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Biden will discover Bennett is no Bibi

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will be welcomed to the White House on Thursday. Many in the U.S. have come to view his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu as synonymous with Israel, as he led the country for the last dozen years. While both leaders have a hawkish foreign policy orientation and both are as comfortable in English as they are in Hebrew, it would be a mistake to view the leaders as interchangeable. It is critical to understand the key differences between them.

Bennett heads a hybrid government, which uniquely spans the Israeli political spectrum. It has a wafer-thin majority, and this has put a premium on Bennett seeking common ground amid a range of right, center and left-leaning parties. This means avoiding hot-button issues and dealing with domestic consensus issues like pandemic relief, health and education. This is very different than Netanyahu, who often sought to accentuate ideological differences with the opposition as a basis for his popularity. 

Bennett wants to make clear to Biden that he is not Netanyahu. At the tarmac upon departure from Tel Aviv to Washington, he expressed a desire for a “new spirit of cooperation” with the Biden administration, an allusion to past confrontations of his predecessor with the U.S. He is coming to ensure that there is no public clash with Biden as there famously was in 2015 with the Obama administration at the height of the controversy over the Iran nuclear deal. From my conversations with senior Israeli officials, it’s evident that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid believe this clash obscured the commonality between the U.S. and Israel in ensuring that Iran does not approach a nuclear bomb.

However, the growing sense that the new Iranian government is not interested in a Vienna deal means that the U.S. and Israel need to be concerned about an expedited Iranian timetable to move forward with its nuclear program under Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi without the constraints of any agreement. There are indications that Bennett wants close consultations with the U.S. about this possibility. Bennett has made clear that dealing with Iran is his top priority for his White House visit. He is likely to urge the U.S. to leverage closer regional ties between Israel and Arab Gulf states to ensure greater U.S.-led regional cooperation in dealing with Iran in areas like intelligence, cyber and other forms of ties.

Based on my conversations with senior Israeli officials, it’s evident that Bennett believes Netanyahu’s public positioning during the 2015 nuclear deal and his exclusivist embrace of President Trump alienated Democrats. They tell me Bennett understands Israel’s success for decades has been rooted in American bipartisanship and that he needs to revert to this approach. He also knows that the Israeli public historically sees successful ties with Washington as a key metric of success for a new premier.

Moreover, Biden — a frequent flier as vice president and as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — has traditionally viewed close personal ties with leaders abroad as part of his brand of foreign policy. In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Bennett will be the first foreign visitor to the White House. Given Israel’s reputation as being tough on terror, an expression of confidence from Bennett that the U.S. is a steadfast ally is likely to win him some gratitude from an administration that has been jolted by developments in Kabul. Netanyahu may have come to the White House in a preachy way against trusting alliances, but Bennett is unlikely to do so.

Another relevant difference between Bennett and Netanyahu that could impact the Biden meeting is that Bennett understands utter stagnation on the Palestinian issue is not in Israel’s interest. Based on my multiple conversations with Mr. Bennett in recent years, it was clear to me that he believes this. He has repeatedly told me he favors “autonomy on steroids” for Palestinians who live in Palestinian cities and their environs, albeit in only part of the West Bank. To be sure, an economic plan for over 80 percent of West Bank Palestinians who live in these areas will not solve the conflict after a decade of stagnation, but it could be a start. There are indications from senior Gulf officials with whom I’ve spoken that key Arab states could provide support for a private sector initiative. This could increase U.S. interest in deepening Arab-Israeli normalization.

It is worth noting is that Bennett does not seem as wedded to the Netanyahu idea that the West Bank and Gaza must be governed separately: West Bank led by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Gaza led by Hamas. Netanyahu was not pro-Hamas, but did not see it as his role to bolster the PA at Hamas’s expense. As it stands, the PA’s standing among Palestinians is low, and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has repeatedly made clear that this is not good for Israel.

Yet, Biden can see that the Bennett government speaks of shrinking the conflict with the Palestinians, a midway point between a conflict resolution that it believes is not attainable and a conflict management that is not desirable. The approach means limiting points of friction with the Palestinians, which fits well with the Biden administration’s assessment of the conflict. As such, the Biden team favors Israeli-Palestinian gradual progress but prioritizing the three C’s – COVID, China and climate change.

The Biden administration knows that Bennett comes from the Israeli right. Yes, he was once a leader of the settler movement over a decade ago and lived in a settlement for a short period of time, but quickly moved to a Tel Aviv suburb. Yes, he was once for unilateral annexation while in the opposition, but then said Israel should not pursue that anytime soon, given Israel’s commitment to the Gulf as a price of normalized ties.

Neither Biden nor Bennett want Netanyahu’s return. It is yet another reason for the two to use their upcoming meeting to work together and deal with the considerable common regional challenges ahead.

However, the metric of the Biden-Bennett successful relationship is not their antipathy towards Netanyahu, but rather their ability to work together in this new post-Afghanistan period on issues from Iran to working with the Palestinians to ensure Hamas does not emerge victorious. It would also be a rebuke to the new narrative that the U.S. has given up fighting extremism.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Between 2013-2014 he served in the Office of the Secretary of State as a senior adviser to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. He ia an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is also the creator of the Decision Points podcast. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMakovsky.

Tags Arab-Israeli peace Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Hamas Iran terrorism Israel Israeli annexation Israeli–Palestinian peace process Israel–United States relations Joe Biden Naftali Bennett Palestinian Authority

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