On 27 August 2021, US President Joe Biden held his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House. In June, Bennett succeeding in forming a fragile coalition government aimed at getting rid of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June, under whose tenure the Israeli relationship with the Biden administration and Democrats had soured. The talks between them focused on the Iranian nuclear deal and US military aid to Israel, while the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations occupied a marginal place.
1. The Iranian Nuclear Deal
Bennett made clear that the main goal of his first visit to Washington as prime minster was to persuade Biden to abandon attempts to revive the nuclear agreement with Iran, and maintain the sanctions, re-imposed by the Trump administration in 2018. He believes that lifting or easing sanctions will enable Iran to accelerate its enrichment program and move closer to making a nuclear bomb, as well as making more resources available for Tehran to continue its efforts to destabilize the region and “support Israel’s enemies in the region.” He declared that Israel has a strategy to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear program, which he will seek to convince Biden of.
Although the Biden administration continues to see an agreement as the best way to contain Iran's nuclear activities, the prospects for reviving the nuclear deal have faltered in recent weeks. Tehran insists on economic sanctions being lifted before talking about its nuclear obligations under the agreement. Meanwhile, Washington insists that Tehran must return to the commitments stipulated in the agreement simultaneously and extend the schedule of the 2015 agreement, as well as demanding negotiations to include Iran’s ballistic missile development program and its support for multiple movements and militias across the region.
Iran is currently enriching a small amount of uranium at 63% purity, which is just below the level of enrichment that would enable it to produce a nuclear weapon (90%), while the percentage set by the 2015 agreement is 3.67%. Since the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement and re-enforced economic sanctions, Tehran has produced more advanced centrifuges than the provisions of the agreement allow. According to the Biden administration, this has likely reduced the time to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon to mere months, and possibly even weeks. Washington also fears the Iranians will harden the negotiations under the new president, Ebrahim Raisi.
Accordingly, the Biden administration has come to believe that the prospects of returning to the 2015 nuclear deal are diminishing, a reality that Bennett tried to invest in during his visit to Washington. Referring to the opportunistic suicide bombing carried out by ISIS amidst the chaos of the withdrawal process at Kabul airport, which killed 175 people, including 13 US soldiers, Bennett said: “these very days illustrate what the world would look like. If a radical Islamic regime acquired a nuclear weapon, that marriage would be a nuclear nightmare for the entire world.” It seems that the Biden administration, although it sees a return to the nuclear agreement, with some modifications, as the best option, it is also seeking to reassure Israel that he will not be paying any price necessary. During the joint press conference with Bennett, Biden committed to not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but by “putting diplomacy first and seeing where that takes us.” And in the event that "diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options," without giving any explanation of the said options.
On the other hand, in contrast to Netanyahu, Bennett was keen to not appear oppositional towards the US president, expressing his satisfaction with Biden's approach, but he also announced that his government has developed a “comprehensive strategy” to contain Iran, with the aim of first stopping its “regional aggression” and to start “rolling it back into the box” and second “permanently keep Iran away from ever being able to break out their nuclear weapon.” The Israeli plan, some details of which Bennett announced before his meeting with Biden, involves strengthening relations with Arab countries opposed to Iran’s regional influence and its nuclear ambitions, taking diplomatic and economic measures against it, and continuing covert Israeli operations against it. Israeli strategy seeks to exhaust Iran with limited, but repeated, painful strikes.
2. Military Aid
Biden has proved no different to his predecessors in affirming the “unwavering” US commitment to “Israel's security and right to self-defense” and ensuring its “qualitative military edge” in the region. During his visit to Washington, Bennett succeeded in obtaining US support to request the renewal of the Iron Dome system, which Israel relies on to confront the missiles launched from the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, with $1 billion in emergency funding. This requires congressional approval, which is almost guaranteed. In May 2021, during the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip, the Biden administration agreed to sell Israel weapons and ammunition worth $735 million. The recent security agreements between the two parties, as announced by US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, included cooperation in the areas of air and missile defense, confronting unmanned aircraft systems, and “ensuring that Israel can defend itself against threats from Iran, its proxies and terrorist groups.” According to a memorandum of understanding between the administration of Barack Obama and the Netanyahu government, in 2016, the United States raised the value of its annual military aid to Israel, starting from 2019 until the end of 2028, from $3.1 billion to $3.8 billion annually, in addition to $5 billion to develop research against ballistic missiles.
3. The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Talks
It was remarkable that Biden did not make any meaningful reference to the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations at the opening of the meeting, while Bennett completely ignored the issue. The US president briefly alluded to the matter without talking about the two-state solution or the necessity of freezing settlements in the West Bank. He merely said that he wanted to discuss “ways to advance peace and security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.” It is clear from the Israeli sources that Biden called on Bennett to financially support the Palestinian Authority and work to alleviate the daily suffering of the Palestinians.
Despite Biden's assertion, more than once in the past, that he supports the two-state solution, which Trump distanced himself from during his four years of presidency, Bennett opposes this position. There is a belief that the Biden administration will not pressure Bennett on the issue of resuming peace talks with the Palestinians, nor demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank and accept the two-state solution on the pretext that Bennett's government coalition is too fragile, and any pressure on him in this direction may lead to the collapse of his government and the return of Netanyahu.
Bennett, the first religious Israeli prime minister and a former settler leader, preempted any possible US pressure before traveling to Washington by declaring his categorical rejection of the establishment of a Palestinian state, or of freezing settlement expansion in the West Bank, despite affirming his commitment not to annex any parts of the West Bank to Israeli. This is not because he opposes it, but because such a step does not enjoy unanimity within his narrow and complex coalition government. Bennett declared that he would not lift the siege on the Gaza strip as long as Hamas was arming itself, and that he would not hesitate to launch a new attack if rockets continued to be fired from Gaza, even if this led to his government losing the support of the four Arab MKs and disintegrates as a result. Within his coalition, a tendency is emerging towards avoiding “permanent solution” issues and instead working on conflict reduction, “improving the living conditions of the Palestinians,” and minimizing the manifestations of occupation in Areas A and B while intensifying settlements in Area C. This is a practice similar to the spirit of Trump’s “deal of the century,” but without formal agreements.
It seems that the marginalization of the Palestinian issue falls in line with Biden's current priorities at this stage, which are more concerned with Afghanistan and Iran and dealing with the challenges posed by China and Russia.
4. Resetting the Bilateral Relationship?
In recent years, the Democratic Party has not hidden its anger at the policies and positions of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu. Since 2009, Netanyahu has clashed with Democrats and repeatedly challenged their administrations over peace negotiations and settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He indirectly interfered in favour of the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, against Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Netanyahu angered the Obama administration, and Democrats in general, in 2015, when he accepted an invitation from the Republican leadership in Congress and delivered an inflammatory speech against the Iranian nuclear deal that Obama considered one of his most important foreign policy achievements.
During Trump's tenure in the White House, Netanyahu unabashedly championed him, reducing the US-Israeli relationship to the Republican Party. This led to a decline in support for Israel within the Democratic Party, particularly among the youth and the progressive and liberal currents. Thus, it seemed that Israel might turn into a partisan issue in the corridors of Congress, despite its decades long supra-partisan status, enjoying an almost unanimous US political consensus.
With Trump's 2020 electoral defeat and Biden’s assumption of the presidency in early 2021, the tension between the new administration and the Netanyahu government was evident. Biden described Netanyahu as a “far-right leader” and his presence as “unhelpful” during his presidential campaign. The US President did not initiate contact with Netanyahu until about a month after he assumed the presidency and his aides feared that he would seek to disrupt Biden's agenda regarding the Iran nuclear deal.
With the collapse of the Netanyahu government in June 2021, Biden called Bennett to congratulate him within just two hours of being sworn in. Bennett, who is no less right-wing than Netanyahu, was keen to stay away from the quarrels and confrontational approach adopted by Netanyahu in his relationship with Obama and Biden, especially over the Iranian nuclear deal. When meeting with Biden, he announced that he brings with him “new spirit — a spirit of goodwill, a spirit of hope,” in the relationship between Israel and the United States. Biden himself praised Bennett, describing him as a “close friend” and as heading “the most diverse government in Israel's history.” In a sign of the new approach to bilateral relations between the two countries, the Bennett government allowed the resumption of intelligence cooperation with Washington at the same level it had been before Netanyahu ordered it to be scaled back last spring.
Although the US-Israel summit came at the height of the withdrawal crisis in Afghanistan, it represented an occasion that President Joe Biden used to renew his administration's commitment to the security of US allies, especially Israel. In return, Naftali Bennett got the military and political support he wanted, and apparently managed to convince Biden that any pressure on his government over the Palestinian issue would lead to its disintegration, and Netanyahu's return to power; which Washington does not want, at least for the time being. But this does not mean that relations between the two sides will necessarily remain warm. The Biden administration understands that Bennett may be the most extreme right-wing prime minister in Israel's history, and that there is a growing left-wing base of the Democratic Party, and among young people in general, who believe that “Israel is already among one of the most right-wing countries in the developed world.” This will “inevitably complicate the relationship between the United States and Israel no matter what those countries’ leaders want to say in public,” despite the resistance of the traditional party establishment to these growing critical sentiments.
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