Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Between Kabul, Washington and Jerusalem: the Biden-Bennett summit (August 30, 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: As you predicted, first, President Biden was hard put to find time for PM Bennett, but second, the two emerged arm-in-arm. Can we then say that this US-Israel summit was a success merely because it took place?

A: A success because it took place and was harmonious. Biden needed it to project business-as-usual after the Kabul airport suicide bombings. Bennett needed it to show Israelis he can project gravitas on the world stage and inspire trust in Washington.

A careful reading of the two leaders’ concluding statements to the public indicates relatively little by way of substantive progress on the key issues. Rather, US-Israel relations were restored to a kind of pre-Netanyahu foundation of decency, harmony and mutual consideration.


Q: But surely there was some progress on substance . . .

A: Here we are reduced to examining public statements under a microscope to try to glean significant new meanings, when in fact there may not be many.

Take the principal issue on Bennett’s agenda: US policy toward Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Bennett stated on the plane-ride home that “A joint working strategy to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was agreed.” Earlier in Washington, Bennett had presented Biden his anti-Iran strategy of “death by a thousand cuts”. That presumably means prolonged attrition by Israel against Iran’s territorial and nuclear ambitions: in effect, more of the same “campaign between wars” that we have witnessed in recent years.

Did Biden agree specifically to any of that? The president merely stated publicly that if the diplomatic track fails, the US would look at other options, and that Iran would not go nuclear on his watch. Bennett’s interpretation--US support for eventual military measures against Iran--is not necessarily valid.


Q: And on the Palestinian issue?

A: In view of constraints imposed by events in Kabul on the president’s time and energies, this issue was covered primarily in Bennett’s discussions with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Both Blinken and Biden reportedly asked Bennett to avoid taking measures that erode Palestinian confidence and heighten tensions, for example in the Shaykh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. In fact, Bennett appears to have internalized this admonition and its ramifications before he arrived in Washington.

Everyone agreed that a renewed Palestinian-Israeli peace process was not in the cards. Bennett offered to advance relations and build trust in any other way--just not through negotiations over a two-state solution. Not only does he personally oppose such a solution, but the Palestinian camp seems incapable of entertaining one anyway right now due to the Gaza-West Bank split and political weakness and disarray in Ramallah.

Just to drive home the point that under Bennett Israelis and Palestinians have something to talk about, on Sunday night this week Bennet sent Defense Minister Gantz to Ramallah for an almost routine meeting with Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas).

In this regard, Bennett presumably reported to Blinken on early stages of his government’s non-political confidence-building with the Palestinian Authority. Uniquely, it is spearheaded by Arab and Druze citizens of Israel: Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej (Meretz), Minister in the Finance Ministry Hamad Amar (New Hope) and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), General Ghassan Alian. For Bennet, this is a unique feature of his left-center-right-Arab coalition that he could brag about to Biden.

Yes, but. “They send the Arabs to talk to the Arabs” is the cynical retort of senior PA officials. Still, none of this happened under Netanyahu. And that is presumably what Washington can find mildly encouraging. But only as long as it is comparing Bennett to Netanyahu rather than to Israeli leaders dedicated to resolving the Palestinian issue in a manner that brakes Israel’s ongoing descent down a slippery slope toward a one-state reality.


Q: So there is not a lot new here either . . .

A: Abu Mazen, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egypt’s President Sisi are due to meet in Cairo later this week to discuss the Palestinian issue. And Bennet and Sisi will apparently meet in Sharm al-Sheikh later in September. Sisi plays a key role vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza. Bennett clearly needs to be able to discuss the Palestinian file with Egypt’s president based on positive understandings reached in Washington.


Q: It’s all mainly atmospherics?

A: Harmony and mutual respect are not an achievement to be taken lightly in the aftermath of the Netanyahu era. Lest we forget, ultimately this summit was held, as noted by Yedioth Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea, “on the margins of the margins of the American agenda”.

Biden had to clear 90 minutes of his schedule, dominated as it was by a bloody terrorist attack in Kabul and the winding down of the American withdrawal, to speak with Bennett and his aides and not send them home empty-handed. Presumably this readiness reflected the positive impression left by the Israelis’ meetings two days earlier with Blinken, Secretary of Defense Austin and National Security Adviser Sullivan.

Bennett also reportedly undertook in Washington to discuss differences in strategic approach through direct channels and not publicly. He pledged to work with Biden “according to rules of honesty and decency”. That was music to Biden’s ears. Biden promised to expedite a measure to waive visas for Israeli tourists traveling to the United States. That played to an old Israeli complaint. Bennet would love to be the leader who delivers on the visa issue to Israelis pining to visit America.


Q: The two leaders’ public appearance in the Oval Office on Friday seemed lackluster.

A: Biden was clearly exhausted by long hours of dealing with the emergency in Kabul. Bennett, short on international experience and doing this for the first time, spoke too long and waxed needlessly biblical in his remarks as he played to an Israeli constituency he lost when he agreed to lead a coalition with leftists and Arabs. In any case, Israelis who hoped to watch this live on television encountered rare technical difficulties.

All bad omens.


Q: Bottom line?

A: Under difficult circumstances, Bennett appears to have reversed the negative momentum of US-Israel relations under Netanyahu. He established what seems to be a trusting relationship with Biden. From herein, barring unforeseen gaffs and circumstances, Israel and the United States will deal with their differences discreetly and constructively.

Yet, reading between the lines, those differences continue to exist. Regarding Iran, the Biden administration still hopes to pursue a renewed JCPOA. Whether it succeeds or fails, Israeli security officials will still need to coordinate Israel’s response with the Pentagon, including more financial backing for anti-missile programs. In this context, Bennet’s reiteration of the mantra that Israel will not ask the United States to fight its wars was anticipated but reassuring at a time of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan--where it fought Afghans’ wars.

And then there was that sole mischievous remark by Biden to the effect that Israel owes thanks to Barack Obama for US strategic support. Bennett, whose politics are to the right of Netanyahu’s and accordingly holds little affection for Obama, could only mumble a lame response.

Regarding the Palestinian issue, Bennett went out of his way in a New York Times interview before the summit to declare provocatively (knowing that the issue is not currently on Biden’s agenda) that Israel “will not establish a Palestinian state”. He pledged to continue supporting settlement expansion. Here Bennett was trying to reassure that elusive political base back home. Seen in this context, his pledge to promote non-political confidence-building with the Palestinian Authority is an improvement on Netanyahu but a non-starter with Biden’s Democrats.

Further, Bennett comes home to growing tensions with Hamas in Gaza. Renewed conflict, picking up where we left off in May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, may be imminent. Here Bennett needs help from Egypt’s Sisi as much as from Washington’s Biden.

Finally, the very fact of the Biden-Bennett summit and its harmonious ambiance should help Bennett politically at home, though not by much and not for very long. As for Biden, he and the American public are currently preoccupied elsewhere. Still, when the next Middle East crisis occurs, the Biden-Bennett embrace could prove useful for both of them.