Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has promised change and a new spirit, but en route to Washington, he stuck to the tradition that his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, practiced over many years – talking a lot about Iran and remaining silent when it comes to the Palestinians.
Perhaps he hopes that his host, President Joe Biden, hasn’t heard about them. At their White House meeting on Thursday, Bennett may try to run out the clock talking about Iran until Biden has no time left to talk about the occupation, the settlements in the West Bank or about Gaza, where tensions are rising.
Bennett could benefit from Biden’s political troubles following his dismal withdrawal from Afghanistan. At this point, Biden is in dire need of a friendly photo-op with a middle-eastern leader whose country still counts on America, and he won’t spoil the party by raising controversial issues.
I read the short remarks Bennett gave upon boarding his flight for Washington in which he enumerated the subjects to be discussed in his meeting with Biden: Iran, Iran, Iran, Israeli military superiority, the economy, high-tech, innovation, the climate crisis “and of course, the coronavirus” and the fight against the delta variant. What a wonderful grocery list.
But any head of state coming to Washington could have that list in their pocket. Everyone is concerned about the Iranian nuclear program and the delta variant; everyone wants a flourishing economy, effective vaccines, and flashy American arms.
What sets Israel apart is its main security and diplomatic problem, the occupation of the Palestinian people. With control over people and land comes the constant danger of a third intifada, another Israeli military operation in Gaza or a confrontation on Israel’s northern border. From the day it was granted independence, and even before that, relations with the Palestinians have been the central topic on the agenda of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. And since 1948, every American president and administration has acted in accordance with Israel’s stance without exception.
Even as they grumbled about the settlements or sought to restrain the Israeli army in Lebanon or Gaza or mediated the peace process, the Americans have never made a clear demand to end the occupation. No American administration has asked Israel to dismantle the settlements or grant the Palestinian refugees from 1948 the “right of return” – issues which are the foundation of the Arab stance on the conflict.
Despite the wide-ranging support of the international community to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state, the American veto in the UN Security Council has impeded any plan for international pressure or sanctions against Israel aimed at changing Israeli policy.
So far, Biden has shown no signs of deviating from this tradition and challenging Bennett on issues like settled territories and the occupation. While the left flank of the Democratic Party strongly opposes military aid to Israel, the occupation and the settlements, its influence on administration policy is minimal. It’s doubtful whether these voices will penetrate the White House in the near future.
Bennett hopes that Biden will address the issue for the record about the need to resolve the conflict without making any outlandish demands like calling for a settlement freeze or reopening the American consulate in Jerusalem – essentially the American embassy to the Palestinians
Bennett is ignoring the Palestinians knowing any move on his part on this sensitive subject could unravel his fragile coalition government. In his debut interview with the New York Times, the new prime minister presented the traditional ‘three noes’ policy of his predecessor: no to annexation, no to withdrawal and no to a diplomatic process – and one yes, to “natural growth” in the settlements.
Toeing around the painful issue and not making any actual changes is the only way Bennett can keep the likes of right-winger Zeev Elkin and left-winger Tamar Zandberg, or Ayelet Shaked and Mansour Abbas, around the same coalition table.
It’s no surprise then that Bennett’s interviewers at the New York Times got the impression that the new Israeli PM was showing a lot more interest in technocratic and bureaucratic issues such as a third vaccination campaign. In the process, Iran has remained at the top of the talking points, as it was during the Netanyahu era.
Bennett understands that Iran can be the target everyone in his coalition can get behind, while the Iranians have grown accustomed to Israeli leaders’ passionate rhetoric against them and don’t get particularly defensive about it. Biden will play his part in the act, declaring his strong commitment to Israel’s security and the continued hope that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will accede to renewing the international nuclear agreement rather than sowing tensions in the Gulf.
The important thing is that Bennett can safely return to a coalition government that is still standing and relish the thought of Netanyahu looking on from the sidelines (which are apparently in Hawaii where his is currently on vacation) as his political rival is welcomed to the Oval Office.