Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Mr. Bennett Goes to Washington (August 23, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: Just last week you wrote that in the shadow of events in Afghanistan, nobody in Washington will have time for PM Bennett. Yet he’s invited and will meet President Biden on Thursday this week. . .

A: Apparently I misjudged the administration’s need to project business-as-usual and ‘normalize’ the Afghanistan crisis. In this sense, Bennett’s visit is a no-brainer because it is fairly likely to be tranquil and offer positive communiques and photo-ops, which Biden needs in view of events in Afghanistan.

Then too, Bennett is not Netanyahu: he is not coming to challenge the Biden administration but to make friends with it. In many ways, Bennett needs this visit more than Biden.


Q: Why?

A: Any Israeli prime minister wants to show voters that he is welcome in the White House. (The exception is the case of Netanyahu during the Obama presidency, when the prime minister was welcome among a sizeable segment of the American body politic that was antagonistic toward the White House.) Bennett’s government, which hangs on to power by a thread and comprises leftists, centrists and Arabs alongside right-wingers, needs to appeal to the broadest consensus possible in America. That means avoiding controversy in Washington and reaching with Biden the greatest degree of agreement possible on sensitive issues like Iran, the Palestinians and China.

Lest we forget, Bennett’s Yamina party is one of the smallest in his coalition. Recent polls indicate that neither he nor his party has risen in voters’ estimation. His government’s record regarding covid-delta is not appreciated by the public despite his pioneering introduction of the third-shot booster. He is a novice prime minister. He desperately needs a successful first Washington visit as prime minister to stabilize his status by virtue of accomplishments rather than political accident. The recent appointment of the moderate and experienced Mike Herzog as Israel’s ambassador to Washington was a smart first step in this regard.


Q: Yet Bennett is making no effort to hide his disagreement with Biden’s aspiration to renew the Iran nuclear agreement, the JCPOA . . .

A: Indeed, Bennett’s first agenda item is Iran. On Sunday this week he told a cabinet meeting, in remarks that went public, that he intended to present Biden with a plan to deal with Iran regarding “both the nuclear aspect and the regional aggression aspect”. He added, “I’m telling Biden the time has come to stop Iran, not to throw them a lifeline in the form of a nuclear deal that has already expired”.

That’s controversial. Bennett is placing the Iran issue front and center. He apparently hopes to weigh in on time to have some effect on the administration’s internal discussion of the advisability and likelihood of renewing the JCPOA Vienna talks with Iran’s new and extreme Raisi government.

Yet it will be surprising if, after meeting with Biden, Bennett goes public in an antagonistic manner with whatever disagreements remain between them concerning Iran. More likely, Bennett will argue for security-oriented compensation. In the event the JCPOA is indeed renewed, Israel will want assurances regarding the supply of anti-missile upgrades. And it will seek a mechanism for coordinating strategic security concerns and intelligence, if and as Iran goes nuclear.

In other words, Bennett knows he and Biden won’t agree on Iran. Instead, he seeks a well-defined mechanism for monitoring US-Israel differences, keeping them broadly under the radar, and compensating Israel when necessary.


Q: Biden will also want to talk to Bennett about the Palestinians . . .

A: Here Bennett should have an easier time. He can report to Biden on his government’s efforts, together with Egypt and Qatar, to improve the situation in Gaza. He can point to growing Palestinian opposition to the West Bank rule of the aging Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as justification for limiting Israeli-PLO cooperation for the moment to security, health and humanitarian issues like fighting forest fires together. He can note that, while he has approved 2,000 new housing starts for West Bank settlers, he has okayed nearly a thousand new housing starts for Area C Palestinians as well.

True, Bennett has a problem with Biden’s decision to reopen a US consulate in Jerusalem dedicated to US-Palestinian relations--an institution closed by Biden’s predecessor in the course of moving the US embassy to Israel’s capital. Bennett would rather that the consulate, which is in effect Washington’s embassy to Palestine, not be in ‘united’ Jerusalem. It will be interesting to see how the two leaders finesse the issue, given Biden’s image problems after the Afghanistan fiasco and Bennett’s need not to anger the leftists in his government (Labor, Meretz, Raam, and segments of Yesh Atid and Blue-White) who have no problem with the consulate.

Bennett can also point to efforts to improve relations with Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom is linked in Washington’s eyes not only with the Palestinian issue but with broader Middle East security considerations: the Pentagon is moving US emergency military stores from Qatar to Jordan. If King Abdullah II’s recent gift to Bennett’s wife Gilat, a professional pastry chef, of a special brand of flour developed in Jordan is any indication, ties are again flourishing following a low point under Netanyahu.

To ensure a tranquil atmosphere for his Washington talks, Bennett has noticeably backed off from responding militarily to recent escalatory provocations from both Gaza and southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah, backed by Iran, appears increasingly coordinated with Gaza’s Hamas. He does not want to arrive at the White House in the midst of fighting along one of Israel’s borders. Retaliation, if still deemed necessary, can and will wait until he’s back home.

Finally, and still in the Palestinian context, Bennett has let it be known that he has accepted an invitation to meet with Egypt’s President a-Sisi, probably in Sharm al-Sheikh in southern Sinai, in the coming weeks. Collaboration with Egypt is key to Israel’s efforts regarding Gaza. It is important for Bennett that President Biden take note of the positive Egypt-Israel strategic connection. Indeed, Bennett may possibly have been asked by a-Sisi to put in a good word in Washington for the Egyptian leader, whose human rights record leaves much to be desired, and to relay Egypt’s objections, like Israel’s, to a renewed JCPOA.


Q: What else is on Biden’s agenda for his talks with Bennett?

A: First of all, getting acquainted. Bennett may be a pleasant change after Netanyahu--low-key, no grandstanding, no lecturing, no smugness--but in terms of Israeli politics Bennett is ideologically more right-wing. If Biden harbors any ambition to move forward on the Palestinian issue, he must take Bennett’s measure. If some sort of military flare-up is almost inevitable on Israel’s Gaza border or northern borders in the next year or two, Biden and Bennett need to establish a good working relationship now in order to deal with it. But above all, at the heart of Biden’s considerations when he meets Bennett is presumably his desire that Bennett, and not Netanyahu, continue to preside over Israel’s government.

China is also conspicuously on Biden’s agenda with Bennett. Washington is troubled by the degree to which Beijing has penetrated Israeli infrastructure and hi-tech, from building new port additions in Haifa and Ashdod to university-level research collaboration. What has been an investment bonanza for Israel is viewed by the Pentagon with suspicion as America recalibrates its global strategic threat assessment away from the Middle East and towards China. Here Bennett, himself a hi-tech-exit millionaire twice over, had best come prepared with explanations and even concessions.


Q: Bottom line?

A: Right now, Biden and Bennett need one another. Biden is still nursing his Afghanistan wounds. Bennett, who unlike other allies of America is not likely to complain about the US performance at Kabul airport, desperately needs a popularity boost based on a successful Washington visit.

If the stars align, Biden and Bennett will emerge hugging one another.