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After D.C. Honeymoon, Bennett Lands Back to COVID and Gaza

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington earlier today, starting the journey back to Israel.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington earlier today, starting the journey back to Israel.Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO

The sour headlines in the Netanyahu-worshipping Israel Hayom free newspaper on Sunday morning told the story in reverse: “Manners instead of action.” “Two leaders without anything to say.” “Bennett reached his destination. Israel didn’t” – and so on. But even the Bibi mouthpieces couldn’t obscure the fact that Naftali Bennett’s first trip to Washington as prime minister was a success, unmarred by the awful events in Afghanistan that made U.S. President Joe Biden defer their meeting by nearly a day.

If anything, the fact that at the height of the worst crisis to hit his presidency, Biden still set aside an hour and a half to meet with Bennett and his team shows how much this president still cares for Israel and is prepared to help its new government, which to his relief is no longer led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bennett got as much as he could realistically hope for at the White House, which was not much to begin with. And yet for him, receiving the blessing of Israel’s chief strategic ally was a major rite-of-passage, one he has now successfully passed. The harder part is coming home and getting back to the dreary daily business of running a country.

As the El Al Boeing 787 Dreamliner that flew him, his entourage and the press pack to Washington touches down at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday evening, he will have little time for rest in the three days of coronavirus quarantine that await him.

His first order of business will be to try to ensure that the new school year, scheduled to start on Wednesday, is not too chaotic – though with Israel still facing high rates of delta variant infections, it will be. It will be a hard landing: from coffee and biscuits with President Biden to maneuvering between the demands of teachers’ union boss Yaffa Ben-David and the obduracy of Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.

Then, on Thursday, after he is out of quarantine, he’ll be in the Knesset for the first parliamentary battle over the new state budget. This time, the opposition will be the least of his worries, as at least a quarter of his narrow governing coalition is currently threatening to withhold support due to matters such as the women’s retirement age and the farming lobby’s anger at opening the Israeli market to imports of fruit and vegetables.

That’s life as prime minister. One moment you’re discussing nuclear weapons in the White House; the next you’re reduced to haggling over the price of tomatoes.

The frustration of the 20 hours he spent stuck at the Willard InterContinental – after his meeting with Biden was delayed due to unfolding events in Afghanistan and when it looked like he may be humiliated by a no-show president – will pale by comparison with what awaits him this week.

But as frustrating as these domestic matters may be, Bennett should count himself lucky to be able to confront them with a certain peace of mind. He came back from Washington with an important presidential guarantee that may give him some breathing space on the one issue that could tear apart his fragile coalition of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties.

In the relatively short public statements, once the obligatory pleasantries and tough talk on Iran were over, Biden also added a hastily mumbled reference for the need to “advance peace and security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.” That’s it. Nothing about the occupation, settlements or a two-state solution.

According to the White House’s readout of the meeting, there was more on the Palestinian issue behind closed doors, about “the importance of refraining from actions that could exacerbate tensions, contribute to a sense of unfairness and undermine efforts to build trust.”

Essentially, though, this was Biden telling Bennett to just try to keep things quiet and avoid doing anything like evicting Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah or building new settlements, which would make it difficult for the Americans to continue downplaying the Palestinian issue. Because they really don’t have time for that right now, and don’t want to pressure Bennett into doing anything that would jeopardize his coalition.

Biden and his entire administration are now focused on Afghanistan. Once that crisis subsides, miserably, with the evacuation completed (and thousands of vulnerable Afghans left behind), he will return to the priorities he previously established: COVID, climate and China. In all three of these, Israel has very minor roles to play, at most.

The biggest favor Bennett can do for Biden now is to manage the local issues of Gaza, Jerusalem, Lebanon and Syria, at a level that doesn’t necessitate any major intervention from the administration – as they had to in May, when the Gaza conflict forced Biden to make a series of unscheduled phone calls.

For all the talk of this Democratic administration, with its noisy pro-Palestinian progressive wing, taking tougher positions with Israel, there is no sign of that happening.

As long as the violence doesn’t spiral out of hand and the Bennett government refrains from major settlement-building, the Biden team is content to consign the occupation to its policy back burner, to be revisited who knows when. It hasn’t even got around yet to appointing its new ambassador to Israel. And while it intends to reopen the Jerusalem consulate, shuttered under Donald Trump, that dealt directly with the Palestinians, it seems prepared to wait with that until the Bennett government has stabilized.

All this, of course, is bad news for the Palestinians. Their hopes for new diplomatic opportunities opening up under the Democrats seem to have been dashed for now. And it’s bad news in general, because the burning issues of the occupation and the blockade of Gaza are not going to go away, and are likely to deteriorate without increased international focus – with adverse consequences for Israel and the Palestinians.

However, on the immediate domestic political front, it could be good news for Bennett. What he got in his meeting with Biden is an assurance that he won’t come any undue pressure in the foreseeable future to make any major concessions to the Palestinians. That is partly through the productive and friendly 90 minutes they spent together, to a larger extent the patient groundwork laid by the two teams and, more than anything else, the circumstances of a world still facing a pandemic, a two-power race for global hegemony and a climate crisis that is likely to become the dominant factor of our lives in the coming decades.

Bennett now has the respite to deal with Israel’s own COVID troubles and to finalize the state budget, which, if it passes by the end of November, should grant him another year of relative political stability. But during this time, he needs to find a way to keep the bubbling discontent in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank from boiling over. And he can’t expect much help from any foreign quarter in doing so. He’s home alone now. 

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