Six things to watch for in Biden’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett
by Naomi Lim, White House Reporter
President Joe Biden, who considers himself a foreign policy expert, had deprioritized the Middle East. But with Afghanistan’s implosion and a highly anticipated White House meeting with new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the region now tops his administration’s agenda.
Despite Biden’s attempts to pivot toward China, his Thursday meeting with Bennett will determine the pair’s approach to another common competitor — Iran — as the United Nations warns the rogue nation is on the brink of becoming a nuclear power.
Here are six developments to be mindful of as Biden and Bennett meet for the first time:
Will Biden and Bennett get along?
Personal relationships are important to Biden, and the pair are both early in their respective terms.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say whether Bennett’s support of annexing parts of the West Bank and his opposition to a two-state solution would prevent the pair from collaborating.
But Biden immediately welcomed Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s election in June after delaying talks with their predecessor, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“My administration is fully committed to working with the new Israeli government to advance security, stability, and peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and people throughout the broader region,” Biden said at the time.
Council of Foreign Relations’ Elliott Abrams — an alumnus of the Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump administrations — and Blaise Misztal, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s policy vice president, agreed Bennett would adopt a more conciliatory approach toward Biden than his old boss Netanyahu. Bennett was Netanyahu’s chief of staff and defense minister, among other roles.
“Disagreement will be spoken in private or, if in public, in very moderate terms. Public fights are going to be avoided,” Abrams said.
The Iran nuclear deal, or what remains of it, will likely dominate Biden and Bennett’s discussion and would have been central to a joint press conference if they scheduled one.
Psaki has reiterated Israel has the right to defend itself, particularly amid escalating tensions with Iran. But the seventh round of negotiations with Iran over a mutual return to compliance under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has yet to materialize as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi settles into office.
“The president’s view is that it is in our interest to continue to pursue a diplomatic path forward because even though we certainly don’t approve — in fact, we have great concern about a number of Iran’s problematic activities in the global community — having visibility into their nuclear capabilities and capacities is in our national interest,” Psaki said this month.
But “the timeline is not endless,” she added, as the International Atomic Energy Agency advised last week Iran’s uranium enrichment is nearing weapons-grade.
In contrast, Bennett is ready to needle Biden against the accord. Instead, Bennett, a former high-tech entrepreneur who spent his childhood in the United States and Canada, wants to strengthen relations with Arab countries against the rise of Iran, as well as use diplomatic, economic, and covert military action to keep the country in check.
“Israel is here,” Bennett said in an interview this week. “We are the precise anchor of stability, of willingness to do the job to keep this area safer.”
The White House’s insistence the Afghanistan War sprung from a “civil” conflict has rankled allies in Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, and Ukraine — each facing their own threats that could be spun as “internal.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan has been pressed about those concerns. He described those U.S. alliances as “sacrosanct,” underscoring the commitment to Israel is “as strong as it’s ever been.”
Biden’s mismanagement of Afghanistan has “shaken” allies who rely on U.S. military guarantees and raised questions regarding whether the U.S. is “a dependable partner,” according to Misztal.
“It gives Prime Minister Bennett a much stronger hand when he comes into the Oval Office to talk about Iran because suddenly President Biden’s assurances that he can handle Iran, that he knows how to deal with a situation, that he couldn’t possibly allow a dangerous situation to arise that would challenge Israel’s security look a lot less convincing,” Misztal said.
Military assistance and Israeli settlements
Divisions emerged during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary over whether the party believed U.S. military assistance should be conditioned on Israel, not building Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Misztal was interested to see whether Biden and Bennett furthered the U.S.-Israel security partnership by drafting another general 10-year memorandum of understanding or qualitative military edge arrangement.
“In the more very immediate and short-term area, there’s the issue of replenishing Israel’s arsenal after the May conflict in Gaza, where Israel used a lot of its Iron Dome interceptors to shoot down Hamas rockets. And it also used a lot of precision-guided munitions in order to attack the sites from which Hamas was shooting at it,” he said.
Bennett has signaled he will expand West Bank settlements, dismissing Biden’s proposal of opening a U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem to help Palestinians, according to Abrams.
“He’s going to be careful,” Abrams said of Bennett and his settlement policy.
Democratic Party fractures
The Democratic Party has become increasingly comfortable with anti-Israel rhetoric from its most high-profile members after 15 years of Netanyahu. Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar was slammed this summer for seemingly comparing Israel to fundamentalist organizations Hamas and the Taliban.
While Biden is cognizant of the Democratic trend, Abrams and Misztal predicted it would not factor into Biden and Bennett’s meeting.
“He comes from a generation in which the Democratic Party was quite supportive of Israel,” Abrams said of Biden.
Biden’s support of a two-state solution is a topic unlikely to gain much traction during his meeting with Bennett. Bennett has affirmed he is uninterested in peace with the Palestinians because it may jeopardize his diverse yet brittle coalition.
“This government is a government that will make dramatic breakthroughs in the economy,” he told the New York Times. “Its claim to fame will not be solving the 130-year-old conflict here in Israel.”
Biden has also not appointed a Middle East peace envoy, a decision that reflects his priorities.
Misztal endorsed the Abraham Accord strategy of normalizing relations between Israel and other Arab states rather than focusing on the Palestinians.
For Abrams, Biden is experienced and “realizes this is the holy grail,” and “he’s not going to get it.”
“Every president has wasted an enormous amount of effort, unsuccessfully, so I don’t think this is a great temptation to start trying to do this again,” he said.
Originally published in Washington Examiner