As Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett enjoys his first White House visit with U.S. President Joe Biden this week, there are pressing issues that must be discussed between the two leaders. This visit isn’t just a standard State visit between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. The Biden-Bennett meeting is the first visit of these two men as leaders of their respective countries.
Like any healthy relationship, the U.S.-Israel relationship is strong but beset with trauma. The Trump-Netanyahu years were some of the strongest of the U.S.-Israel relationship, but it also disturbed many in both governments. Prime Minister Bennett and President Biden will have to work hard to both assuage those troubled by the Trump-Netanyahu relationship as well as assure those who treasured the Trump-Netanyahu relationship.
Prime Minister Bennett should begin by thanking President Biden for fifty years of supporting a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. President Biden describes himself as a Zionist and he had an impeccable record supporting Israel in the Senate. Since becoming president, Biden supported Israel in its recent conflict with Hamas and hasn’t publicly criticized Israel, even through two Israeli announcements of building over the green line. President Biden hasn’t capitulated in signing an Iran deal, and Bennett should thank him for his steadfastness.
President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett need to strengthen the relationship between their two countries. America needs a strong relationship with an ally in the Middle East and Israel’s new government needs to show it can improve on the last government’s record with America. Both leaders need to strengthen the bipartisan support of the U.S.-Israel relationship in Israel and the United States. Prime Minister Bennett needs to assure his base that President Biden isn’t Obama II and President Biden needs to show Democrats that Prime Minister Bennett isn’t Netanyahu II. Both leaders must improve on U.S. aid to Israel and expand the Abraham Accords. These will be two public and robust demonstrations of these leaders working together.
Iran is the top issue on both leaders’ foreign policy agenda. President Biden needs to assure Prime Minister Bennett he considers Israel’s safety a factor in his Iran policy and ensure that Israel doesn’t launch an attack on Iran. Prime Minister Bennett needs to ensure America doesn’t let up on Iranian sanctions and doesn’t sign a weak deal. Both leaders need to be on the same page and trust each other. They both need to walk step in step with each other.
President Biden wants to improve the Palestinians’ situation. While many view the Biden demands for a stronger Palestinian situation as a pressure point against Israel, it can be an opportunity for Prime Minister Bennett. By announcing thousands of building permits in area C (the area under Israeli control), Bennett can head off more severe American demands. In turn, Israel can request America not open its consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, put a deadline on U.S.-Palestinian growing diplomacy if “pay to slay” isn’t ended, and stop American funding of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) until it stops hosting Hamas tunnels and rockets in Gaza and teaching anti-Semitism in its schools.
Development of Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria (what the world calls “settlements in the West Bank”) has the potential of becoming a sticking point. President Biden has maintained settlements are an impediment to peace between Israel and the Palestinians during his entire career. Prime Minister Bennett strongly believes in Israel’s right to govern and develop Judea and Samaria, and he must grow those towns to save any political future he hopes to sustain. Bennett must convince Biden that the old days of demanding settlement freezes are over. Biden must compromise and allow building – at least in the towns called “settlement blocks” that Israel expects to keep in any deal.
There are promising signs compromise can be reached on this issue. Israel has announced building permits twice and President Biden hasn’t criticized either announcement. Allowing Palestinian building along with each Israeli building announcement can be the compromise both leaders need on this issue.
I don’t believe Prime Minister Bennett or President Biden have any dreams of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during their time in office. President Biden has repeated he doesn’t want either side taking unilateral steps that put a two-state solution at risk of collapsing. I don’t imagine the president pressuring the prime minister into making concession to get negotiations started.
I am an optimist by nature and a strong believer in the perpetuity of the U.S.-Israel relationship. The relationship between these nations has always been strong, even when suffering through conflicts and misunderstandings. President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett are both strong advocates of the relationship between their nations. Their backing should create a strong rapport between them and their administrations.