There are several approaches, analytical frameworks and perspectives for examining the history, evolution, dynamics, characteristics and quality of U.S.-Israel relations.
The list of approaches is hefty: 1) history and context, assessing relations through Cold War and post-Cold War prisms; 2) geopolitics and regional perspective, emphasizing U.S. policy in the Middle East; 3) U.S. foreign policy and general alliances; 4) military, security and technological dimensions; 5) domestic politics and constituencies in the United States; 6) crises and a divergence of interests.
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These approaches are for analytical purposes only; relations, of course, are shaped by an interplay of elements. Yet one other analytical approach often sets the tone: “couples theory” – analyzing the current U.S. president with his Israeli prime-minister counterpart over a period of time.
Obviously, a good, dispassionate or bad personal relationship between two leaders rarely dramatically changes a relationship between two countries, but it does set a tone that often affects how contentious issues are viewed and resolved, and how they’re perceived from the outside.
The couples theory only exists when relations are close. For example, it had no value when the couple was Harry Truman and David Ben-Gurion, Dwight Eisenhower and Ben-Gurion or even John F. Kennedy and Ben-Gurion.
Once the U.S.-Israel relationship evolved into an alliance in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and consolidated in the ‘80s, this theory had substantial value when relations were notoriously bad: Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin or Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. It had a similar value when relations were good, close and credibility-based, as with Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton and Shimon Peres, and George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert.
On his first trip to Washington, new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has a rare opportunity to forge a good and intimate relationship with President Joe Biden despite a host of potentially contentious issues that are bound to come up.
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Biden’s three levels
The end-of-visit statement has already been written: “It was a warm, cordial, constructive meeting between two allies in which issues, regional developments and different views and policies were discussed in detail. Our relations are unshakable, and the president reiterated that Iran will not become a nuclear power on his watch and repeated the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security and qualitative military advantage. The meeting lasted 45 minutes beyond the allotted time and the two had a 15-minute meeting alone at the end. They agreed to be in constant touch and will possibly meet again in September.”
To lay the ground for this to actually happen, Bennett needs to make interdisciplinary preparations: the issues, psychology and atmosphere of the meeting, when to be adamant and when to just listen, the prioritizing of Israeli interests and how and when they’re presented, and to show up with a deep understanding of U.S. interests and an assessment of what Biden’s agenda for the meeting is.
Biden sees this as an important visit on three levels:
1. The strategic level: Iran, China, the Palestinian issue and their relative importance.
2. The political level: Biden wants to convey that this is a new, post-Netanyahu era. He wants the Bennett government to succeed and understands the precariousness of his unnatural, heterogenous governing coalition and the constraints of what it can and can’t do.
3. Public diplomacy: Immersed in a very ambitious and historic domestic agenda, consumed by America’s COVID-vaccination issues and amid a justified but optically bad withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden has a good opportunity to use the visit to show commitment.
In terms of Biden’s agenda, there are three major issues: Iran, China and the Palestinians, with possible forays into Jordan’s stability and America’s policies in the Gulf.
On Iran, the president will present Bennett with two options; the first is a U.S. return to the Iranian nuclear deal under conditions that he realizes Israel has serious reservations about, particularly regarding Iran’s progress in the last 12 months in uranium enrichment, stockpiles and possible “breakout time.” Conversely, there’s the scenario in which the United States concludes that a deal is impossible and further negotiations are futile.
In both cases, Biden will ask Bennett for rhetorical restraint: Forgo a public campaign in Congress against the agreement. He may offer a high-level, U.S.-Israel monitoring-and-consultations mechanism for avoiding unilateral actions.
The president will very likely emphasize Washington’s position that an agreement is better than the absence of one, but that the Americans are cognizant of Iran’s nuclear “threshold state” status and consequently, the United States and Israel should work together on a broader deal on Iran’s menacing nonnuclear issues: the development of precise long-range missiles and the mentoring of terrorism. Iran, the president will say, must be made fully aware of the implications of noncompliance and violations.
On the Palestinian issue, the president won’t present any demand or hint at any “peace process.” None exists and Biden has other priorities and surely wasn’t elected to pursue another Israeli-Palestinian retreat into the woods to craft one. He will, however, press on the importance of the Palestinian Authority’s stability, on necessary confidence-building measures and on avoiding further unilateral step such as more housing permits in West Bank settlements.
Then there’s China. Biden is confident that Israel is well aware of the primacy of China as an emerging rival in U.S. foreign policy. It’s doubtful the president will make specific demands asking Israel to scale down Chinese involvement in infrastructure, but the issue will be raised along the lines of “China is a rival and a challenge. The United States has a China problem, the world has a China problem, so Israel has a China problem.”
Bennett already has a ready answer: “Mr. President, we fully understand your concerns, in the broadest and deepest sense. China is an active player with vast resources and Israel has no interest in alienating China or generating Chinese hostility. However, U.S. interests are already factored in with every decision Israel makes on China.”
From Bennett’s perspective, this meeting is a tone setter. It need not result in tangible policy agreements on everything, it needs a reiteration of America’s recognition of Israel’s deterrent capabilities, based on similar understandings with previous administrations and on establishing a good working relationship with Biden. This is achievable, and Bennett only has to seriously prepare and avoid the casual Israeli “it’ll be fine” attitude, “I’ll read on the plane.”