Passing a budget may sound like a boring accomplishment, but for the Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, this achievement was a pivotal feat. In Israel’s parliamentary system, failure to pass the budget by the November deadline would have triggered the collapse of the government and a fifth election in less than three years. That this ideologically diverse coalition, united by a mission to liberate Israel from the populist authoritarian grip of Donald Trump’s near-doppelganger Benjamin Netanyahu, was able to deliver Israel’s first budget in three years and return the country to a semblance of normalcy is worthy of a hearty “mazal tov.”
With this crucial success, Israel’s new government has shown that it is not as fragile as many had feared — and this welcome development has significant implications for the Biden administration and Congress as they chart a path forward on relations with Israel and the Palestinians.
Leaders in the Israeli government had urged their counterparts in the Biden administration not to press for forward movement on any issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until after the budget milestone was achieved and the coalition placed on more stable footing. In particular, Israeli leaders have objected to and delayed the reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem, which President Biden has promised as part of a commitment to repairing US diplomatic ties with the Palestinians, respecting both Israeli and Palestinian aspirations to have their capitals in the city, and reversing the destructive actions of President Trump.
Now that the budget has been passed, the Biden administration and Congress must move forward with steps to promote peace and diplomacy and to push back against harmful policies that are deepening occupation and exacerbating conflict.
The following two things are true. First, Israel’s government has done a service in freeing Israel from the paralysis of personalist rule and dysfunctional governance that persisted as Netanyahu clung to power following inconclusive elections. Second, when it comes to the occupation, the record of the new government so far has mostly been a dismal extension of the Netanyahu years. While it has taken some commendable steps to reengage with the Palestinian Authority, following a seven-year stretch under Netanyahu in which no Israeli government minister met with President Mahmoud Abbas, its pledge to “shrink the conflict” has amounted to empty rhetoric. On the ground, the new government continues to pursue de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank at breakneck speed.
A look at the current government’s record in the five months since it came to power is eye-opening. Thousands of new units in illegal settlements have advanced through the planning process, which cannot move forward without a go-ahead from Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Many of these units are deliberately positioned deep in the West Bank or in other sensitive areas to prevent a two-state solution by obstructing the viability and contiguity of a Palestinian state. In addition, planning for settlements in areas which would create an arc around East Jerusalem — the future capital of any Palestinian state — and sever it from the rest of the West Bank is especially problematic for prospects of a negotiated two-state outcome. These include E1, Givat Hamatos, and a large new 9,000-unit settlement that has been proposed for Atarot.
Meanwhile, settler violence has metastasized into a virulent epidemic. In several instances, soldiers have accompanied settlers as they terrorize Palestinians — the subject population that Israel, as an occupying power, has a responsibility to protect under international law. A regular drumbeat of demolitions by Israeli forces displaces Palestinians from their homes. And against this backdrop, Israel has declared six Palestinian NGOs, among them respected organizations that document these human rights violations, to be terrorist organizations, reportedly failing to provide Congress with clear evidence to back a grave step that even Netanyahu dared not take.
Prime Minister Bennett and his government have been particularly strident and harsh in their repeated, public statements that the US cannot and must not reopen the Jerusalem consulate. They have essentially rejected the prerogative of the President of the United States to decide how and where our country can conduct diplomacy — despite the consulate’s 175-year history in Jerusalem and the presence there of consulates maintained by several European and other foreign countries. This is a strange and unpleasant way to treat Israel’s closest ally and an administration that has been nothing but warm and generous toward Israel since it entered office.
Now that the sitting Israeli government has passed the budget, it’s time for the Biden Administration to push Israel to take meaningful steps to stop the unchecked slide toward one state and permanent occupation. They should also move quickly, directly, and unapologetically to finally reopen the consulate in Jerusalem. As a true friend of Israel and the Palestinians, it is essential that President Biden pursue this course in order to help secure Israel’s future as a democratic state and national homeland of the Jewish people, while liberating Palestinians to realize their national self-determination in a state of their own.
Likewise, Members of Congress should take steps to reverse harmful pro-settlement steps taken by the Trump administration, make it clear that the US considers settlements inconsistent with international law, and ensure US arms and aid are not used to expand settlements or otherwise exercise permanent control over occupied territory. Cosponsoring the Two-State Solution Act introduced by Michigan Congressman Andy Levin is an excellent way to do this.
After months of quietly watching and waiting as the new government found its feet, now is the time for determined and proactive American leadership. Anything less would undermine the Biden administration’s stated commitment to “equal measures of freedom, security, dignity and prosperity” for Israelis and Palestinians, and to a foreign policy that prioritizes universal human rights.