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: President Biden has accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Bennett to visit Israel “in the coming months”. Usually-reliable Israeli sources report that the visit will take place on June 20-21 and that an advance presidential team is due in Israel shortly. What is likely to be on the agenda when Biden talks to Bennett in Jerusalem?
A: We do not yet know for sure if the US presidential visit is only a month and a half away. In any case, a lot can happen in the interim to influence the visit’s agenda and even its timing. Note that Biden was last in Israel, as vice president, in 2016, and that Bennett visited the White House last August.
One way or another, a US presidential visit to Israel is always critical for the management of what is by far Israel’s existential strategic relationship. Accordingly, what we can do right now is look at what would or should be on the agenda if the visit were to be held this week.
Q: Iran, obviously . . .
A: On Iran and renewal of the JCPOA nuclear deal, Biden and Bennett appear lately to have reached some understandings. Bennett believes he persuaded Biden not to yield to Iran’s demand to remove the IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) from the US list of terrorist organizations as a condition for JCPOA renewal. Bennett’s keynote speech at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony last week broke pointedly with Benjamin Netanyahu’s custom of recent years of portraying Iran as a Holocaust-type threat: Bennett never mentioned Iran.
Meanwhile, Israeli and American strategic planners have quietly begun discussing, in a joint working group reportedly code-named ‘Opal’, Israel’s ‘Plan B’ proposals for dealing with Iran in what is seen in many quarters as the increasingly likely event that the JCPOA-renewal talks in Vienna fold.
Notwithstanding this display of relative harmony regarding Iran, there are also rumors regarding American and other efforts to reconvene the Vienna talks for a ninth round of negotiations. And there are fresh reports of an effort to bridge the gap between Iran and the US regarding the IRGC terrorist designation.
Hypothetically, a worst-case Iran-US-Israel contingency for Bennett a month and a half from now would find him greeting the US president in the shadow of a renewed JCPOA. Bennett would barely be able to mind his manners and protest politely, while right-wing Israeli media would brand him a failure for botching his effort to thwart the deal. In contrast, a best-case scenario would envision Biden descending from Air Force One and publicly inviting Bennett to discuss in depth what to do about Iran now that it had once-and-for-all rejected Washington’s JCPOA conditions.
Q: Then there is the rest of the Middle East, from the Palestinians via Jordan to the Gulf . . .
A: Biden understands that Bennett and the Bennett-Lapid right-center-left-Arab coalition are not candidates for renewed two-state solution talks with the Palestinians. He is presumably aware that the Israeli political mainstream today leans heavily right-religious and that as a liberal democrat he is automatically suspect in the eyes of that mainstream, including Bennett’s potential voters. As a veteran supporter of Israel, Biden can and should warn Jerusalem that, as matters stand, it is heading into a disastrous one-state reality. But there is only so much the US president can do about it under current Israeli political circumstances.
Still, the administration is justifiably alarmed by the recent violence centered on and around the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif in Jerusalem. Washington has been actively mediating between Jordan and Israel with the goal of stabilizing the religious status quo on the Mount. (The Hashemite Kingdom, by dint of its peace treaty with Israel, is responsible for Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.) Israel-Jordan relations have suffered lately from all the Jerusalem-centered violence.
Here Bennett can potentially benefit from American good offices. Enhanced Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli stability that is based on economic benefits without Israeli political concessions, along with a reinforced Temple Mount status quo consensus, could conceivably extend the life of Bennett’s government. It would certainly contribute to Israeli-Palestinian tranquility.
Q: And the rest of the world? Regarding both Ukraine and China, the two leaders presumably have differences to iron out. And there are areas where the war in Ukraine and the Middle East interact in ways that worry Washington . . .
A: Interestingly, Bennett may be able to assist Biden when it comes to Egypt and the countries of the Persian Gulf whose relations with Israel have been booming. The leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are reluctant to cooperate with western efforts to boost oil and gas production, thereby lowering prices and contributing to the US-led war effort against Russia in Ukraine. They have even snubbed contact with Biden, while maintaining neutrality toward Russia. In the Middle East perception, the United States is on its way out of the Middle East while Russia is on its way in.
Could Bennett help out here? Not clear. Israel may be perceived by Washington to have some clout in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. Yet Bennett’s own approach to the Ukraine conflict--maintaining strategic neutrality due primarily to Russia’s military presence in Syria--is closer to that of the Arab world than to Washington. This Israeli stance, too, will almost certainly be on the Biden-Bennett agenda.
Then too, Bennett is likely to seek redoubled US assistance in expanding the 2020 Abraham Accords that brought Israel together officially with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. While Saudi Arabia is still apparently not a candidate for American intervention in this regard, there is unfinished business with Sudan, which was supposed to join two years ago but is wracked by internal instability.
Indonesia comes to mind, as well. Can Biden help out here concerning Israel’s aspirations to expand relations with Asian Islam? When it comes to Asia, by the way, Biden will be seeking reassurances from Bennett regarding Israel’s technological ties with the People's Republic of China. Lately, Israel has begun heeding Washington’s admonitions to avoid allowing Beijing’s generous investments to penetrate Israel’s strategic infrastructure systems too deeply. But Biden may not have had the last word.
Q: What’s not likely to be on the agenda, yet is important?
A: Both Bennett and Biden are relatively unpopular leaders right now in their home countries. Biden, facing mid-term congressional elections that threaten to deliver a Republican-majority Congress, needs to rally support for Democratic candidates among the pro-Israel community in America, including the Evangelical community. That is one likely explanation for the timing of his visit to Israel.
As for Bennett, his coalition is close to lame-duck status; it will be a challenge for him just to hold it together until the Biden visit, which presumably is calculated to demonstrate American support for Bennett--and not for his rival Netanyahu.
Q: Bottom line?
A: A successful meeting between Bennett and Biden could offer a boost for both leaders. On the other hand, a US presidential visit in which an Israeli leader whose coalition is collapsing greets an American president fresh from a triumphant deal with Iran in Vienna, could inject the US presidency into Israeli politics and signal tension in US-Israel relations.