After 20 hours at the Willard Intercontinental in Washington, the wait for Naftali Bennett was finally over. One day later than planned, the meeting that Israel’s prime minister had been working towards since taking office in June came: the meeting with Joe Biden. Because of the attack on the Kabul airport, the appointment in the White House had to be postponed by one day. To his delight, US President Bennett didn’t invite him to the Oval Office last Friday, but to his private dining room for coffee. A gesture to end the frosty relationship that had reigned between Biden and Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Donald Trump’s successor had refused the Israeli head of government an invitation to Washington during the five months in which his term of office overlapped with Netanyahu’s.
Showing his electorate in Israel that he can survive on the international stage was therefore the most important message that Bennett wanted to send by meeting Biden: While Netanyahu is on vacation with his wife Sara in Hawaii, the diplomatically little experienced prime minister presents himself as the prime minister reliable partner of the United States and is less brash in dealing with it than its predecessor. Netanyahu caused sustained resentment among America’s Democrats during Barack Obama’s presidency (2009-2017) because he appealed directly to the Republican-dominated Congress to thwart the White House’s Iran strategy.
This phase in the Israeli-American relationship appears to be over with Bennett’s first visit to Washington. It was possible to create “a direct and personal relationship”, said the 49-year-old before the return flight to Tel Aviv, “based on trust”. Aside from the empty phrases, he and 29-year-old Biden share a solid interest: Both want to prevent Netanyahu from returning to power. The current opposition leader had repeatedly caused trouble for Obama and Biden by going it alone in foreign policy when the latter was US Vice President. In 2018, under Trump, there was the internationally uncoordinated relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and, one year later, the recognition of the Golan Heights annexed by Syria in 1981.
Biden is unlikely to revise these decisions, but neither will he continue the disregard for international agreements pursued by Trump and Netanyahu. The low point of this policy was the “peace plan” presented by Trump at the beginning of 2020 and referred to by him as the “deal of the century”, which envisaged the annexation of up to a third of the occupied West Bank. An unparalleled affront that provided the Palestinian Authority (PA) with the role of supplicant at best. Against this background, the invitation to Washington undoubtedly strengthened Bennett’s ideologically diffuse rainbow coalition, which, alongside right-wing, liberal and left-wing parties, is the first to include a Palestinian-Israeli group with the United Arab List.
In terms of content, however, the new head of government is keeping up with Netanyahu’s foreign policy, both in relation to the USA and in the region. During the conversation with Biden it was also about Iran and Israel’s unwavering will to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear missiles, if necessary by force. Joe Biden pledged American assistance. “If the diplomacy fails, we are ready to consider other options,” he said after the meeting in the White House. The extent to which the USA is really willing to engage in armed conflict in the Middle East after the Afghanistan disaster is another matter, but the signal is clear: weakness in relation to the leadership in Tehran with the new President Ebrahim Raisi, who has so far been unwilling to negotiate Biden won’t allow himself.
Shrink the conflict
Beyond the intent of halting Iran’s nuclear program and keeping Tehran’s surrogate army on the border with Israel, the Lebanese Hezbollah, in check, Netanyahu’s harsh Iranian rhetoric served another purpose: to distract from the fact that there was no progress whatsoever in his reign in the negotiation process with the Ramallah Autonomous Authority, led by the 85-year-old Mahmud Abbas. A policy that Bennett wants to continue unabated – without fear of pressure from Washington. Officially, Biden only spoke of “promoting peace, security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians”; He excluded the ongoing occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There was also no criticism of the ongoing expansion of existing and the establishment of new illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories.
That means carte blanche for Bennett, whose government recently approved the granting of 15,000 work permits to Palestinian workers in Israel and offered the Palestinian Authority a loan equivalent to a good 130 million euros to help the ailing economy in the West Bank. That should serve as a blueprint for further dealing with the politically under pressure of the officials around Abbas in Ramallah: small concessions in administrative and economic terms to improve the living conditions of the population. In the end, however, this could only serve to take pressure off the Israeli military administration and maintain the occupation. The two Israeli-Palestinian cabinet members, Essawi Frej, Minister for Regional Cooperation, and Hamad Amer, Minister of Finance, are evidently in office primarily to devote themselves to civilian relief efforts.
Bennett’s course of “shrinking the conflict”, as he called his Palestine policy shortly after taking office, is also being backed by Washington because it holds the prospect of a better relationship with Jordan and Egypt. Netanyahu had recently left the only states with which Israel signed peace treaties until 2020 and, together with Trump, set up new regional alliances. Bennett, on the other hand, traveled to Amman a month after taking over the business of government, where he met King Abdullah II. An invitation from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah as-Sisi to Cairo was presented to him by his secret service chief Abbas Kamel in Jerusalem in August. It would be the first official visit by an Israeli head of government to Egypt since 2011, when Netanyahu met with Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea shortly before his fall.
Ten years after the Arab Spring, Israel stands firmly on the side of an authoritarian alliance made up of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. To this day, the Gulf monarchies have cracked down on members of the opposition. Regionally, they form the counterweight to Qatar and Turkey, of which the Muslim Brotherhood is a partner – from Libya to Tunisia to Syria. Above all, the repressive leadership of the Emirates ensured through their backing for the military coup against the Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi in 2012 to bring the deep state of justice and security apparatus back to power after a year of Islamist rule in Cairo.
Israel’s proximity to the Arab Restoration was given official status when diplomatic relations were established with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in October 2020. In addition to economic interests, a common front against Iran was important. The result was the “Abraham Accords”, largely driven by Trump and Netanyahu. Sudan and Morocco are now also sailing in this channel. Both Bennett and the alternate Prime Minister and Secretary of State Jair Lapid have pledged to uphold the treaties. One reason for this is obvious: they give the post-Netanyahu government legitimacy through weighty states in the Arab League. A circumstance that can be helpful in refusing to continue negotiations with Abbas about a two-state solution.