The Biden administration is unlikely to engage with Jewish supremacist politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is expected to be a senior minister in a future Israeli government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu, two U.S. officials told Axios.
Why it matters: No official decision has been made yet, but if the Biden administration does boycott Ben-Gvir, it will mark an unprecedented development that would likely have negative consequences for the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
- Israel’s extreme right parties saw unprecedented success in Tuesday’s election, with the Jewish supremacist Religious Zionism list set to win 14 seats — the highest number of seats for the radical right in the history of Israel.
Driving the news: Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of supporting a terror organization and inciting racism, said he wants to be the minister of internal security, a post that would put him in charge of the Israeli police and policies around Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
- His political partner, Bezalel Smotrich, said he wants to be defense minister, a role that also oversees Israeli policy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and approves settlement building. Smotrich has a history of making racist remarks about Arab citizens of Israel.
- Because Netanyahu will have to rely on the two extreme right politicians to pass laws to stop his corruption trial, they will have a lot of leverage to get the positions and the policies they want.
Behind the scenes: U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan hinted at the possibility of not working with Ben-Gvir and other right-wing extremists during their meetings last week with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
- U.S. and Israeli officials told Axios Blinken and Sullivan said that while the Biden administration will work with any elected government in Israel, it might have a problem working with specific politicians, but didn’t name them.
- The Biden administration is mainly concerned about Ben-Gvir and his party’s racist rhetoric and positions against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Arab minority in Israel, the two U.S. officials said.
- The U.S. officials told Axios there is no formal policy decision about Ben-Gvir yet, but the administration’s thinking in recent weeks was that they wouldn’t work with him. It is unclear if the administration is considering making the same decision about Smotrich or other members of their parties.
What they’re saying: “We are pleased to see such strong voter turnout for the Knesset election,” a White House national security spokesperson said.
- “It is too early to speculate on the exact composition of the next governing coalition until all the votes are counted,” the spokesperson added. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Israeli government on our shared interests and values.”
- State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in the daily briefing Wednesday that the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is strong because it is based on shared interests and values.
- “We hope all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of open democratic society including tolerance and respect for all minority groups,” Price said.