When Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets US President Joe Biden next week in the Oval Office, comparisons will inevitably be made between that meeting and the first meeting of Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, with then-president Barack Obama.
In both cases a new Israeli premier met a new American president, and a right-wing Israeli leader met a Democratic American one.
But in comparing the two meetings – the Netanyahu-Obama meeting did not go well, while the Bennett-Biden one is expected to go swimmingly – one important point is worth keeping in mind: Obama wanted to topple the Netanyahu government, while Biden is keen on the Bennett- Lapid government staying in power.
And that fact will go a long way in shaping the meeting’s atmosphere.
When Netanyahu met Obama on May 18, 2009, he had actually lost the election a few months earlier to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni by one seat, but succeeded – where Livni failed – in forming a government. Nevertheless, Kadima operatives were whispering to the Obama administration – one where Rahm Emanuel was the chief of staff – that the new government could fall in a matter of months.
Emanuel was a key personality in the equation – a veteran of battles Netanyahu had with Bill Clinton over a decade earlier. And during those battles, whenever there was a fight between the Clinton administration and Netanyahu, Netanyahu lost because either he would compromise his positions – remember the Wye River Memorandum and Hebron Protocol – or if he fought with the president, it would be negative for him in terms of Israeli public opinion, which adored Clinton.
That was the same attitude Emanuel took in preparing Obama for that first meeting: Be tough with Netanyahu and either he is going to fold, or if he has a crisis with the US administration, it will be bad for him politically and his government will collapse.
So Obama ambushed Netanyahu with a demand in the public part of the meeting for a complete settlement freeze, and during the private meeting went so far as also to demand a freeze on building in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. One other factor to keep in mind was that in 2009 the administration came into power believing that with a little more nudging, pushing and cajoling, an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be brokered.
Netanyahu and Obama at the White House with entourages (370GPO / Kobi Gideon).Netanyahu and Obama at the White House with entourages (370GPO / Kobi Gideon).
When Bennett meets Biden, neither of those factors will be in play.
First, rather than wanting this government to fall, the Biden administration wants to ensure that it remains in power. Though ideologically Bennett may not be this administration’s cup of tea, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is to replace Bennett in two years, very much is, and the administration has an interest in ensuring that he gets his shot at the reins of power.
As such it is unlikely that the US will publicly pressure Bennett on the Palestinian issue, beyond making pro forma comments about support for a two-state solution and the need to refrain from actions – such as settlement building – that could make reaching that goal more difficult.
Biden will also likely refrain from pushing too hard publicly on the settlements, knowing that it could endanger the government – the two sides might even reach some informal agreement about a semi-freeze or the type of arrangements that Ariel Sharon reached with George W. Bush regarding areas where settlement construction would be acceptable to the Americans.
While Obama had an interest in making things difficult for Netanyahu, Biden has no similar interest in making things tough for Bennett.
Secondly, unlike the case in 2009, no one in Washington really believes that a deal with the Palestinians is just around the corner – and the recent developments in Afghanistan surely have officials in Washington realizing that this is not the time to ask Israelis to take security risks based on assurances of US support.
More active US efforts on the Palestinian track may still come, but they will likely wait until Lapid takes over, someone Washington believes may be more amenable than Bennett to moving the process forward.
That being said, Biden is likely to ask Bennett for some gestures toward the Palestinians, including opening a US consulate in Jerusalem that will serve the Palestinians. Aware of the sensitivity of this issue and the possibility that this could rock the government, the administration has put off the issue until after the budget is passed in November and the government is on more solid footing.
But the Biden administration has made informal commitments to the Palestinians about re-opening the consulate, and may expect Bennett to give them this, even though this move is full of the type of symbolism that Bennett would have fought tooth and nail against were he still in the opposition.
There is no other capital in the world where the US has both an embassy and a consulate and putting one in Jerusalem signals to the Palestinians that the US recognizes their right to a capital in the city as well.
Having a consulate in the city before the US moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv was one thing, having a consulate there when there is already an embassy is something different altogether and sends a completely different message.
If the consulate is to serve consular purposes, such as issuing visas, it would make more sense to put it in a Palestinian population center like Ramallah. Putting it in Jerusalem is a political statement to the Palestinians that someday they will have their capital there.
While the Palestinian issue will certainly be a central part of the discussions, it is telling that Bennett did not mention it in the statement his office put out on Wednesday announcing his trip to the US, while the Americans did. One topic that both sides said would be discussed, however, is Iran.
And here the Americans have a clear goal: to neutralize any public Israeli opposition to re-entering a nuclear deal with the Iranians. It is by no means clear, because of the continued Iranian resistance, whether there will be a new agreement with Iran, but the Biden administration’s interest is to be able to get into such a deal with only minimal public resistance from Israel.
Why? Because if Bennett would publicly fight the deal – in the same way that Netanyahu did – that would create internal opposition to the deal inside the US. If there is no public Israel opposition, however, the Biden administration can tell Republicans who are sure to line up against it, and even those opposed in the Democratic party, “Why are you opposed, even Israel is talking to us quietly about what is needed to make the deal work.”
So this is emerging as the biggest question mark over the visit: what will Bennett say publicly about the deal? Will he publicly come out forcefully against it, something that could impact the level of US domestic opposition? Or, in the interest of keeping conflicts with the president to a minimum and trying to show that he can overcome a partisan divide over Israel and work hand-in-hand with a Democratic administration, will he make only innocuous comments on the deal, saying that Israel has “grave concerns” and are sharing those “with our American friends.”