President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett already know each other. Nonetheless, there will still be some element of the two leaders taking each other’s measure at their White House meeting this week. That’s because each will be attending with new credentials and heightened responsibility from their past encounters, and as each is still emerging from the shadow of his predecessor.
For Bennett, the meeting provides an opportunity to further elevate his improbable ascendancy to the office of prime minister. It’s also a sign that his fragile coalition government may be able to survive and succeed. And for Biden, this could be an opportunity to address questions about the depth of U.S. support for allies in the Middle East following his Afghanistan difficulties, and to further burnish the image of Democratic Party support for the State of Israel at a time when questions linger.
And, of course, there is work to be done.
The collapse of the Western-nurtured government and military in Afghanistan has raised serious questions about American competence and fidelity to allies. This apprehension is particularly intense among Israel’s Middle East neighbors who share concerns about Iran. Those players will be watching closely for messages about U.S. intentions and commitment in the region. Sensitivity to that scrutiny will make Bennett’s job a little more difficult, as he pushes continuing Israeli opposition to U.S. reengagement in the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden wants to resuscitate. Bennett understands the Iran-related challenge and knows he must avoid any Netanyahu-like confrontation, but says that he plans to address Israel’s misgivings about Iran, nonetheless: “We will be coming [to the White House] very focused, with an approach of partnership, an approach meant to stop the negative regional actions of Iran — its destabilizing, harming human rights and terrorism — and preventing Iran from getting close to nuclear breakout.”
This all comes at a time when Israel’s relationship with America is remarkably strong. Both leaders will celebrate that reality, as they should. And they will also highlight the anniversary of the historic Abraham Accords, which brought a bloc of Arab states into open and blossoming relations with Israel, with each bilateral agreement sweetened by the United States.
It is most unlikely that we will see any breakthroughs regarding to Israel’s relations with the Palestinians at the meeting — Bennett and a large segment of his Knesset oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. And, in any event, there is no credible and reliable Palestinian partner with whom such an effort could go forward at this time. So, for now, the issue of a two-state solution is off the table. But that doesn’t mean that a friendlier tone and some creative confidence building efforts can’t be pursued.
We don’t expect any surprises in the Biden-Bennett meeting. We do, however, look for a tightening embrace of two longstanding allies committed to democratic principles and who also share a common vision of international security and peaceful co-existence. At a time of such instability in the Middle East, that would feel like a win. JN