(October 12, 2021 / Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security) Although overshadowed by the drama in Kabul, the recent meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and U.S. President Joe Biden was an opportunity to “reset” and remodel the fundamental components of the unique Israel-U.S. relationship.
Ever since Israel’s Declaration of Independence, followed 11 minutes later by U.S. recognition, and even more so since the end of the 1960s, U.S. support has been a cornerstone of Israel’s national security. This support rests on several seemingly solid pillars: shared values and historical awareness, national interests in the face of common enemies and political dynamics on both sides of the ocean, including the unique role played by American Jewry.
However, alongside the high points of recent years (above all the moving of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem), cracks have formed in these pillars. Hence the importance of the Bennett visit, and of the steps which need to follow, to fortify the mutual affinity between the defense and intelligence establishments of the two countries, to reawaken bipartisan support and to reconnect with American Jewry—and thus possibly “reset” the relationship during the Biden era.
The concept of a ‘reset’
At the beginning of her term as secretary of state in the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton wanted to effect a positive turn in U.S. relations with Putin’s Russia. As a gesture, she brought her Russian colleague, Sergei Lavrov (at their first meeting in Geneva on March 6, 2009) an object resembling the “reset button” of a computer keyboard. This was meant to convey the American desire for change and improvement in U.S.-Russia relations, compared to the bitterness of the last years of the Bush era. (U.S. ties to Russia under Bush were strained by the 2008 Russian offensive against Georgia.)
The gesture backfired. The Russian translation was faulty (peregruzka, or “overload,” instead of perezagruzka, meaning “reset”), and as time passed the attempt to restore the relationship between Washington and Moscow ran aground due to a range of issues, from Libya to Ukraine.
However, the concept of reset remains valid. New political realities give rise to diplomatic opportunities. Israel’s new government, as signaled by Bennett’s visit to Washington, did indeed seek “to press the reset button” and deal with some problems emerging from the change of administrations, from Democratic control of Congress (which may or may not persist after the November 2022 elections) and from heightened hostility towards Israel within certain segments of the American public.
All three pillars of the special relationship—values, interests and politics—have been showing signs of strain. Amid growing polarization and political radicalization in the United States, unprecedented questions have been raised in some quarters, and specifically by the “Squad” of progressives within the Democratic Party, concerning the two countries’ shared values. This came into focus with the Iron Dome vote on September 21.
Meanwhile, conflicts of interest also have emerged regarding Iran and Israel’s stance on the Palestinian issue (although the latter mostly has been set aside by both administrations). And American Jewry has found it difficult to rally around an Israeli government that until recently expressed what amounted to disdain for the concerns of the non-Orthodox majority of American Jews.
All this requires a thorough and penetrating reset effort; thorough groundwork, or Harish Amok in Hebrew (which happens to be the code name for a U.S.-Israeli emergency cooperation plan). Well-coordinated and efficient efforts are required to engage with Washington and the entire American political arena on both sides of the aisle, with the administration, Congress and the public at large. The effort is vital for Israel’s future.
The importance of personal relations and symbols
The importance of personal relationships between leaders in the historical decisions that have shaped Israel’s relationship with the United States should not be taken lightly.
Despite his dislike of the Zionist leadership in the United States, President Harry Truman had a basic empathy for the hardships suffered by the Jewish People and their resurrection in their homeland, which was also anchored in his religious beliefs. President Dwight Eisenhower did not harbor such sentiments, although he eventually stated that he had been mistaken when he chose to assist Nasser in the crisis of 1956 and came to see Israel as a potential asset.
There was no real chemistry between President John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion, and their relationship reached a crisis point over Dimona. On the other hand, President Johnson and Levi Eshkol formed a personal friendship, which played a role in the decision to support Israel militarily and politically after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Golda Meir established long-term understandings with President Richard Nixon on several issues central to Israel’s security. The relationship between Yitzhak Rabin and the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reached a low point during the “reassessment” crisis of 1975 but nevertheless was marked by profound mutual respect.
Closer to the present, there was a fundamental difference between the Clinton administration’s regard for Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, on the one hand, and towards Benjamin Netanyahu on the other. There was an unprecedented level of understanding and agreement between President George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, and later with Ehud Olmert—which cannot be said about the relationship between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Netanyahu went out of his way to display a personal connection with President Joe Biden, but their relationship was fraught with tension and shaped by the confrontation between Israel and the Obama administration. The latter came to suspect, particularly following Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress in 2015, that Israel tilted towards the Republican Party. Four years of the Trump administration further served to undermine the traditional concept of bipartisanship in U.S.-Israel ties. This is particularly challenging in an era of polarization between Democrats and Republicans on almost every issue, from COVID-19 to global warming.
Israel’s new premier, despite being politically identified with the right, has been given an opportunity to shake off his predecessor’s “baggage,” as it is referred to in American political jargon. It is not by chance that in Washington Bennett chose to emphasize Biden’s decades of commitment to Israel.
As far as we know, Bennett did find common ground with Biden. On a personal level, their interaction was amicable. Bennett is not perceived by the president and his staff as tainted by over-identification with Republicans. Although Biden was distracted by the Afghan crisis, he spent longer than expected in conversation with Bennett, and reportedly found in the Prime Minister an attentive listener.
The language of symbols also carries weight. Following the meeting, the administration briefed senior members of Jewish organizations, referring to the relationship in terms of a “partnership.” Some would interpret this as a rank below “ally,” but in fact the “Special Partnership Act” (S.P.A) of 2013 awards Israel a formal and unique standing in Washington, above the obsolete definition of the 1970s as a “Major Non-NATO Ally” (MNNA), which since has been bestowed on dozens of friendly nations.
This law requires the administration to establish cooperation in a variety of areas, from information technology through renewable energy and the struggle against global warming, to the ultimate challenge (at present) of learning lessons from each county’s struggle with the coronavirus pandemic. In this context, there is also room for reviewing the visa policy for entry of Israelis to the United States. However, all of these are eventually only secondary issues in comparison with the two major questions on the agenda:
1. Is there still a stable partnership of interests between Washington and Jerusalem?
2. Can the erosion of moral and political affinities be stopped and reversed, with the aid of American Jewry?
The strategic dimension: Confronting Iran is first priority
Without the political and personal baggage that burdened the relationship between the previous Israeli government and the Biden administration, it is possible, at least theoretically, for the two countries to hold a straightforward discussion, devoid of any suspected “interference” in America’s internal affairs.
The key player on the Israeli side is incoming National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, who traveled to Washington on Oct. 5 for the regular consultation of strategic teams, led on the U.S. side by his counterpart, Jake Sullivan. Hulata’s professional background in nuclear physics enables him to focus on the intelligence and operational aspects of contending with the Iranian nuclear project.
But are the strategic objectives of both countries still the same?
During the Trump era, the answer seemed clear. The United States sided with its traditional allies in the region—Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—and took a hard-line stand toward the Iranian regime, the culmination of which was the abandoning of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement in 2018. The Trump administration applied a “maximum pressure” policy against Iran and ordered the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.
The Biden administration, on the other hand, has turned its back on the Saudis’ campaign against Houthi militants in Yemen. It also has indicated that it is not pleased with the way the Sisi regime is consolidating its rule in Cairo, and indeed, some U.S. aid to Egypt has been delayed. And of course, the administration has prioritized a return to the nuclear agreement with Iran.
At the same time, there is still a basis for pragmatic discussion between Israel and the United States regarding Iran. Despite the difficult impression left by the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan, the Biden administration is not isolationist in its approach (as was made clear in its initial guidance on national security policy in March 2021). Biden still regards the United States, together with its democratic allies, as a leading and formative factor on the international scene, in fierce and growing competition with China and Russia. Therefore, he is aware of the importance of preventing nuclear weapons proliferation and preventing the Iranian nuclear project from coming to fruition, and the value of communicating with Israel on this issue.
Naturally, the American and Israeli points of departure for this discussion remain different. The Biden administration believes in diplomacy, even with the Taliban, whereas Israel has, to put it mildly, very little faith in the chances of persuading Iran by peaceful means. At the same time, it was obvious during Bennett’s visit that Washington is attentive, more so than during the early weeks of the administration, to the assumptions that underpin the Israeli stand. It is also willing to listen to operational ideas which derive from these assumptions. This is due to increasing frustration with the provocations of Iran’s leadership.
The Biden administration has learned, the hard way, that the Iranian regime, most certainly under the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi (who faithfully embodies the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei), sees no need for compromise and continues to race towards accumulating fissile material for nuclear weapons. Tehran no longer bothers to hide this objective. The enrichment of uranium 235 to a level of 60 percent has no other purpose than as a step towards 94 percent, which is defined as “military-grade” enrichment. Under these circumstances, there is reason to listen to Israel, an ally whose commitment to stopping Iran is clear, and which has the power to protect itself by itself.
Did the visit yield any shift in the position of the administration? It may be more precise to say that it reinforced trends that had already begun to emerge.
The United States also has basic demands. Had Biden been willing to go back to the JCPOA agreement “at any cost,” an understanding already would have been reached with Iran on removing sanctions. In as much as it is possible to judge, the administration is increasingly aware that capitulation to the dictates of Tehran would be an irresponsible step that may have far-reaching implications for the international balance of power.
Three specific statements testify to this, although the possibility remains that even miniscule signs of flexibility on the part of Iran may once again tempt the administration to exercise the diplomatic option:
1. During Biden’s meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (towards the end of the latter’s term on June 29, 2021), Biden spoke about Iran not having a nuclear weapon “on my watch” (in other words, the coming few years). When meeting with Bennett, Biden sharpened his language, saying that the Iranians “will not have nuclear weapons, period.” Even if this is only a nuance, it is significant with regard to the “sunset clauses” in the JCPOA and Biden’s intent of achieving a “longer and stronger” agreement.
2. More important was the explicit reference in the president’s address following the meeting to “other options” should negotiations fail. This implied threat has already unnerved the Iranians and elicited a response from the regime’s National Security Council head, Ali Shamkhani, who cautioned that Iran would reserve the right to respond in a similar fashion. Within the context in which it was said, Biden’s wording has concrete meaning. Namely, Biden is ready to listen to Bennett and his entourage on how to exercise these “options.” Translating this into action requires comprehensive groundwork by the professional echelons in both countries, but at least in theory, the president’s words have created an opening for such interaction.
3. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken indeed warned, in a speech at the U.S. Ramstein Air Force base in Germany (on Sept. 8) that the time is drawing near when there will no longer be any point in returning to the nuclear agreement. However, he avoided specifying the steps the United States would have to take should this happen.
The cumulative effect of these statements, in the face of defiant Iranian behavior, enabled Hulata’s team to emphasize the need to prepare for and perhaps even execute options to delay the Iranian project. Even if the Iranians are willing to resume negotiations, it is doubtful that a speedy reset of the JCPOA is possible. The Biden administration is having difficulty in canceling all sanctions as demanded by Iran. Moreover, within the limits of the American constitution, Biden cannot assure the Iranians that the United States always will remain committed to the agreement. Meanwhile, Iran is reaching the threshold of nuclear capacity and is not thrilled by the idea of turning back the clock.
Because of this, other strategic-political issues have taken a back seat. It also is obvious that the U.S. administration understands that Bennett’s government is unable and unwilling to tackle end-of-conflict negotiations with the Palestinians.
As for relations with China, orderly staff work is required to define the boundaries of what is possible. Israel has been careful not to reach any head-on confrontation with Beijing, but there is no doubt about who Israel will choose if it is forced to decide on restraining Chinese involvement in the Israeli economy. Israel’s relationship with the United States is strategic, demographic (since the United States is the primary Diaspora of the Jewish people) and moral. The prime minister indirectly hinted as much when referring to biblical texts in his White House address, texts that are generally not familiar to the Chinese but are the foundational texts on which many Americans have been raised.
The moral dimension and its political implications
Despite the importance of the strategic issues on the agenda, some have estimated that the dramatic crisis in Kabul would detract from the importance of Bennett’s meeting with the president and his senior officials. On the other hand, it can be argued the premier’s visit to Washington at this sensitive time reminded the public, the professional echelon and U.S. politicians of Israel’s value as a democratic, reliable and strong ally that does not ask American soldiers to bleed in its defense.
In other words, that Israel is everything that Afghanistan never was and never could be; therein lies the importance of the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.”
Worthy of mention is Bennett’s decision to strictly focus, this time, on the president and his senior staff. There were no meetings with key members of Congress, or with Republican Party leadership. The message to Biden was that the current Israeli government regards him as the source of authority, and has no intention of again placing itself in the position of playing internal U.S. politics.
There is also room to note, as did President Biden, the unique character of the new Israeli government. It encompasses a wide spectrum of political parties, including an Arab party, right-wing, left-wing and centrist elements, a record number of women and a wide representation of social groups. This makes it difficult for hostile entities to tag Israel as a distinct enemy in an era of “discourse on rights” and “intersectionality.”
The risks of such tagging were well illustrated in hostile propaganda and blatant anti-Semitic expressions during “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May (although support for Israel was also on display). Without denigrating the importance of right-wing evangelical elements of American society as part of Israel’s basis of support, the primary confrontation in the near future is with the radical left on campuses, on social networks and in Congress.
This mainly means neutralizing the influence of the radical wing of the Democratic Party, which combines a social agenda anchored in Marxist concepts with blatant hostility to Israel. The real test of their ability to confront Israel’s friends in Congress, however, was when funding for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system was put forward as free-standing legislation, and gained 420 vs. 9 votes in the House of Representatives—proving that Israel still has a bipartisan base of support to maintain and build upon.
The role of American Jewry
To win this battle, Israel needs the help of American Jews. The challenge now is to translate the spirit of change into an intensive and consistent effort to significantly restore Israel’s relationship with American Jewry, which has reached a dangerous threshold of erosion ( at least as far as this erosion, which is rooted in deep historical and social causes, can be influenced by policy decisions).
Prime Minister Bennett did not have time for organized meetings with the leadership of Jewish organizations (although he did hold such meetings in New York, during his visit to the United Nations General Assembly). Improvement in the Washington-Jerusalem relationship has implications for the atmosphere in ties with members of the Jewish community (many of whom did not take kindly to the over-identification of the previous Israeli government with President Trump and his worldview).
Israel’s top political leadership must be harnessed for this effort, alongside relevant ministers and ranking professionals in the foreign affairs, Diaspora-relations education, and religious affairs ministries. It must also be reflected in government policies on sensitive issues in Israel, especially the Western Wall question and attitudes towards non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
Only if a strong foundation of support is rebuilt within American Jewry and with both sides of the party divide that is tearing America apart, will the Israeli government be able to conduct a pragmatically based conversation on the complex subject of Iran.
IDF Col. (res) Dr. Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
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