Biden Gets His Preferred Partner in Israel – at Least Until Election Day

Without saying so explicitly, the Biden administration may be hoping Yair Lapid remains Israel’s prime minister even after November. But that doesn't mean they'll do much to help him

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Washington
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U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in front of Ben Gurion Airport, where they will meet next week.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in front of Ben Gurion Airport, where they will meet next week.Credit: Photos: AFP, JACK GUEZ / AFP, KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Washington

WASHINGTON – When the Biden administration announced the president’s highly anticipated visit to Israel last month, few expected that he would be greeted at Ben Gurion Airport next Wednesday by Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

While it may not have been planned – and while the White House will not want to get bogged down in the swamp of Israeli electoral politics – Biden will be greeted by the Israeli politician with whom his administration has most closely aligned itself, and doubtless hopes will remain Israel’s leader for the duration of his presidency.

The Yesh Atid leader assumed the role of premier last week after his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, stepped down when the Israeli Knesset was dissolved ahead of a November 1 general election. Lapid has developed a strong network with U.S. officials since entering politics a decade ago, having first met Biden when the latter was serving as vice president. He also developed ties with other Obama administration officials who have since taken high-level positions in the Biden administration.

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Perhaps Lapid’s most significant relationship in America is with his senior adviser, Mark Mellman, the longtime pollster and founder of the Democratic Majority for Israel – an organization that seeks to bolster support for Israel within the Democratic Party and has become a formidable force among Washington’s pro-Israel establishment.

Mellman, who enjoys close relations with many senior officials in the Democratic Party, has made a point to separate his domestic political work from his work for Lapid and his centrist party – a separation that will only be further tested in the coming months ahead of both the Israeli election and U.S. midterms, which are on consecutive Tuesdays in November.

Publicly and privately, Lapid stressed the need for rapprochement between the Israeli government and Democratic members of Congress after his “government of change” assumed power last year, following years of a shift toward the Republican Party driven by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

From his time as finance minister, opposition leader and foreign minister, Lapid has met with a significant number of bipartisan U.S. members of Congress. These include Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Cory Booker, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Jan Schakowsky – the latter being one of the more progressive Jewish Democrats in Congress.

Then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaking as he meets with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in Washington last October.Credit: Andrew Harnik / AP

He is also known to be particularly close with outgoing Rep. Ted Deutch, chair of the House subcommittee dealing with the Middle East (Deutch is leaving Congress to run the American Jewish Committee), as well as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. He is also on texting terms with Sen. -Jon Ossoff, the rising Democratic Jewish star quickly becoming a leading voice in Washington on Israeli-Palestinian matters.

While serving as foreign minister over the past year, Lapid notably met with a congressional delegation organized by J Street – the liberal, pro-Israel organization effectively boycotted by Netanyahu and then-ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. Netanyahu slammed J Street last year as a “radical leftist U.S. organization” that was rooting for his ouster due to its support for the Iran nuclear deal.

Lapid met with several key Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Rosa DeLauro (the House Appropriations Committee chairwoman who was a key figure in passing a stand-alone bill granting Israel $1 billion in emergency funding for its Iron Dome missile defense system) and Barbara Lee (the chairwoman of the House subcommittee on foreign operations).

He also met with Reps. Mark Pocan and Jamaal Bowman, two of the more vocal pro-Palestinian advocates in Congress. His approach to meeting with lawmakers willing to criticize Israel stood in stark contrast to the approach of his predecessor (Netanyahu served as foreign as well as prime minister). This extends to other relationships he maintains in Washington, including with progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Lapid also enjoys strong relations with Republicans such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Tom Cotton. He also met with visiting Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall, in his first meeting with a U.S. lawmaker since becoming premier.

Lapid’s bipartisanship also extends to Washington’s think tank scene, including with organizations like the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, center-left Brookings Institution and center-right Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Similar vision

After becoming foreign minster, Lapid, 58, was the Israeli government’s de facto point person for the Biden administration, developing a particularly close working and personal relationship with his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

From the moment Bennett and Lapid began negotiations to form their unprecedented governing coalition, both Blinken and the Biden administration telegraphed their interest in Lapid – including holding off-the-official-agenda meetings with him in Jerusalem during Blinken’s first visit last year.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, May 2021.Credit: מתי שטרן / שגרירות

The two shared a number of in-person meetings, including during Blinken’s visit after the Gaza war in May 2021, and subsequently in Rome, Washington, Riga and Sde Boker at the Negev Summit. They also speak by phone regularly.

Blinken and Lapid are known to share a similar vision on policy and the best paths forward. The Negev Summit arguably reflects this best, with both officials going full bore on centering their Middle East policies on normalization efforts. Beyond this, the two have focused on developing the so-called I2U2 alliance between the United States, Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates, and strengthening ties in the Eastern Mediterranean between Cyprus, Greece and Israel.

While the Blinken-Lapid relationship is the most notable example of strong ties between U.S. and Israeli officials, Lapid is not the only Israeli to enjoy a solid working relationship with an American colleague.

While Biden sought to praise and publicly affirm then-Prime Minister Bennett’s leadership, it was often filtered through the Lapid-Blinken cooperation, not to mention coordination between national security advisers Jake Sullivan and Eyal Hulata, ambassadors Mike Herzog and Tom Nides, and former Bennett diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir and her U.S. counterparts.

Now that Blinken is no longer his counterpart, both Israeli and U.S. officials will endeavor to further establish a relationship between Lapid and Biden – a bond U.S. officials will undoubtedly want to promote without seeming like they are explicitly tipping the scales in his favor over those of political rival Netanyahu.

After dealing with Netanyahu for the first several months of its administration (as well as many current U.S. officials having spent years navigating the contentious Obama-Netanyahu relationship), U.S. officials are hyperaware of the different worldviews and communication approaches Lapid and Netanyahu respectively bring to the table.

This is perhaps most notable in disagreements between Lapid and the United States, specifically concerning the Iran nuclear deal and the reopening of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. Differences were voiced both publicly and privately, but in a constructive manner that did not spark international crises.

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