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Biden and Bennett tone down US-Israel relations

The new prime minister avoided the drama that tended to follow his predecessor’s visits to Washington.

Analysis | Middle East

When Benjamin Netanyahu met a U.S. president, there was always an air of tension. Whether it was caused by the rancorous relationship between Netanyahu and Barack Obama or the lovefest with Donald Trump that set Democrats’ teeth gnashing, there was always some discomfort on Capitol Hill.

New Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was determined to strike a very different tone in his first meeting with President Joe Biden on Friday. He aimed to mend the fences Netanyahu tore asunder between Israel and the Democratic Party, while also avoiding the appearance of acquiescence to Biden in areas where they differ on policy, most notably the Iran nuclear deal and the prospect of a Palestinian state. His success was unqualified.

For Biden, this meeting was an opportunity to nab a bipartisan policy win, a need that grew more acute after the horrific suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. He needed to re-establish the long-standing U.S.-Israel relationship while holding fast to traditional U.S. policies that had been consistent across party lines prior to the Trump era.

Both men got what they wanted.

Bennett came away with a clear triumph. He avoided any discussion of the Palestinians, while clearly but respectfully communicating to Biden that Israel opposed the United States’ re-entry into the Iran nuclear deal.

More than that, Bennett got Biden to state publicly that he was prepared to explore “other options” if diplomacy failed to ensure that Iran could not acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the “Plan B” that Bennett and his government have been calling for publicly and he got what he wanted.

Bennett presented Biden with a multi-pronged plan to confront Iran militarily, economically, and diplomatically, and Biden seemed receptive to the idea. Bennett’s “death by a thousand cuts” idea would, presumably, have the benefit of avoiding a single dramatic event that would immediately set off a larger conflict in the Gulf region.

With that news, and the fact that both Israeli and U.S. leadership are increasingly pessimistic about the JCPOA coming back into force, Bennett can assuage any concerns in Israel over Biden stating that he still intends to pursue a diplomatic option with Iran.

Bennett must also be very pleased with what he got, or rather, didn’t get, from Biden on the Palestinian front. He avoided the subject entirely, and Biden offered just the perfunctory statements about the need to improve conditions for the Palestinian people in his public statements.

Privately, Biden reiterated U.S. intentions to re-open the consulate in Jerusalem as a diplomatic contact point with the Palestinian Authority, and opposition to the evictions of Palestinians living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. While this will be seized upon by some in Israel as a compromise on Jerusalem’s status as the “undivided capital of Israel,” Bennett likely knows reopening the consulate is important for Israel as well.

The Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy among Palestinians is hanging by a thread. Bennett, like Biden, quietly understands that it is not in Israel’s interests to see the PA fall. So, the right-wing prime minister is not kicking up much fuss about gestures that will help Mahmoud Abbas hold on to the last threads of his authority among his own people. This is especially true since the United States has assured Bennett that it would not move to re-open the consulate until Bennett’s government has passed a new budget, thus shoring up its stability and averting the most immediate threat of its fall and yet another round of elections in Israel.

The Palestinians are the big losers in this meeting. While Biden made perfunctory comments about an increasingly ephemeral “two-state solution,” it’s clear that he has little interest in advancing any sort of peace process. Despite the threat of a new round of devastation in the Gaza Strip and rockets being fired at Israel, the question of Palestinian freedom was largely an afterthought at this meeting.

This suits Bennett perfectly, as he has stated that his broad coalition government will not take major steps that would alienate some of its members. Bennett and Biden have both noted that Bennett heads the most diverse coalition government in Israel’s history. One result of that diversity is that this government, with its one-seat majority in the Knesset, does not aim for change, but rather for managing the status quo as best it can. Since there is no peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Bennett is content to refrain from annexing territory and his more centrist partners are content to forego any talk of a Palestinian state, let alone any more radical resolution to the Palestinians’ ongoing existence under Israeli rule, for the sake of moving past the divisive Netanyahu era.

Bennett himself represents only a small fraction of the coalition, controlling a mere six seats. That limits his power, but also forces him to act on national interests rather than his own ideological bent. This contrasts with Netanyahu, who was motivated by political and personal self-interest.

Bennett’s pragmatism meshes perfectly with Biden, who, more than anything else, wants to avoid any political clashes with Israel’s supporters in Congress, especially within his own party. With a difficult road ahead in 2022 midterm elections, Biden doesn’t want to give pro-Israel lobbying forces fodder to attack Democratic candidates. He doesn’t want the debate over U.S. policy in the region flaring up again among Democrats as it has over the past few years.

This is a significant setback for Palestinians who held some hope that advocates within the Democratic Party’s progressive wing were finally opening a real policy debate on Israel. That hope was raised to new heights during the last presidential election when Democratic candidates raised the idea of “conditioning” U.S. military aid to Israel in response to its human rights record, a practice which is enforced with other countries receiving U.S. aid and is, in fact, enshrined in U.S. law.

Biden is clearly shying away from the Palestinian issue. His own pro-Israel credentials are well established, and his experience as Barack Obama’s vice president surely convinced him that there is little to be gained by pressing Israel toward a resolution when chances for success are slimmer than ever.

Biden came away from this meeting with a win, albeit a much smaller one than Bennett’s. He got a warm and positive photo op with the new Israeli prime minister in a very friendly atmosphere, something that would please his camp in the Democratic Party and cannot be assailed by Republicans.

Biden highlighted his pro-Israel credentials in his remarks after meeting with Bennett and declared his commitment to Israel’s defense and the replenishment of Israel’s cache of Iron Dome missiles. The two men got along very well and had little problem managing policy differences that both were aware of coming in. Bennett, true to his word, did nothing to undermine Biden’s determination to find a diplomatic resolution with Iran. Biden, for his part, did not dwell on the question of the Palestinian people, and made clear statements about ensuring Israel’s security.

Both men got their political victories. But they came at the cost of a more hawkish tone on Iran, indifference to the Palestinians, and a setback for progressive forces advocating peace and conflict avoidance.

President Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House. August 27, 2021 (Photo: White House)
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