WASHINGTON (AP) – Your countries at a crossroads, the new leaders of the United States and Israel, have inherited a relationship that is both threatened and deeply historical and deeply ingrained by increasingly partisan domestic considerations and a deeply ingrained realization that they need one another.
How President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett handle this relationship will shape the prospects for peace and stability in the Middle East.
They usher in an era that is no longer determined by the powerful personality of longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu, who repeatedly opposed the Obama administration and then reaped the fruits of a warm relationship with President Donald Trump.
Bennett’s administration wants to repair relations with the Democrats and restore bipartisan support for Israel in the US. Meanwhile, Biden is taking a more balanced approach to the Palestinian conflict and Iran.
The relationship is vital for both countries. Israel has long viewed the United States as its closest ally and guarantor of its security and international standing, while the United States counts on Israel’s military and intelligence capabilities in a turbulent Middle East.
But domestic politics hold back both Biden and Bennett.
Bennett leads an insecure coalition of eight parties from across Israel’s political spectrum, whose main point of convergence has been to remove Netanyahu from power after twelve years. Biden is fighting to bridge a rift in his party where near-uniform support for Israel has eroded and a progressive wing wants the US to do more to end the Israeli occupation of land that the Palestinians want for a future state want.
The new Israeli Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, recognized the challenges Israel was facing in Washington shortly after taking office.
“We have a Democratic White House, a Senate and a House of Democrats and they are furious,” said Lapid when he took over the helm of the Israeli Foreign Ministry a week ago. “We have to change the way we work with them.”
Iran will be an important test. Biden has tried to revert to the nuclear deal with Iran, which President Barack Obama saw as a pre-eminent foreign policy achievement. Trump withdrew from the pact to the cheers of pro-Israel US lawmakers and Israel. Although Iran has not yet accepted Biden’s offer to negotiate directly, indirect talks on the nuclear deal are now entering the sixth round in Vienna.
The new Israeli government firmly rejects Biden’s efforts to revive the deal. However, she claims that instead of staging public confrontations, like Netanyahu’s controversial speech in which he slammed the deal before the US Congress in 2015, she will discuss the issue behind closed doors.
In a conversation with Foreign Minister Antony Blinken on Thursday, Lapid said that the two had agreed on a “no surprises” policy and that the lines of communication had been kept open.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, says that instead of trying to thwart a deal with Iran, the new administration will push the US government to put some sanctions on Iran and seek “strategic compensation” for Israel as part of a return to the agreement.
Settling differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be another major challenge for the two heads of state and government.
Biden has already begun to reverse Netanyahu-backed Trump policies that have alienated the Palestinians and caused an almost complete break in official American-Palestinian contacts. Almost immediately after taking office, Biden restored Trump’s cut US aid to the Palestinians, which in just four months amounts to more than $ 300 million. He announced his administration’s intention to reopen the Trump-closed US consulate in Jerusalem, which regulates relations with the Palestinians. And government officials have spoken of the need for Israelis and Palestinians to enjoy equal levels of security and prosperity.
However, neither Biden nor Blinken have signaled a move to change Trump’s most significant pro-Israeli moves. These include his departure from longstanding US policy that settlements are illegal under international law, his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, an area Syria conquered in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The administration also hopes to extend the Arab-Israeli normalization deals that the Trump administration forged in its final months in office.
In a call on Bennett’s first day in office, Biden reiterated his “unwavering support for US-Israel relations” and his “unwavering commitment to the security of Israel”. He promised to work together on all security issues, including Iran.
Biden’s support for Israel’s heavy air strikes during the war with the militant Hamas rulers in Gaza, which fired thousands of rockets at Israel, angered progressive Democrats in Congress. With new strength in numbers, they are demanding that the government do more to aid the Palestinians and that conditions be placed on the massive military aid the US is providing to Israel.
While established democratic lawmakers wholeheartedly support Israel and its absolute right to defend themselves, the growing number of progressive voices in their caucus has made the issue a political hot potato. The change in Israeli government is unlikely to mitigate their calls to action as Israeli-Palestinian violence has continued for the past few days.
However, the Biden government has already urged the new Israeli government to ease tensions with the Palestinians. In two telephone conversations with Lapid last week, Blinken spoke of “the need to improve practical Israeli-Palestinian relations” and promised to deepen Arab-Israeli relations.
It is not clear whether the new government will react.
Center members like Lapid and Defense Secretary Benny Gantz clearly want a more cooperative approach with the Biden administration, while Bennett and his right-wing partners are under pressure from their grassroots, Netanyahu’s hard line not only on Iran but also on conflict with . maintain the Palestinians.
The former prime minister, already looking to return to office, has branded Bennett as weak and inexperienced and is likely to pounce on any perceived surrender.
The Israeli government is already facing tough decisions, including evacuating an unauthorized settlement outpost established last month and intervening in the legal process through which settler organizations are trying to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in east Jerusalem.
The Biden government is urging Israel to refrain from any unilateral steps – such as settlement expansion or evictions – that could impede a possible revival of the peace process, which has been dying for more than a decade. Washington, however, has not yet issued public condemnations of settlement activity beyond general calls on both sides to refrain from unilateral action that could spark tension or harm prospects for a possible peace deal.
Bennett is a strong proponent of settlements and against Palestinian statehood, but is also seen by many as a pragmatist. Perhaps he can turn his weakness into strength, arguing that any major concession – to the Palestinians or the settlers – risks toppling the government and returning Netanyahu to power.
“The forces that brought this coalition to power are, in my opinion, strong enough to withstand pressure from the right, and probably also American pressure, to fundamentally change policy towards the Palestinians,” Gilboa said.
Krauss reports from Jerusalem.