Why the Bennett-Biden Relationship Could Work

PM Bennett speaks with US President Biden over the phone. Photo courtesy of  Ariel Zandberg.

On paper, it’s a disaster. Israel’s newly inaugurated Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, is a right-leaning, pro-settlement legislator who has generally appeared more conservative politically than his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu. United States President Joe Biden, meanwhile, is a leftist being urged to go even further to the left on everything—including treatment of Israel—by members of his own political party. As problematic as Netanyahu’s relationship was with former President Barack Obama, this could be worse. And remember, Biden was Obama’s vice president.

Yet in the end, domestic political needs might be exactly why the Bennett-Biden relationship could be just fine for the next two years as Bennett takes his rotation as prime minister. The reason? The status quo is the safest political position for both men.

Consider Bennett’s “change government”: It’s the most diverse government in Israeli history, housing not only Bennett’s Yamina party—which is literally the Hebrew word for “rightward”—but also the leftist Meretz party. Coalition partner Ra’am is the first-ever Arab party to formally sit in an Israeli government, and they are doing it alongside the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party backed prominently by immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia.

New Foreign Minister Yair Lapid—who will take the reigns as premier after Bennett if the government lasts that long—is working alongside the Blue and White party he abandoned when they joined Netanyahu in the last government.

In other words, agreement between these diverse groups will be narrow. Yet somehow it won’t be as narrow as their governing majority. At best, the coalition will have 61 members of the 120-Knesset in it, but even that may be held together more by abstentions than support according to recent reports from The Times of Israel. The official vote of confidence to inaugurate the government was actually just 60-59, with one abstaining.

So even as Bennett becomes the first prime minister not named Netanyahu since 2009, the countdown to when his government implodes and new elections are called seems to have already begun. Avoiding controversy then, will be critical to keep them in power.

That makes annexation of Judea and Samaria—Israel’s Biblical heartland and home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis—a nonstarter. The Arab Ra’am party and multiple left-leaning parties would oppose it and could collapse the government to prevent it. On the other hand, a full-blown official settlement construction freeze aimed at restarting peace talks with the Palestinians would probably lead to the same approach by Yamina’s legislators.

Restoring Israel’s economy after COVID and addressing societal problems that have been brewing were among the items named by Bennett as the focus for the current government in his acceptance speech published by the Prime Minister’s Office. Stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is on the agenda too, but even that is likely to be covert.

In other words, don’t expect the Bennett-led government to do much of anything that makes front-page news in Washington. And that’s most likely the exact thing President Biden will want.

In the US, Biden didn’t just run as the opposite of former President Donald Trump in terms of policy—he portrayed himself as the opposite in style and fanfare as well. Biden so far has tended to avoid making major headlines himself—he barely even talks to the media—and controversy seems to be something he only wants in small doses if it’s absolutely necessary.

His Democrat party has instead been the opposite, with prestigious members pushing hard for grand governmental moves to the left. But while the Democrats technically control all three branches of the US government, their majority is a single, tie-breaking vote in the Senate and a small edge in the House. In other words, they represent a country similarly divided politically to what’s happening in Israel.

That means there are a lot of Americans who don’t want to lean too far to the left and depart too far from the status quo. Picking battles and evading unnecessary controversy could make the difference in 2022, when the US House and Senate go back to elections. That could prolong a new era in the US led by Biden or it could be a complete political reset in which Biden’s agenda is neutralized.

President Biden then, has plenty to occupy his time other than whether or not Israel is making concessions to the Palestinians.

The proof that Biden doesn’t want to make Israel a central piece of his presidency? The attention given to the Jewish state. When Obama took power, he named George Mitchell his envoy to the Middle East with a peace mandate two days after he took power. Trump named David Friedman his ambassador to Israel in December 2016—a month before the new president-elect even took office.

Yet here we are five months after Biden took office and he has yet to name an ambassador to Israel. It took almost a month after taking office for President Biden to speak by phone with Netanyahu—a delay so long that CNN Wolf Blitzer felt the need to ask US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about it during a February interview.

Blinken himself last week told Axios in an interview republished by the State Department that the US doesn’t believe now is the time to push on Israel-Palestinian peace. “The conditions right now are not—are not there. We’ve just come off of the violence in Gaza and elsewhere. We’re working very hard not only to make sure that the ceasefire stays in place, but to start to deal with the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” said Blinken. “And over time, if we can build a little bit more hope, a little bit more trust, a little bit more confidence, maybe then the conditions are in place to re-engage on two states.”

Despite the incentive for both sides to basically stay out of each other’s way, there are still potential pitfalls. Iran remains a hot button of dispute between the countries, and it remains to be seen how much the US bends to Iran’s will in a renewed nuclear deal and how Israel responds. The Palestinian issue may be muted, but Biden’s team has already restarted the anti-settlement language of the Obama years. Meanwhile, Bennett in his acceptance speech specifically said that they would “ensure Israel’s national interests” in the Judea and Samaria region where the settlements are housed and noted the conflict with Palestinian enemies is about the very right for Israel to exist at all and “not a dispute over territory.”

But barring some unexpected boldness, it seems entirely plausible that the Bennett-Biden relationship will—at least officially—resemble their initial words to each other from when Bennett took power on Sunday.

Per an official statement published to the White House website summarizing a call between the leaders on Sunday, Biden congratulated Bennett and “expressed his firm intent to deepen cooperation between the United States and Israel on the many challenges and opportunities facing the region. 

“The leaders agreed that they and their teams would consult closely on all matters related to regional security, including Iran.  The President also conveyed that his administration intends to work closely with the Israeli government on efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Bennett, in his acceptance speech, shared a similar sentiment: “We greatly appreciate the support of the United States, our greatest friend. My government will make an effort to deepen and nurture relations with our friends in both parties—bipartisan. If there are disputes, we will manage them with fundamental trust, and mutual respect.”

“Mutual respect”—or perhaps mutually-assured political destruction—could be what holds them together. Doing anything else is a political risk to both Bennett and Biden.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, June 13, 2021)

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