Naftali Bennett will be the tenth Israeli prime minister Joe Biden has met. In nearly half a century since he was first elected senator of Delaware, he has had the opportunity to get acquainted with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir.
But when he sits down with Bennett on Thursday afternoon in the Oval Office, it will be the first time he meets an Israeli prime minister as the President of the United States. Likewise it will be Bennett’s first presidential meeting. These facts make this event a historic one, but in the broader picture of Israel’s relationship with its superpower ally, this meeting is hardly an important one.
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For Bennett, visiting the White House as a new prime minister is a rite of passage, a symbolic and ceremonial moment. However, beyond the photo-op, he has little hope of swaying Biden from his desire to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement that Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from in May 2018. Only the Iranian leadership could prevent that, should they come up with terms for renewing the deal that are excessively unreasonable, even by Biden’s standards.
Likewise, Biden, who has a good understanding of internal Israeli politics, is fully aware that he has no hope of getting the new Israeli government, with its ideologically diverse coalition, to make any major concessions on the Palestinian front. He knows that the chances of relaunching a diplomatic process between Israel and a sclerotic Palestinian Authority right now are next to zero. So why waste time trying?
Even before his inauguration Biden was pretty clear that the Sisyphean task of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was too low on his list of priorities to be feasible in a four-year term. He has no time or political capital to waste on an issue that has eluded each of his predecessors since Israel’s founding, no matter how hard some of them tried. Certainly not when he has three mammoth missions on his plate: Fighting the coronavirus at home, the rivalry with China and the need to create a global consensus on managing climate change abroad. As the rushed and clumsy American pullback from Afghanistan has proven, this is not an administration that has patience for lost causes. Eight months in and they haven’t even got around appointing the new U.S. ambassador to Israel.
With the news cycle dominated by Afghanistan, the only benefit of the meeting for Biden is showing that America still has at least one strong and friendly ally in the Middle East.
Bennett showed that he already knows the script in his meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, where he said, “you have our back.” This is a bit more important for Bennett, who is eager to show that, unlike Benjamin Netanyahu, he can get along well with a Democratic president. But ultimately, the significance of the meeting is mainly in the fact that it’s taking place and that the optics look good.
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This is not, as some have suggested, a “restart” for relations between the two countries. The restart, such as it is, has been well underway – practically from the moment the new government took office two and a half months ago.
Bennett is not the only major foreign policy player. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has already established a good working relationship with his counterpart Blinken. As has Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who held the same position in the previous government, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – the first senior member of the Biden administration to visit Israel.
The personal ties between the president and the prime minister are usually the key relationship between the two countries, but not always, and probably not between this specific duo. Biden knows just how weak Bennett is politically and that he will be welcoming his eleventh Israeli prime minister to the White House in just two years when Yair Lapid ascends to the office.
In the comprehensive ground-work to prepare for this meeting, the areas of disagreement surrounding Iran and the Palestinians were well demarcated in advance and will be kept mainly behind closed-doors. The same is true of other potential sources of tension, such as Israeli trade with China (the Biden administration received new assurances that it will not include cyberware and infrastructure) and Israel’s climate goals, which have finally been clearly set out by this government. The areas of agreement, such as the military cooperation and intelligence-sharing on Iran, Syria and Lebanon, are also well established. For all the briefings Bennett underwent on a “new approach” regarding Iran before the trip, both sides know exactly what they can do together and have been doing it.
The best that can be hoped for from this meeting is that Bennett might listen and learn something of value from a man who is 29 years his senior and entered the Senate in 1972, the year Bennett was born. Other than that, all they have to do is smile for the cameras and utter some bland remarks about the unshakeable alliance. Once the doors to the Oval Office close, leaving them alone, they can congratulate each other on ruining Netanyahu’s vacation, as the opposition leader watches the proceedings on television, far away in his hotel room on a small island in Hawaii.