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What Bennett Thinks About 'The Squad' vs. Iron Dome

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, earlier this month.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, earlier this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

After hours of feverish discussions in Washington, a bypass solution is looming. A group of members of the House of Representatives from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party succeeded in delaying, for two days, the approval process for special U.S. defense aid of $1 billion to Israel to replenish the stock of missiles for the Iron Dome system. But in the predawn hours of Thursday (Israeli time), the party’s leadership promoted an alternative proposal, which restored the deliberations on the issue to the main platform: a stand-alone bill in the House which enjoyed bipartisan support.

The progressives cited technical grounds to scuttle approval of the Israeli request, which was submitted in the wake of the massive use of Iron Dome in Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip last May. They objected to the attempt to transmit the aid within the framework of bills for expenditures on unrelated maters. But their actions flew in the face of a promise by President Joe Biden, in his meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last month in the White House, to transfer the funds.

The defense establishment in Israel was apprehensive about a possible maneuver to block the funds, as Haaretz reported three weeks ago. That possibility also came up in talks between Jerusalem and Washington in diplomatic channels lately, but the administration reassured Israel that there was no real danger. Still, the successful delay this week, even if short-lived, dramatized the rift in the Democratic Party over Israel and the continuing shift in the American left toward distinctly anti-Israel positions.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attributed the hitch to the scorched earth left by the previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – who did indeed demolish Israel’s relations with the Democrats. Another argument that was emphasized in Israel is that Iron Dome is primarily a defensive weapon, which indirectly also saved many Palestinian lives. (The reduction in Israeli losses relieved the pressure on Netanyahu’s governments to send ground forces into Gaza and thereby obviated the killing of Palestinian civilians there.)

Bennett’s take on the issue is somewhat different. He believes that what we’re seeing is a combination of circumstances which, due to the almost equal balance of forces between Democrats and Republicans, left a modicum of political clout in the hands of a small, extreme group of anti-Israeli legislators in Congress. In his view, this is a group that is not amenable to persuasion, irrespective of the residue left by Netanyahu. Furthermore, the coming requests will deal with offensive munitions, so in any case Israel will not be able to hide forever behind a theory of Iron Dome as a defensive weapon.

For Israel, the funds for Iron Dome are the smaller problem exposed by this week's events in Washington Credit: ANAS BABA / AFP

The behind-the-scenes talks in Congress provided renewed proof of the power of AIPAC. In recent years Netanyahu projected reduced interest in the pro-Israel lobby, in part because of his feeling that he enjoyed direct influence on President Donald Trump. Bennett is adopting the opposite approach, and made sure to meet with the heads of the lobby in Washington.

The prime minister will arrive in the United States again next Sunday for a lightning visit that will be largely devoted to his first speech in the United Nations General Assembly. Bennett will try to set himself apart from the gimmick-laden speeches of his predecessor. When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week quoted Kermit the Frog from “The Muppets” in his UN address, the British press responded disdainfully and likened him to leaders who are fond of stunts, “like Netanyahu and Muammar Gadhafi.” Bennett’s speech will mention the Iranian nuclear threat, but its primary focus is expected to be Israel’s international standing.

Still, the nuclear threat will be looming in the background of the UN visit, given the emerging likelihood that the talks between Iran and the world powers will resume, apparently within several weeks. Israel will not divert the Biden administration from its path. The moment the Iranians announce officially that they are returning to the talks on a new agreement, the Americans are expected to join. Israel’s concern is focused on the progress the Iranians have made in the nuclear project over the past year, amid a significant acceleration of uranium enrichment. When the sides return to the negotiating table, it will gradually become clear that Tehran is nearing the manufacture of a nuclear bomb.

Following Bennett’s return from New York, he will have to make a critical decision on the domestic front. The crime that’s raging among the country’s Arab population (89 murders since the beginning of the year, as of Wednesday) is ratcheting up the pressure on the government to involve the Shin Bet security service in activity against the Arab crime organizations. The service’s outgoing chief, Nadav Argaman, objected to the idea. His designated successor, R. (whose name cannot be published until he assumes the top post), will take over next month, and his view isn’t yet known. Bennett, along with some of the ministers who are dealing with this issue, consider it a national challenge that the government needs to address with drastic measures.

The Shin Bet is concerned over the demand that the organization deal with Israeli civilians on matters that are not saliently security-related. At the moment, there are no signs that the actions taken by the government and police are helping in any way to stymie the surging crime, or to uncover the vast stocks of weapons in Arab locales. The violent clashes in the mixed Jewish-Arab cities during Operation Guardian of the Walls was a reminder that the problem could also have implications beyond the boundaries of the Arab public.

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