world and to our own people that democracy can still prevail against the challenges of our time and deliver for the knees were people.” But while Biden has been looking to Europe for support in his quest to prove the viability of democracy, experts and sources close to the administration say that mission may have gotten the biggest boost from Israel.
As Biden was meeting with the G7 heads of government, a broad coalition of Israeli leaders was voting to put an end Netanyahu’s tenure in favor of a “change coalition” government headed by Naftali Bennett. Bennett is a onetime protégé of Netanyahu who teamed up with a mix of left, right and center to make a clean break with the embattled Likud Party leader.
The unprecedented coalition was brought together by the goal of ousting Netanyahu, who over 12 uninterrupted years in office routinely meddled in US politics and strained ties with many of his country’s strongest American supporters. He gained a reputation as an illiberal strongman after pushing to extend his time in office despite failing to gain a majority of support in the Knesset — Israel’s parliament — over the course of four elections in two years, as well as managing to studiously avoid going to court over corruption charges.
“It’s a f**king brilliant example of what [Biden] hopes will become the norm,” said one source close to the administration. “A democracy that had been hijacked by a wannabe dictator has clawed its way back from the precipice of despotism.”
The source, who requested anonymity because they are often called on to serve as a sounding board by top US officials, said Israel’s rejection of Netanyahu’s personalized rule — even by one vote in the Knesset — could give the Biden pro-democracy agenda a huge boost should the Bennett government succeed.
American Jewish Congress Executive Director and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joel Rubin said the establishment of an Israeli government without Netanyahu in it “fits like a glove” with Biden’s larger foreign policy goals.
“What you’re witnessing in Israel is the most broad-based coalition government to ever lead the country. This fits squarely within the frame and the concept that Joe Biden is promoting about democracies, and the need to reassert democratic systems, institutions and values and to demonstrate that democracies work for the people,” Rubin said. He added that for Biden, “the timing could not be better”: “He’s out there making the pitch for why democracies are the best way for governance…and Israel just signed up for that.”
A spokesperson for the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, Logan Bayroff, said it’s too soon to tell whether Netanyahu’s ouster will herald a wave of pro-democracy results in other countries that underwent a recent authoritarian populist wave. That wave brought leaders such as Trump, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, and the Philippines’ Duterte into office, but may now be receding.
Bayroff noted that Netanyahu himself made such a prediction last week: “Netanyahu has identified himself clearly with the global illiberal democracies and more authoritarian leaders like Trump, [India’s Narendra] Modi, [Hungary’s Viktor] Orban, and other who aren’t afraid to traffic in ethno-nationalism, and he even was saying last week, that his own downfall would be a blow to the right wing worldwide.”
Bayroff predicted that Israel’s new Netanyahu-free government will be welcomed by those in the Biden administration who are aiming for a return to normalcy. “The Biden administration is too polite and too seasoned to gloat about anything, but I don’t think that they’re going to be feeling bad about [the downfall of] someone who’s self-identifying as a right-wing leader [and] who’s been trafficking in corruption and pseudo-authoritarian tactics and rhetoric,” he said. “Seeing that person suffer electoral defeat and be removed from office is certainly something that they’re going to be happy about.”
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