Naftali Bennett began his first official trip to Washington as Israel’s prime minister with a pair of empty promises that he couldn’t break if he wanted to, and everyone knew it. He went home with a big diplomatic success under his belt.
He had promised his right-wing settler constituency there would be no Palestinian state on his watch and told the left side of his coalition – and the Americans – there would be no annexation of West Bank lands.
Annexation if off the table because it would scuttle the Abraham Accords and Israel’s long-sought openings with secular Arab states. Trade, tourism and diplomatic relations with the moderate Arabs are too important to risk by appeasing his extreme nationalist supporters. Bennett still wants the big prize that eluded his predecessor — a deal with Saudi Arabia, the leading political, religious and economic player in the region.
Palestinian statehood is off the table not just because Bennett is opposed but because the Palestinians can’t get their act together well enough to challenge the Israelis.
He brought a peace offering: no public fight over President Joe Biden’s desire to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal scuttled by his predecessor.
Bennett said that despite his strong disagreement, he will not publicly campaign against the deal the way his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, did. He is keenly aware of the great damage Netanyahu did not only to relations with then-President Barack Obama (whose VP was Biden) but also to bipartisan support for Israel. Bennett has made repairing relations with Democrats and American Jewry a top priority.
Biden vowed Iran will “never” get a nuclear weapon, and he told Bennett “if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.” Biden still wants to return to the agreement, but the new more-extreme president in Tehran makes a deal look increasingly difficult.
Israelis officials are skeptical about the US taking military action if Iran actually builds a nuke, but their best hope is that international pressure and Israel’s own arsenal will be an effective deterrent.
Biden wants to repair Trump’s damage to relations with the Palestinians, but he has no delusions about reviving peace negotiations. Those are on the way-back burner.
The 85-year-old Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is in the 16th year of his four-year term, and he shows no interest in retiring. He is increasingly unpopular and refuses to groom a successor or hold new elections. His sclerotic government is corrupt, inept and despised. Even with a willing Israeli peace partner, Abbas’ maximalist demands would be a non-starter.
A top PA official, Azzam al-Ahmed, this week ruled out any peace negotiations under American leadership. He wants an international conference in which the United States is just one party, along with the Europeans, Russia, the UN, China, Jordan, Egypt and South Africa at the table.
That’s a non-starter – perhaps intentionally — since Washington is the only player with any serious clout with Israel and the one Israel trusts most (though not totally) to watch its back. More important, the United States and Israel are the only ones who can deliver what the Palestinians want most – acceptance and legitimacy. As in past, other countries have a supporting role to play, but only Washington can be the closer.
A source close to Bennett, the former leader of the settler movement, said, “there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be one.” The PM told Biden that he will instead focus on security and economic cooperation with the Palestinians.
Biden is a long-time supporter of the two-state solution, but Israeli-Palestinian peace is not on his radar. The president knows the prospects are remote, the players aren’t ready, and he has far more urgent things on his plate.
This week’s final exit from Afghanistan marks Washington’s full pivot from that part of the world to the Far East, specifically China.
High on Biden’s agenda this week was to impress Bennett that Israel may be paying too high a price for its burgeoning business relations with China. Israel is a global leader in cybertech, as the NSO spyware scandal illustrated. That only heightened American concerns about Israel’s technological and economic cooperation with Beijing, which is notorious for computer hacking, violating intellectual property rights and breaking copyright laws.
Bennett left Washington reportedly considering shifting authority over business with China from the Finance Ministry to the National Security Council, where he will have greater influence.
Bennett, the son of American immigrants, understands the problem; he made his fortune in high tech in the US before returning to Israel to go into politics, and he knows how the Chinese operate.
The most important outcome of the summit may be the rapport established by the two men. They’re aware of the damage done by their mercurial predecessors. When it comes to US-Israel relations, Biden is more experienced than any prior president, with a keener understanding of the dynamics of internal Israeli and Palestinian politics.
By all accounts the White House meeting was cordial and friendly, lasting twice as long as planned. Bennett described Biden as “a leader who loves Israel, knows exactly what he wants and is attuned to our needs,” and the president said, “We’ve become close friends.” They also share an affinity for riding Amtrak.
The last thing either leader wants is a return of the confrontational and abrasive Likud-Republican Netanyahu, and that is a strong incentive for a friendly, productive relationship.