The Jerusalem Post
A matter of building trust
The US-Israel relationship under Biden and Bennett will be looking for common ground
WASHINGTON – It was shortly before 9 p.m. on Sunday when Naftali Bennett was sworn in as Israel’s 13th prime minister. By 9:17 p.m., the White House already put out a statement congratulating Bennett and the new government, and at 11:05 p.m., there was a readout of the phone call between the leaders.
“President Biden spoke today with Prime Minister Bennett to offer his warm congratulations to Prime Minister Bennett on becoming prime minister of the State of Israel,” the White House said in a statement. “The leaders agreed that they and their teams would consult closely on all matters related to regional security, including Iran.”
Some media reports speculated that the new prime minister would be invited to the White House in a matter of weeks.
It was a far cry from the three weeks it took for Biden to phone Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, after taking office in January.
Bennett’s readout said that he thanked Biden for his yearslong commitment to Israel and its security and his support for Israel during Operation Guardian of the Walls last month, and discussed the importance of the US-Israel relationship.
Indeed, Biden went out of his way to convey a warm welcome to the new prime minister, who just a few hours earlier, speaking at the Knesset, made it clear that his policy when it comes to the nuclear agreement with Iran would be identical to the one of his predecessor.
“Returning to the Iran deal is a mistake that will once again give legitimacy to one of the most violent, darkest regimes in the world,” Bennett said. “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. Israel is not a party to the deal and will maintain total freedom of action.”
But as the dust settles after Bennett’s first week in office, the challenges remain the same. The US is still holding indirect negotiations with Iran, hoping to agree on returning to the JCPOA as soon as possible – a position that both the prime minister and the alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, oppose. On the Palestinian issue, Bennett stated his strict opposition to the two-state solution.
So, what can we expect the Biden-Bennett relationship to look like?
“THE POINT to recognize is that Biden and Bennett are problem-solvers,” ambassador Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, told The Jerusalem Post.
“They will find common ground in shrinking the conflict, not ending it,” he said. “Two states is not available any time soon. The challenge for the administration will be to reach understandings with the new Israeli government that preserve the option of two states.”
“The Biden administration isn’t planning a push on a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians,” agreed Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. “It has a very full docket of priorities, domestically and internationally, and its officials remember the failure of the Kerry initiative. That allows them and the Bennett-Lapid government to start by focusing on other issues.”
“It allows them to coordinate on the variety of regional and bilateral issues at stake, including, of course, Iran, and conflict management between Israel and the Palestinians. On the latter, they may hope to find in Bennett a willingness to think outside the box on practical matters, but, of course, not on the two-state solution or final-status issues.”
“Still,” said Sachs, “the conflict has a way of forcing itself onto center stage, and the profound differences on ‘small things’ – including bureaucratic inertia on settlements – may prove difficult for the relationship before too long.”
Michael Oren, former ambassador to Washington, told the Post that “there’s going to be a conflict of ideas, of policy. The question is whether that conflict spills out and becomes public, or is it done within the framework of two allies who have a disagreement?
“From everything I see, both parties are committed to maintaining the principle of ‘no daylight,’” said Oren. “It means that we keep our differences between ourselves. We don’t hang them out publicly. I think there’s a tremendous [need] on the part of the Israeli government to pursue that policy. We lost it during the Obama administration when everything was daylight.
“That discussion requires intimacy and trust,” Oren noted, “and I think that that’s what this administration is building – intimacy, trust.”
Would Biden leave the Palestinian issue as low priority to avoid clashing with the new government?
“Biden is unlikely to press Bennett on the Palestinian issue, but not to spare Bennett, but, rather, because the president knows any peace initiative at this time will go nowhere. The Israeli government is divided on the issue, and Palestinians have no real government at all. Moreover, Biden has more pressing international issues to deal with – US-Russian and US-Chinese relations.”
ONE ISSUE that could influence the Biden administration policy is the progressive flank of the Democratic Party, which is becoming more vocal and gaining more power within the party.
Last month, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, progressive Democrats pressed Biden to bring the operation to an end. “Progressives will undoubtedly pressure the administration, which may respond with such symbolic measures as increasing aid to the Palestinians and opposing Israeli construction in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem,” said Oren.
According to Dan Arbell, a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Israeli Studies at American University, Biden isn’t likely to change his stripes for the progressives in his party. “When it comes to pressure from progressives, Biden handled it well during the last round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, and I believe he’ll continue to do so. He won’t cave in to progressive pressure,” he told the Post.
“I believe the Biden administration
understands the complexity and delicate nature of the political situation in Israel and will not put pressure or pick fights with the Bennett-Lapid government,” added Arbell, a 25-year-veteran of the Israeli Foreign Service.
“They realize an effort to advance a two-state solution at present is not a realistic option and will focus on encouraging the government to step up the dialogue with the PA, refrain from unilateral steps, and help alleviate the suffering of ordinary Gazans,” he continued.
And what about Iran? How could the sides remain coordinated?
“They will make an effort to keep Bennett and Lapid in the loop. They realize that on substance, their position is not different from Netanyahu’s position, but they would work to ensure that these differences will be aired out privately and not publicly.”
Logan Bayroff, vice president of communication at the progressive group J Street, told that Post that the organization sees the recent developments “as very significant and very welcome.
“You’re going from a right-wing government... to a coalition that is much more balanced .... It is much welcome and exciting. And at the same time, we recognize that the government’s going to be very tenuous. It’s going to be very hard to find a common agreement. And
the areas of common priority and common agreement are probably not going to be steps to improve relations with the Palestinians, steps towards a two-state solution. That’s unlikely.
“Our advice to the Biden administration would be, of course, to try to establish a good working relationship with this government and not to be afraid to take this opportunity to try to reset. It won’t be that hard to have a better relationship. But part of the message that we’re going to send is in the long run, that’s not enough.
“We would want to help try to explain to this government that if they really want better relations with the Democratic Party, if they want better relationships with the majority of American
Jews, if they want to understand Democratic voters long-term, they don’t have to suddenly decide that they’re [agreeing with Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, but they do have to actually understand the strong desire to see Israeli policy change and to ultimately see an end to the conflict through a two-state solution.
“That’s not just going away, and you can’t just ignore that and pretend that that’s not there. And that’s a very real tension. It’s going to stay there until it gets dealt with.”
SOME BELIEVE that differences of opinions won’t necessarily hurt cooperation between the leaders, or between the countries.
“First indications point to the prospect of a good and positive working relationship between the new government and the administration,” said Dan Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel.
“Bennett and Lapid are likely to adopt more restrained rhetoric vis-à-vis Washington, even when we disagree on substance,” said Kurtzer. “The new Israeli leaders have spoken of their desire to repair relations with the Democrats, which will be well received by the president.”
Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, mentioned the new government’s diversity of views it represents.
“We are confident that President Biden, who entered the White House
with the strongest and longest record on Israel of any US president, will work with Israel’s new leaders to prioritize our shared national security interests,” she said.
Aaron Keyak, who served on the Biden-Harris transition team, said that Bennett “has shown himself to be practical, and I think that there could be a really constructive relationship between the two leaders.
“One of the things that maybe has not been paid enough attention to is that both of these seasoned patriots have made an emphasis to fill out their cabinet or the coalition with a diverse group of individuals that reflect the countries that they represent, and are looking forward, not backward,” he said.