TEL AVIV — Foreign Minister Eli Cohen found himself in a minor crisis on Wednesday after criticizing US Vice President Kamala Harris, adding yet another layer to the Israeli government's already chaotic foreign policy.
Cohen’s trouble was the latest in a long list of diplomatic spats between officials in the Netanyahu government and the Biden administration.
Harris delivered a staunch pro-Israel address in Washington at a June 6 event at the Israeli Embassy, pledging that the Biden administration would “continue to stand for the values that have been the bedrock of the US-Israel relationship … both built on strong institutions, checks and balances and, I’ll add, an independent judiciary.”
According to Ynet, which cited an "American source familiar with the details," Harris added the final two words upon being informed that Knesset member Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the government’s deeply contentious judicial overhaul plan, was in the audience.
Cohen took offense. “If we were to ask Kamala Harris what bothers her about the reform, she wouldn’t be able to name a single clause,” Cohen told public broadcaster Kan News.
US Ambassador Tom Nides, who has spent much of his short time in Israel attempting to calm the troubled waters, called Cohen to discuss the matter and pointed out in a televised interview that Harris had simply repeated what President Joe Biden and his administration have been saying about the plans to weaken Israel’s judiciary.
Cohen then issued a half-hearted apology. "I have deep respect for our ally the United States and for Vice President Harris, a true friend of Israel," he said, but added, “Israel’s legal reform is an internal issue that is currently in the process of consolidation and dialogue.”
Cohen is scheduled to switch jobs at the end of the year with Energy Minister Israel Katz, who will serve for two years as foreign minister and then hand back the office to Cohen for the remainder of the government’s term. This political patchwork is reminiscent of Henry Kissinger’s description of Israel as a country that does not have a foreign policy, only a domestic one. However, the confused, illogical and uncoordinated nature of Israel’s hard-line government and its policies has has gone far beyond even Kissinger's charicarization.
Another recent foreign policy flip-flop was prompted by Elon Musk’s comments last month about liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros, prompting the Foreign Ministry to tweet in protest of his anti-Semitic overtones. Hours later, Cohen told an interviewer on the pro-government Channel 14, “There will be no more tweets like this,” clearly adopting the attitude of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family, which view Soros, a critic of his own Hungarian government, as a subversive anarchist.
Netanyahu’s son Yair has also repeatedly landed his father and his government in hot water with the Biden administration by tweeting venomous conspiracy theories, including allegations that the United States was instrumental in the mass anti-government pro-democracy protests sweeping Israel since January. Following public condemnation by US and Israeli officials and Yair's departure for the United States, his Twitter account fell silent.
"The prime minister should consider silencing all the other unruly elements in his government, but he can't do that, because he's a prisoner in their hands," a senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, referring to Netanyahu’s dependence on his religious and nationalist coalition partners.
Veteran Israeli diplomats describe the situation as unprecedented in the Jewish state. Among the more egregious examples are the comments by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who publicly urged the government to wipe the Palestinian village of Huwara off the map and subsequently appeared at a mid-March event in Paris against the backdrop of a map of the Middle East that did not include Jordan and described the Palestinian people as “an invention.”
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir continues to visit the Temple Mount, forcing Israel to repeatedly assure the world that it does not intend to disrupt the status quo at the site holy to both the Jewish and the Muslim religions. And far-right lawmaker Orit Strook, who is minister of national missions, called several months ago on the American administration to do some soul-searching regarding the violation of its commitments to Israel, as well as Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli, who told Nides not to stick his nose into Israel's internal affairs.
Relations between Israel and the United States have had their stumbles over the years, but they have generally been quickly resolved. This government, however, has repeatedly found itself in embarrassing and damaging clashes. This week, Netanyahu’s office named a far-right activist to its communications team. Gilad Zwick has repeatedly lambasted Biden, saying he was unfit for office and would lead the United States to ruin. When his insults caught up with him after his appointment was announced, Zwick issued a statement claiming his views had changed.
Judging by his statements, Netanyahu’s views have also changed, but not for the better. He is no longer the cautious, pragmatic leader he was once known as.
"The Americans really can't understand how the Israeli madness continues, but it also has a positive side,” a former senior diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Netanyahu seems to have cooled down a lot on the negotiations for a new nuclear agreement with Iran. … He makes do with weak or minimal condemnations, apparently because he has not decided what his position is on this issue either.”
At some point, Netanyahu will have to sort out the mess created by his government, and the fix will go far beyond warning his ministers against provoking Washington. He will need to take wider action, including possibly accepting a US-backed Saudi Arabian civilian nuclear power project and a new US agreement with Iran in return for Saudi peace with Israel.
If such a plan is being prepared, it will clearly exact a heavy price from Israel. Netanyahu would have to enlist congressional support for far-reaching concessions to the Saudis, including nuclear technology and uranium enrichment, and make concessions on the Palestinian issue.
"With all due respect to Netanyahu's great aspiration for peace with Saudi Arabia, it's hard for me to see this happening," a former senior diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "Although in Netanyahu's current incarnation, anything is possible."