Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is content as he takes stock of his first diplomatic visit to the U.S.: His meeting with President Joe Biden, postponed by a day following the terror attack in Afghanistan, led to the formalization of a tight relationship with the administration brass. President Biden gave Bennett, a diplomatic novice, broad public backing and sent a message to world capitals and the Israeli public regarding the new prime minister’s standing with the White House.
“Bennett and I have become close friends,” Biden told the press as the meeting was in progress. He said that “We’re also going to discuss [the] unwavering commitment that we have in the United States to Israel’s security” and added that “ways to advance peace and security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians” were also on the agenda.
Aside from the photo-op, there were no dramatic achievements to the visit. Bennett had marked three objectives: Tightening the cooperation on the Iranian front, getting a presidential statement of willingness to drop visa requirements for Israelis, and re-upping Iron Dome supplies to the tune of a billion dollars. In this regard, Bennett comes back with very few trophies: The U.S. has not relinquished its desire to renew the Iran nuclear agreement, and Biden did not explicitly pose a military threat to Iran should it continue its arming efforts; the administration has not retracted its intent to open a consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinian population, to Bennett’s chagrin. Even Biden’s statement regarding his willingness to promote the exemption of Israelis from visa requirements was not worded in a way indicating any foreseeable action. And passage of the Iron Dome antimissile defense system munitions budget still requires Congressional approval.
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The fact that the Palestinian issue, like the subject of continued settlement construction, were shunted to the margins of the discussion between the two leaders is a score for Bennett, who does not wish to destabilize his coalition over diplomatic disagreements on the eve of passing the state’s budget.
“It was an excellent meeting,” said Bennett afterwards, “especially in private. It was mainly a working meeting. There was a feeling we’ve known each other for a long time. I found a leader who loves Israel. He knows exactly what he wants and is responsive to our needs as well.”
The timing of the meeting was off. The American debacle in Afghanistan led the American media to ignore the Israeli visit and forced administration principles to clear valuable time for the Israeli delegation. Biden himself was quick to call Bennett, after the initial cancellation, to clarify that he is determined to hold the meeting the next day. When the time came for the grand visit, the American flag hung at half-mast.
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Biden invited Bennett for a private meeting, prior to the group meeting between the two delegations. The American president broke the ice when he decided to drag the Israeli prime minister for a spontaneous cup of coffee in his private dining room, rather than in the Oval Office. During this coffee klatch, Bennett told the president about his father, Jim Bennett, who died six years ago on the very day of the meeting. He described the coalition of political opposites he had sown together and told Biden that he made the move to spare the Israeli public a fifth toxic election campaign.
Bennett told his host how he talked to his wife and children a moment before taking the leap, to prepare them for the public criticism he was about to be subjected to. The name of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, persona-non-grata in the current White House, was not mentioned even once.
Contrary to the rumors and purported critiques about Biden’s mental state, the Israeli delegation met a sharp president, versed in depth in the topics presented to him. Unsurprisingly, Biden was once again revealed to be a warm and unconditional supporter of Israel. He urged Bennett to call him directly any time he needed. “We’ve developed a personal relationship to the point of picking up the phone and calling one another,” Bennett relayed later in the press briefing he held, adding: “I invited the president to Israel after we overcome the delta variant.”
This was a chance for the fresh prime minister, devoid of diplomatic experience, to forge tighter relationships not only with Biden, but with the rest of the senior figures of the administration: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with whom he held a lengthy meeting on Wednesday, and who also participated in the group meeting with Biden; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, whom he met at the Pentagon upon landing, and Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, who is highly appreciated by Bennett and his staff. The contacts held in recent weeks, and the current meeting, solidified the rules of engagement for the two administrations: Ceaseless direct talks and crisis management away from the spotlight.
One of Bennett’s achievements on the Iranian front was Biden’s decision to harden his tone. When he met outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin three months ago, he clarified that “Iran will not have nuclear weapons on my watch.” In his meeting with Bennett he took that message further, saying Iran will “never” have such weapons. Biden stated that “if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.”
The disagreement between the U.S. and Israel regarding the Iranian nuclear program was on the table from the start: While Biden is in favor of exhausting the diplomatic channel and bringing Iran back to the JCPOA agreement, Bennett believes that agreement is now worthless as Iran has acquired significant knowledge during the years in which it violated it [following former President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the accord.]
Instead, Bennett seeks to promote continuing attrition actions on a series of fronts in order to delay Iran’s ability to become a nuclear threshold state.“To the Americans, Iran is a strategic matter. To us it’s an existential one,” is how a political source put the differences between the sides.
Bennett presented Biden with Israel’s two overriding objectives: Force Iran to back down from its regional aggression, and prevent it from becoming a nuclear threshold state. He likened the struggle between Israel and Iran to the Cold War: Not a head-on violent clash, but a prolonged period of struggles mostly behind the scenes, with Israel as the “America” of the region – a vibrant and economically powerful democracy, whereas Iran is a country with a decrepit regime and a significant chasm between the rigid regime and the populace.
“Both President Biden and I are determined that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon,” Bennett said afterwards, adding: “I’m glad we agree on the goal. At work levels we’ll be working in the coming days, weeks, and months to develop the cooperation channels. We don’t have much time. This is an urgent matter that cannot be postponed.”
The Palestinian issue was secondary at the meeting. Bennett made it clear that in the political and diplomatic situation at hand, he has no intention of pursuing a diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority. Precisely for that reason, the Israeli leader told his counterpart that he is determined to promote economic steps to aid the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority, which is mired in deep crisis.
Regarding the American demands for rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, Bennett presented three conditions for Israeli consent on the matter: Cessation of rocket fire from the Strip, cessation of rocket smuggling into the Strip, and the return of Israel’s prisoners and missing soldiers. According to a political source, should these conditions be met, “the sky is the limit.” The American administration’s initiative to reopen a Jerusalem consulate to provide consular services to Palestinians was raised during the meeting. Political sources estimate that while Bennett opposes the opening of the consulate, viewing it as an opening for a future partition of Jerusalem, he will not block the move, should the administration decide to go ahead with it.