New leaders, new era: US-Israel relations reach crossroads

WASHINGTON — Their countries at crossroads, the new leaders of the United States and Israel have inherited a relationship that is at once imperiled by increasingly partisan domestic political considerations and deeply bound in history and an engrained recognition that they need each other.

How President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett manage that relationship will shape the prospects for peace and stability in the Middle East.

They are ushering in an era no longer defined by the powerful personality of long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu, who repeatedly defied the Obama administration and then reaped the rewards of a warm relationship with President Donald Trump.

Bennett’s government says it wants to repair relations with the Democrats and restore bipartisan support in the U.S. for Israel. Biden, meanwhile, is pursuing a more balanced approach on the Palestinian conflict and Iran.

The relationship is critical to both countries. Israel has long regarded the United States as its closest ally and guarantor of its security and international standing while the U.S. counts on Israel’s military and intelligence prowess in a turbulent Middle East.

But both Biden and Bennett are also restrained by domestic politics.

Bennett leads an uncertain coalition of eight parties from across Israel’s political spectrum whose main point of convergence was on removing Netanyahu from power after 12 years. Biden is struggling to bridge a divide in his party where near-uniform support for Israel has eroded and a progressive wing wants the U.S. to do more to end Israel’s half-century occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.

Shortly after taking office, the new Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, recognized the challenges Israel faces in Washington.

“We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate and House and they are angry,” Lapid said upon taking the helm at Israel’s foreign ministry a week ago. “We need to change the way we work with them.”

A key test will be on Iran. Biden has sought to return to the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama saw as a signature foreign policy achievement. Trump withdrew from the pact to cheers from pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers and Israel. Though Iran has not yet accepted 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 resurrect the deal. But it maintains it will discuss the issue behind closed doors rather than staging public confrontations, such as Netanyahu’s controversial address slamming the agreement to the U.S. Congress in 2015.

In a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, Lapid said the two agreed on a “no surprises” policy and to keep lines of communication open.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, says that rather than trying to scuttle any agreement with Iran, the new government will press the U.S. administration to keep some sanctions on Iran in place and seek “strategic compensation” for Israel as part of any return to the deal.

Resolving differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be another significant challenge for the two leaders.

Biden has already moved to reverse Netanyahu-backed Trump policies that alienated the Palestinians and caused a near total rupture in official U.S.-Palestinian contacts. Almost immediately after taking office, Biden restored Trump-slashed U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, which in just four months totals more than $300 million. He announced his administration’s intent to re-open the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, closed by Trump, that handled relations with the Palestinians. And, administration officials have spoken of the imperative that Israelis and Palestinians enjoy equal measures of security and prosperity.

Yet, neither Biden nor Blinken has signaled any move to alter Trump’s most significant pro-Israel steps. Those include his abandonment of longstanding U.S. policy that settlements are illegitimate under international law, his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The administration also hopes to expand Arab-Israeli normalization agreements that the Trump administration forged in its final months in office.

In a call on Bennett’s first day in office, Biden affirmed his “steadfast support for the U.S.-Israel relationship” and “unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.” He pledged to work together on all security matters, including Iran.

Biden’s support for Israel’s heavy airstrikes during last month’s war with Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers, who fired thousands of rockets at Israel, angered progressive Democrats in Congress. With newfound strength in numbers, they are demanding that the administration do more to support the Palestinians and that conditions be placed on the massive amount of military aid the U.S. provides Israel.

While well-established Democratic lawmakers remain unstintingly supportive of Israel and its absolute right to defend itself, the growing number of progressive voices in their caucus have turned the issue into a political hot potato. The change in Israel’s government is unlikely to ease their calls for action as Israeli-Palestinian violence has continued in recent days.

Yet, the Biden administration has already urged the new Israeli government to ease tensions with the Palestinians. In two phone conversations with Lapid over the last week, Blinken has spoken of “the need to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations in practical ways” and pledged to deepen Arab-Israeli ties.

It’s not clear that the new government will be responsive.

Centrist members like Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz clearly want to adopt a more cooperative approach with the Biden administration, while Bennett and his right-wing partners face pressure from their base to maintain Netanyahu’s hardline approach, not only on Iran but on the conflict with the Palestinians.

The former prime minister, already eyeing a return to office, has branded Bennett as weak and inexperienced, and will probably pounce on any perceived capitulations.

The Israeli government already faces tough decisions, including whether to evacuate an unauthorized settlement outpost 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 east Jerusalem.

The Biden administration is pressing Israel to refrain from any unilateral steps — such as settlement expansion or evictions — that could hinder 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 settlement activity beyond general calls for both sides to refrain from unilateral steps that could inflame tensions or harm prospects for an eventual peace deal.

Bennett is a strong supporter of the settlements and is opposed to Palestinian statehood, but he is also seen by many as a pragmatist. He may be able to turn his weakness into a strength, arguing that any major concession — to the Palestinians or the settlers — risks bringing down the government and returning Netanyahu to power.

“The forces that brought this coalition to power are strong enough in my judgment to sustain the pressure from the right and probably also American pressure to make a major change in the policies toward the Palestinians,” Gilboa said.

Krauss reported from Jerusalem.