Handling Israel’s relations with the United States, our most important ally, is one of the greatest challenges facing every Israeli prime minister. The first White House visit by an Israeli prime minister offers an opportunity and a test case to determine the foundations of relations with the President which are vital to the bilateral ties.
Prime Minister Bennett and President Biden face a special challenge given the significant disparity between their views on key issues, especially in the Iranian and Palestinian arenas. On the other hand, the sides share a deep and refreshing commitment to establish close strategic cooperation built on mutual trust. Unlike Netanyahu, who sacrificed relations with the US to advance his political and personal agendas, Bennett has been demonstrating noteworthy national responsibility in strengthening the special relationship with the US as he did in rehabilitating ties with Jordan immediately upon taking office.
Israel’s overriding interest lies in taking advantage of the top-level Washington visit to formulate a US-led diplomatic initiative to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians, but unfortunately, this is not a realistic option at the moment. Nonetheless, the two countries share important interests that the visit can advance, taking advantage of the improved regional constellation relevant to the Palestinian context, too.
Bennett’s visit comes against the backdrop the US pullout from Afghanistan, and the understanding that US military involvement in the region is no longer in the cards – seminal developments that illustrate the vital need for a new roadmap of intensified US diplomatic leadership. Such diplomatic leadership has not been felt so far. Meanwhile, the US vacuum is filling up with Sunni and Shiite Islamist agitators, while US partners are crying out for a new regional architecture of alliances. Despite the Biden Administration’s decision to prioritize East Asia and domestic issues, the US must be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time”. Otherwise, others will fill the vacuum left by the Americans in the Middle East, as already evidenced by China’s recent strategic partnership agreement with Iran.
During his election campaign, Biden declared that he would try to revert to the diplomatic arena in order to block Iran’s progress toward military nuclear capabilities, accelerated by Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA between the P5+1 with Iran. Attempts to restore and enhance the agreement have stalled. The Iranians do not seem to feel a sense of urgency and the intentions of Khamenei and the Raisi government regarding the Vienna negotiations are unclear.
The Bennett government wisely decided to abandon Netanyahu’s pointless confrontational tactics vis-à-vis the US in favor of dialogue with the administration on Iran. Biden and Bennett will have to reach several understandings on combined efforts to pressure Iran both in case an agreement is reached and in case it is not. Coordination and consultation mechanisms must be established if Israel is to try to influence decisions by the US and its allies on an agreement with Tehran, and Israel’s room for maneuver vis-à-vis Iran must be defined.
In addition, the two sides must agree on a regional cooperation mechanism that includes the US allies under threat by Iran in a manner that will also serve their relations with Israel and expand the normalization circle. Iran’s ballistic missile program and proxy terror attacks are a greater threat to the Gulf States than the nuclear threat, concerns that Israel shares as reflected in recent Iranian attacks on Israeli owned vessels and Hezbollah launching rockets. The US and Israel must reach agreement on integrating these states into an American plan to deal with Iran’s subversive activities in the region. They should agree to provide these states with anti-missile defenses developed jointly by Israel and the US, which would also enhance Israel’s standing as an asset to the Gulf States.
Bennett should prepare an answer for the question Biden is likely to put to him regarding his vision for the solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, although agreement on the issue is highly doubtful. A plan that foresees autonomy for Areas A and B of the West Bank and annexation of Area C contradicts stated US values and interests. Micah Goldman’s blueprint for “shrinking the conflict” could serve as a temporary tactical phase, but not as an alternative to a long-term vision.
Despite the divide on this issue, agreement on two general principles could be possible: Avoiding measures that preclude the prospects of a two-state solution in the future and significantly improving living conditions for the Palestinians. We should not forget that the collapse of moderate forces in Afghanistan could be replicated in the West Bank, an outcome both Israel and the US have an interest in preventing.
Bennett must come equipped with answers on preventing unilateral Israeli moves in Jerusalem and the West Bank that risk sparking violence, especially as regards depriving Palestinians of their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan and upsetting the status quo on the Temple Mount. At the same time, Bennett must explain how he plans to prevent settler violence and violation of Palestinian human rights in light of the many horrifying violations taking place in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel and the US have a shared interested in forming regional coordination mechanisms to counter attempts to undermine Israel’s relations with the Arab/Muslim world through provocations at Islam’s holy sites in Jerusalem and handing Hamas and Turkey additional public relations victories as the one in May. Such a mechanism should also include Jordan and Morocco in a manner highlighting the value of their agreements with Israel. Ways should also be found to integrate Saudi Arabia in light of its standing in the Arab and Muslim world and in order to incentivize it to join the normalization circle.
As for the West Bank, coordination is required ahead of the expected change in Palestinian leadership prompted by Abu Mazen’s age and the nadir of his domestic legitimacy. Israel and the US have an interest in strengthening moderate forces in the West Bank, although it is unclear right now who will lead them. The administration must be mobilized for efforts to improve the economy and governance in the West Bank. Jordan should be included in these efforts, having a significant interest in their outcome, as should the UAE, which has the resources to provide economic support, improve governance and strengthen civilian institutions.
As for Gaza, Israel should agree with the US on a mechanism to gradually rehabilitate and demilitarize the enclave while avoiding re-enforcement of Hamas but recognizing its existence as a significant factor in Palestinian society. This must be carried out in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority (PA), the UAE and Egypt, while diminishing Qatar’s influence.
Along with renewal of US aid to UNRWA to avoid a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian society, a blueprint should be drawn up for a gradual handover by UNRWA to the PA and to the states where Palestinian refugees live in a manner that bolsters the PA and addresses UNRWA role in maintaining the Palestinian sense of victimization and encouragement of their refugee status.
Syria and Lebanon
Israel lacks diplomatic levers to ensure calm on its northern front, and the vacuum left by the Americans in the region constitutes a security threat. Israel and the US have a shared interest in stability in the region and in preventing a buildup by Iran and its proxies. With that in mind, the US should be asked to include in its dialogue with Russia a demand on blocking further Iranian buildup in Syria. The US could also exert direct influence in Lebanon and in cooperation with France to leverage the economic crisis there and ensure that international aid for Lebanon results in reining in and weakening Hezbollah. In addition, the US could increase its mediation efforts in the Israel-Lebanon negotiations on demarcating their maritime border and leverage this channel to advance other Israel-Lebanon issues.
Biden has declared China the most significant challenge to the US and its NATO allies. Israel has an interest in continued economic relations with China, which is a vital market for the Israeli economy, without undermining US interests. Bennett must propose mechanisms to enable this dual goal, while making clear that despite Israel’s clear priority for preserving its relationship with the US, it cannot afford to turn its back on some opportunities from China for which it has no alternatives. The sides must therefore define Israel’s potential room for maneuver.
The US 2022 foreign appropriations bill approved by the House in July is expected to win Senate approval and will include all of the US defense aid promised to Israel, reflecting the support of a large majority of Democrats for Israel’s security. Nonetheless, there is growing pressure from the progressive wing of the party to condition aid for Israel on progress in negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel should offer of its own volition a mechanism to prevent use of American aid in the violation of human rights and in creeping annexation of Palestinian territory.
To forge ties with the increasingly influential progressive elements on the US political map, a shared fund should be established to aid developing states (a “Tikkun Olam” fund), in accordance with the model of existing bi-national funds (BIRD that funds cooperation in industrial R&D, BARD that funds cooperation in agricultural R&D and BSF that funds scientific R&D). Such a fund would enable cooperation between MASHAV (the Foreign Ministry’s foreign aid arm) and USAID in development work internationally and encourage cooperation between American and Israeli NGOs dedicated to support disadvantaged populations on both sides of the ocean. Such a fund could also constitute a basis for the mobilization of progressive American Jews who are currently hard pressed to find a common cause with Israel.
The American Jewish community
Bennett should hold an event at a Washington Reform synagogue in order to send a message to North American Jewry that Israel embraces the large majority of American Jews not affiliated with Orthodox Judaism. Bennett should come with a solution to the divisive issue of prayer at the Western Wall. He should also take the opportunity to convey a message that the State of Israel embraces Jews critical of its policies, too, and supports an inclusive “big tent” approach toward Jews everywhere. This is a vital message not only related to US-Israel relations but also the State of Israel’s founding principle as the home of the Jewish people, which cannot afford the growing gap between itself and the largest and most important Jewish community in the world.
In summing up, Bennett has an opportunity and a commitment to open a new chapter between Israel and the US after his predecessor inflicted dire damage on Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party and with the American Jewish community. It is incumbent on Bennett to maintain the nationally responsible line he has adopted thus far and avoid missing the opportunity to do so.
(The views in this article do not represent J Street and are written in my capacity as a member of the board of Mitvim Think Tank for Regional Diplomacy)