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CIA chief Burns brings a more polite tone in Israel visit

But don't expect a lot of pushback on settlements or a renewed push for two state solution. Right now this is about management.

Analysis | Middle East

In the coming weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is expected to visit the White House for his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. The new administrations in both countries have been working to reset the relationship between them in the wake of their personality-driven predecessors. The visit this week of Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns was a key moment in that process. 

Burns brings an unusual perspective to intelligence. A career diplomat who reached the highest ranks of the State Department before taking this position, Burns comes to an allied country to discuss policy as much as intelligence and security, more so than many of his predecessors. His selection was part of Biden’s effort to reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy after it had been crippled during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Burns’ deep knowledge of policy and his expertise in diplomacy, earned over nearly four decades in the Foreign Service, means he has the president’s ear on policy decisions in a way most other CIA directors haven’t. And the policy questions Biden will grapple with regarding Israel are profound, in both the long and short term. 

Iran was at the top of the agenda, and the assessment there is grim. According to reports, both Israel and the United States doubt that the deal can be revived. But Israeli sources have stated that the Biden administration is balking at Israel’s desire for a heightened military threat against Iran if the talks fail. 

While Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, often tried to rally U.S. popular opinion in favor of more hawkish policies against Iran — essentially going around or over the heads of sitting presidents — Bennett has made clear he favors a more discreet and diplomatic approach. This will help Bennett and his coalition partner, Yair Lapid, in their efforts to repair the sundered relationship between Israel and Democrats and the U.S. Jewish community.

While Biden might not want to communicate to Iran that he is reluctant to take military action — and would therefore refrain from any such public threats, it’s likely that Burns reinforced this position during his meeting with Bennett. It’s also likely that Burns reassured Bennett that, if Washington re-enters the JCPOA, it will continue to safeguard Israel’s concerns and that, if the talks fail, it will consult fully with Israel in developing a “Plan B.” 

Columnist and former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas believes that Burns came to “…remind Israel what America’s interests and policies are, and to see whether Israel is fully aware and generally on board.” That ranges from working to re-establish Israel’s badly frayed relationship with Jordan and to reinforce, rather than undermine, the Hashemite Kingdom’s stability to ensuring that Israel understands the Biden administration’s position toward China.

Israel is eager to expand economic relations with China and has long had a policy of at least trying to maintain good diplomatic and, where possible, security relations with all the major world powers. Its relations with China have, on occasion, caused friction with Washington, particularly with respect to the transfer of military and intelligence technology. Israel has recently backed away from some trade deals with China, reportedly under U.S. pressure to cool that relationship. 

Burns will also be visiting Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his top aides. While the PA is publicly celebrating the meeting and heaping praise on Biden, the fact is there is very little the United States can do for them at this point beyond restoring much of the aid that was cut by the Trump administration. But there is no prospect, at least at this point, for a resuming a negotiation to achieve a two-state solution like that which died during Biden’s term as Barack Obama’s vice president. 

The PA is hanging by a thread and probably couldn’t survive a return to a renewed “peace process.” Not only are many of the Palestinian factions, including some in the Palestine Liberation Organization itself, deeply opposed to it, but recent surveys have shown a growing militance on the part of Palestinians under occupation. When asked how to end Israel’s occupation, a June poll of Palestinians found that“49 (percent) chose armed struggle, 27 percent negotiations, and 18 percent popular resistance. Even before the latest destruction in Gaza, only 36 percent supported negotiations. 

So, for all the fanfare around Burns’ visit to Ramallah, little is going to change in practice. Both the U.S. and Israel are aware of this. Benny Gantz, Israel’s Minister of Defense, tweeted that he and Burns discussed “the need to strengthen the PA and additional moderate actors in the region.” 

Burns’ visit is also an opportunity for Bennett to show Biden that they can work together, which is difficult, given the need to mollify his right-wing base. On the very day that Burns was meeting with Bennett, Israel announced the construction of 2,000 new homes in the settlements, which should please his settler supporters. 

But Israel also announced that 800 new homes in Palestinian towns in Area C of the West Bank, which is the portion under full Israeli control, would also be built. This reflected what Bennett doubtless sees as a conciliatory nod toward Biden. The president and his top aides have repeatedly hammered on the theme of equality. This is how Bennett interprets that theme.

The Palestinians see it very differently. The PA responded to it Thursday by declaring that the addition of new settler homes “… contradicts the clear American position expressed by President Joe Biden during his call with President Mahmoud Abbas, in which he affirmed the American side’s rejection of settlements and unilateral measures.” If the PA so fully rejects this attempt to “balance” settlement building with Palestinian construction, the Palestinian public will likely take a much dimmer view of it. 

Knowing that the dual announcement is not going to sit well with Bennett’s right-wing base either, Bennett  must believe that the trade-off  he will gain more in good will from the White House than he will lose with his right-wing base. Time will tell if he’s right. 

In any case, the plan reflects Bennett’s desire to appear more reasonable than Netanyahu. The aim is to restore some normalcy to the U.S. relationship, undo as much as possible the damage to Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party inflicted by Netanyahu, and restore the bipartisan partnership between the U.S. and Israel that Biden believes can reopen diplomacy with the Palestinians. 

But restoring anything resembling the defunct peace process is a pipe dream. Palestinians simply don’t support it, and Israelis are even more opposed to Palestinian independence than ever Neither group is likely to change its mind in the foreseeable future. 

And, while many Democrats are eager to restore bipartisan consensus that prevailed so long in Israel’s favor, it’s far from a sure thing that the gulf between many Democrats and the Jewish state can be easily bridged. The recent kerfuffle over Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream decision to stop selling in Israeli settlements demonstrated that. 

Still, as with last month’s visit to Israel and the West Bank by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, Burns’ meetings constituted one more step toward renewing a professional relationship, rather than a personal one, between Israel and the United States. The two sides will try to cement that progress in Washington in a few weeks. At least for the moment, it seems that, in the post-Netanyahu era, while some policy differences remain, the working relationship is settling back into its customary status, for better or worse. 

CIA Director William Burns (US Dept of State) and Israeli PM Neftali Bennett (US Embassy Israel)
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