First meetings between an American president and an Israeli prime minister are tone-setters. No more, no less.
They are not meant, designed or expected to iron out differences, conclusively engage in divergent interests or controversial issues, or produce dramatic results. What they are intended to achieve is the launching of a working, trustful, credibility-based relationship. As such, the first meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett accomplished exactly that.
Ahead of a first meeting with then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Shimon Peres once told me, “there will be plenty of time and opportunities to disagree and play politics. The only thing that matters here is to build trust, to display alacrity, state our positions but with utmost sensitivity to how the Americans perceive things.” While it may be premature to deeply assess Friday’s meeting, it seems that Bennett succeeded in doing just that.
There was a case to be made that given the gravity of the issues, particularly Iran, Bennett should have proposed postponing the meeting by a few days or weeks, in the wake of the Kabul attack which consumed the full attention of the White House. But all that is water under Memorial Bridge now.
A heavily distracted Biden, focused on Afghanistan, COVID-19 and China, met a new Israeli prime minister who heads a heterogeneous, diverse and fledgling government, haunted by his predecessor.
The agenda was rich: Iran, the possibly U.S. reentry to the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal), the Palestinian issue, the pandemic and vaccine policy, climate change and China. It appears that all the boxes were ticked.
All the predictable issues were raised, statements were stated, grandiose proclamations were proclaimed, slogans uttered and clichés floated in the room including a “new page” in the U.S.-Israel relationship; America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and “Qualitative Military Edge” (QME); the common dangers and cooperation against radical Islamist terror; the need for peace and security for Israel and the Palestinians; COVID-19 and a visa waiver for Israelis entering the United States.
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That all items were covered and that all the one-liners were used is a testament to the visit’s success. In fact, the statements summing up the talks could have been made by a president hosting any of the previous four prime ministers in the last 20 years: Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu. That was exactly the image that Naftali Bennett wanted to project.
On Iran, Biden made two significant statements. The first, in respect to the JCPOA, was that if diplomacy failed, other options and paths will be examined and considered. A delighted Bennett reiterated it. The second was that “Iran will not have nuclear weapons,” a variation on his predecessors’ pledge that “Iran will not become a nuclear power on my watch.”
As for the first statement, anyone following the rationale and paradigm-shift underlining the Afghanistan withdrawal, understands that the U.S. will not seek a new military adventure against Iran anytime soon. However, in the absence of an agreement and if Iran makes defiant and provocative advances in its nuclear project, Biden may be reluctantly sucked into the Middle East again.
The second statement is more problematic from Israel’s perspective. “Iran will not have a nuclear weapon” implies that Iran may be acceptable as a “threshold state,” i.e, possessing the knowledge, technology, components and enriched uranium, but stopping short of actual production.
Such a development necessitates several more meetings and the establishment of a high-level U.S.-Israeli consultation mechanism that will set benchmarks for Iran’s progress and weigh the options and responses.
The fact that Biden was distracted by events in Afghanistan may have spared Bennett some uncomfortable questions regarding the Palestinians. The last thing on Biden’s foreign policy agenda is re-engaging in the endless amusement park called “The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process.” He also knows that Israel’s prime priority is Iran. Which is why Bennett’s declaration in a New York Times interview ahead of the visit that Israel “will not establish a Palestinian state” struck the administration as oddly untimely. How, they wondered, does that statement serve the Iran-first imperative? What was the objective of such a statement, detached from any conceivable contemporary agenda?
Israel is a signatory to several agreements that include the idea of a future Palestinian state. The Oslo Accords, The 2004 “Road Map,” Netanyahu’s “Bar-Ilan” speech in 2009, The 2020 Abraham Accords all refer to a Palestinian state on some level and to Israel’s commitment, in principle and with conditions, to its establishment. Is Bennett reneging on Israel’s commitments?
The questionable feasibility and viability of a Palestinian state is beside the point.
Third, the issue is not on the agenda. In fact, it’s not on any agenda at this point in time. So why raise it? Where’s the diplomatic prudence? It’s not as if, some individuals in the administration remarked, anyone expects Bennett to announce a Palestinian state. Far from it.
Fourth, it compels Biden to reply and ask for clarifications and reassert America’s vision of the “two states” model.
Finally, it forces the Palestinians to react and express their dismay. They heard about Bennett’s “shrinking the conflict” by economic investment and constricting the Israeli-Palestinian interface, so why preempt it by such a declaration?
The main issue, Iran, was obviously discussed in the private, tête-à-tête meeting. They likely discussed the two possible outcomes: An agreement for the U.S. to reenter the JCPOA or no agreement, based on an American estimate that Iran isn’t seriously interested in an agreement and prefers futile negotiations that will allow it to consolidate its “threshold state” status.
As for the core purpose of the meeting, establishing a relationship, in that it seems to have already succeeded.