WASHINGTON (AP) – Their countries at a crossroads, the new leaders of the United States and Israel have inherited a relationship that is both threatened by increasingly partisan internal political considerations and deeply tied to history and a deep-rooted recognition that they are they need each other.
How President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett Managing that relationship will shape the prospects for peace and stability in the Middle East.
They are ushering in an era that is no longer defined by the powerful personality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu, who repeatedly challenged the Obama administration and then reaped the rewards of a warm relationship with President Donald Trump.
The Bennett administration says it wants to repair relations with Democrats and restore bipartisan support in the United States for Israel. Biden, meanwhile, is pursuing a more balanced approach to the Palestinian conflict other Iran.
The relationship is essential for both countries. Israel has long viewed the United States as its closest ally and guarantor of its security and international standing, while the United States relies on Israel’s military and intelligence prowess in a turbulent Middle East.
But both Biden and Bennett are also constrained by domestic politics.
Bennett leads an uncertain coalition of eight parties from across Israel’s political spectrum whose main convergence point was removing Netanyahu from power after 12 years. Biden is struggling to close the gap in his party, where almost uniform support for Israel has eroded and a progressive wing wants the United States to do more to end Israel’s half-century occupation of land than the Palestinians. they want for a future state.
Shortly after taking office, the new Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recognized the challenges facing Israel in Washington.
“We find a White House, a Senate and a House Democrats and they are angry,” Lapid said upon taking over the Israeli Foreign Ministry a week ago. “We need to change the way we work with them.”
A key test will be in Iran. Biden has tried to revert to the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama saw as a signature foreign policy achievement. Trump withdrew from the pact to the applause of pro-Israel and pro-Israel US lawmakers. Although Iran has yet to accept Biden’s offer for direct negotiations, indirect discussions on the nuclear deal are now in a sixth round in Vienna.
The new Israeli government remains staunchly opposed to Biden’s efforts to resuscitate the agreement. But he maintains that he will discuss the issue behind closed doors rather than stage public confrontations, such as Netanyahu’s controversial speech in which he criticized the agreement before the US Congress in 2015.
In a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, Lapid said the two agreed on a policy of “no surprises” and keeping the lines of communication open.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, says that instead of trying to thwart any deal with Iran, the new government will pressure the US administration to maintain some sanctions against Iran and seek a “strategic trade-off”. “For Israel as part of any return to the deal.
Resolving differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be another major challenge for the two leaders.
Biden has already moved to reverse Trump’s Netanyahu-backed policies that alienated Palestinians and caused a near-total breakdown in official US-Palestinian contacts. Almost immediately after taking office, Biden restored US assistance to the Palestinians cut by Trump, which in just four months totals more than $ 300 million. He announced his administration’s intention to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, closed by Trump, which handled relations with the Palestinians. And administration officials have spoken of the imperative that Israelis and Palestinians enjoy the same security and prosperity measures.
However, neither Biden nor Blinken have signaled any moves to alter Trump’s most important pro-Israel steps. These include its abandonment of the long-standing US policy that settlements are illegitimate under international law, its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory seized from Syria in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. The administration also hopes to expand the Arab-Israeli normalization agreements that the Trump administration forged in his final months in office.
In a call on Bennett’s first day in office, Biden affirmed his “strong support for the US-Israel relationship” and “unwavering commitment to the security of Israel.” He vowed to work together on all security matters, including Iran.
Biden’s support for Israel’s heavy airstrikes during last month’s war with militant Hamas rulers in Gaza, which fired thousands of rockets at Israel, angered progressive Democrats in Congress. With a new strength in the numbers, they are demanding that the administration do more to support the Palestinians and that conditions be set for the enormous amount of military aid that the United States provides to Israel.
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While well-established Democratic lawmakers continue to tirelessly support Israel and its absolute right to defend itself, the growing number of progressive voices in their group have made the issue a hot political potato. The change in the government of Israel is unlikely to ease their calls to action as Israeli-Palestinian violence has continued In recent days.
However, the Biden administration has already urged the new Israeli government to ease tensions with the Palestinians. In two phone conversations with Lapid over the past week, Blinken has spoken of “the need to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations in practical ways” and vowed to deepen Israeli-Arab ties.
It is unclear if the new government will respond.
Centrist members like Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz clearly want to take a more cooperative approach with the Biden administration, while Bennett and his right-wing partners face pressure from their base to maintain Netanyahu’s hard-line approach, not just in Iran but in the conflict with the Palestinians.
The former prime minister, who is already thinking about returning to office, has called Bennett weak and inexperienced, and will likely pounce on any perceived capitulation.
The Israeli government is already faced with tough decisions, such as whether to evacuate an unauthorized settlement established last month and whether to intervene in the legal process through which settler organizations are trying to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in the east of Jerusalem.
The Biden administration is pressing Israel to refrain from taking unilateral measures, such as settlement expansion or evictions, that could hamper the eventual revival of the peace process, which has been moribund for more than a decade. But Washington has yet to issue public condemnations of the settlement activity beyond blanket calls for both sides to refrain from taking unilateral measures that could inflame tensions or damage prospects for an eventual peace deal.
Bennett is a staunch supporter of settlements and opposes the Palestinian state, but is also seen by many as a pragmatist. He may be able to turn his weakness into a strength, arguing that any major concessions, to the Palestinians or the settlers, risk toppling the government and returning Netanyahu to power.
“The forces that brought this coalition to power are strong enough in my judgment to sustain pressure from the right and probably also US pressure to make a major policy shift toward the Palestinians,” Gilboa said.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem.