columnIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Has Biden anything to offer Bennett but more trouble?

The prime minister wants a show of better relations with an ally. But a president in crisis who has little interest in heeding warnings about Iran isn’t likely to offer him much help.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Aug. 18, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Aug. 18, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In theory, the planned meeting this week between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Joe Biden ought to be exactly what both men need. As a neophyte leader, Bennett—whose unstable, multi-ideological coalition maintains only a precarious hold on power in the Knesset—very much wants to be seen interacting with other leaders on the world stage and showing that he has a good working relationship with his country’s sole superpower ally.

Bennett is also hoping that Biden will be willing to at least act as if he is listening to the Jewish state’s concerns about Iran. More than that, he’s hoping that the U.S. president will avoid any rhetoric or action that makes the Israeli look weak to his critics back home. At best, he’s hoping to emerge with some kind of show that will allow both governments to at least pretend that the Afghanistan debacle hasn’t undermined confidence in America’s willingness to back up its allies.

The administration could use a momentary distraction that Biden’s meeting with the head of Israel’s first post-Netanyahu government will provide from the widespread condemnation his feckless retreat from Afghanistan earned him.

Biden presented himself to the nation as an experienced foreign-policy hand who would restore the trust that he claimed was squandered by former President Donald Trump. But the Afghanistan disaster demonstrated that his claims to being more competent, empathetic and honest than his predecessor were dubious at best. His erstwhile loyal mainstream media allies are beginning to question him in a way that he has not experienced since becoming his party’s presidential nominee. Even many Democrats are starting to acknowledge that while they’d like to spend the next three years blaming the country’s problems (including a resurgent coronavirus pandemic) on Trump, they own them now.

The arrival of the head of a government that Biden clearly wishes to bolster—lest American moves contribute to its fall and the potential return of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power—can’t hurt. Any White House messaging that will at least partially counter the bad Afghanistan optics and demonstrate his friendship with America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East is clearly in Biden’s interest.

But Bennett and his team should not be laboring under the delusion that this meeting means as much to Biden as it does to them. A few photos and some friendly conversation with an Israeli most Americans neither know nor care much about isn’t going to help a president facing a crisis of confidence.

As important as the U.S.-Israel relationship can seem to be, there are times when it must be acknowledged that an American president has more important things to worry about than the alliance with the Jewish state.

Biden’s foreign-policy team also has no incentive to give a right-winger like Bennett a boost, even if his government also contains parties whose views are viewed with more favor by the American establishment. They are happy to be rid of Netanyahu and would like his ouster to be permanent. Still, they are not so desirous of that outcome that they would consider giving Bennett the sort of policy victories that would enable him to demonstrate that he is doing a better job in Washington than his predecessor.

That presents Bennett with an almost impossible task.

Bennett will tell Biden that the Iran policy he has been pursuing is not only wrongheaded but at this point, utterly irrelevant to the challenge that Tehran presents to the rest of the world. Reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Barack Obama struck with them has been Biden’s priority. The Iranians have done so much cheating and have exploited its loose provisions to the point where it can no longer be argued that it keeps them from crossing the nuclear threshold. That’s true even if one ignores the sunset provisions that will expire at the end of the decade, which will give them a legal path to a nuclear weapon.

What Bennett wants is to begin discussions about a joint effort to confront Iran. The Israelis want to persuade Biden to avoid giving away the store in the ongoing talks with the Iranians in Vienna and, by a combination of sanctions and strengthened Middle East alliances, give Iran a reason to start backing down.

With respect to the Palestinians, unlike Obama and even Trump, Biden seems to understand that the peace process is dead in the water, and another attempt at reviving it will only make things worse. Even on that front, Bennett senses danger. He wants Biden to give up plans to reopen a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that would, in effect, serve, as it did before Trump’s recognition of Israel’s capital, as an American embassy to the Palestinians. At the very least, he wants that affront to Israeli sovereignty to be put off until after Bennett’s government can pass a budget and be assured of continued life into 2022.

He might get such a postponement, though Bennett is likely to walk away from the meeting with little else of value. All he can hope for is whatever political benefit he gets from being treated as a world leader, rather than the head of a small ideological faction who was only elevated to power by a once-in-a-lifetime twist of fate enabled by Netanyahu’s hubris.

Unfortunately for both Israel and Bennett, there is no evidence that Biden is drawing sensible conclusions from the diplomatic stalemate with Iran in Vienna. To the contrary, as with the almost perverse stubbornness he showed with respect to his belief that Afghanistan must be fled before he had secured the exit of both Americans and Afghan allies, in addition to the treasure trove of U.S. military equipment he left behind, Biden is likely to double down on whatever foolish concept is already stuck inside his head. That means sticking with an effort to appease Iran long after it stopped making sense from even the perspective of the original nuclear deal.

Nor is Biden likely to embrace the opportunity for building on Trump’s achievement with respect to the Abraham Accords, as the Israelis hope. Biden and his advisers are still committed to the myth that a peace that the Palestinians don’t want is the key to a successful Middle Eastern policy. The idea of doing anything more than tolerating the alliances being built between Israel and the Gulf states, as well as a Saudi government that Biden’s team deplores—let alone aiding them to oppose Iran—remains anathema to them.

That leaves Israel and its new Arab partners effectively on their own, especially now that they’ve seen how little Biden cares about the sensibilities or the safety of allies. Bennett must accept that he is not going to get any help from Biden in taking the actions that he knows are necessary, even if many in his coalition think differently. That’s especially true at a moment when Iran is encouraging Hamas to heat up the border with Gaza and other provocations.

Bennett is currently being blamed by his opponents on the right for his caution in dealing with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, despite the fact that he’s doing almost nothing differently than Netanyahu would if he were still in power. But unlike a known quantity like his former chief, Bennett is likely to be tested by Israel’s enemies in the coming months. Even if he proves equal to that test, as all who care about Israel must hope he does, he’s going to need some help from the Americans or at least count on them not to undermine him. Nevertheless, anything more than a photo op and a friendly handshake from a president with bigger problems and higher priorities than Israel’s security is highly unlikely.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @Jonathans_tobin.

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