By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
In a matter of just a few months, the political landscapes in both the US and Israel have changed dramatically. This new reality is intriguing for both domestic and international reasons and is expected to leave its mark on US-Israel relations. With President Joe Biden in the White House and a new, if somewhat fragile, government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett installed in Israel, these special relations are not expected to change dramatically, but they will be tested on significant issues that the two don’t see eye to eye on — Iran and the Palestinians in particular. For Biden, a more critical view of Israel in Congress, especially among the president’s own Democratic Party, his elected officials and supporters, is gathering momentum to an extent that it will soon be impossible to ignore.
In the immediate future, a serious test of relations between the two governments is inevitable and will revolve around whether Washington decides to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran and, if it does, under what conditions. Bennett’s predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu presented probably the most ardent and uncompromising opposition to the 2015 nuclear agreement signed by the P5+1. He made this issue his life mission, first to prevent it from seeing the light of day, at which he failed, and then, once it was signed, to obsessively tell the world how dangerous it was not only for Israel, but also for the entire region and for world peace.
In his book “A Promised Land,” former US President Barack Obama, in what was both an observation and a lament, wrote that Netanyahu, because he saw himself as the defender of the Jewish people against catastrophe and was also a gifted communicator familiar with American politics and media, was certain he could resist any pressure from the Obama administration, and make him pay a price if he could not. On no other issue was this more in evidence than the JCPOA. Under a different administration and circumstances, his relentless efforts paid off when the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
There is a major discrepancy between the new administrations in Washington and Tel Aviv in terms of experience on the world stage. There is now little experience of high-level diplomatic negotiations among Israel’s top decision-makers, while there is plenty of it in the Biden administration. Moreover, both governments are suffering from compulsive heckling from their predecessors. The difference here is that, while international issues are of less concern to Trump, who is still consumed by his loss of the presidential election and in any case no longer has any formal political role, Netanyahu’s raison d’etre and aspiration to political relevance, on the other hand, remains stopping Iran. As leader of the opposition in the Knesset, he daily reminds the budding government that it doesn’t match up to him on this or any other issue. This is bound to affect, if not the decision-making, at least the rhetoric in relation to Iran. Interestingly enough, similarly to his predecessor, Bennett is no stranger to the ins and outs of American politics and society, as the son of American parents who spent some of his formative years in the US and later in New York built an impressive career in the tech industry.
Despite Bennett’s experience of the US and his ideology, which is more hard-line than that of the previous government, especially on relations with the Palestinians, there was a general sense of relief in Washington at being able to at long last welcome a new Israeli government, particularly one in which Netanyahu plays no part. Biden was quick to congratulate Bennett and new Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, reiterating his commitment to strengthening “all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations.”
Despite Tehran dragging its feet on negotiations over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, and the election of the hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi in place of the pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, this potential area of friction between the US and Israel may yet be avoided. Iran might play hardball, but it desperately needs to see the sanctions eased. Holding to the fact that it was Washington that withdrew from the agreement in the first place has very little traction with the Biden administration, which is more interested in constructive negotiations and reaching an agreement than in posturing. It won’t be held to ransom, whatever the rights or wrongs committed by a previous administration.
The new Israeli government, for both strategic and domestic reasons, has already set a very hawkish tone vis-a-vis Iran. Lapid, who is typically not inclined to hyperbole, has called Raisi the “Butcher of Tehran” whose election should trigger renewed determination among the international community to “halt Iran’s nuclear program and put an end to its destructive regional ambitions.” A return to the JCPOA in one way or another will face strong criticism from Israel, but the Bennett-Lapid government is unlikely to push it to the extent, Netanyahu-style, that it would harm long-term US-Israeli relations.
On the Palestinian issues, however, Israel is on shakier ground. Washington is far from ready to embark on a peace initiative. Neither the Palestinian political system, which is in a state of flux, nor the Israeli government, with its razor-thin majority in the Knesset, could survive such a complex process. However, the growing pressure within American society, especially from the strengthening progressive camp of the Democratic Party that has, in recent years, been moving away from its one-sided support of Israel to a more even-handed approach — including criticizing Israel’s obstructive approach to a genuine peace process, its oppressive occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza — may well have an impact. It can be expected that the Biden administration will be more insistent on improving the living conditions of Palestinians and on preventing Israel from taking unilateral steps to make a two-state solution null and void by expanding its settlements and legalizing outposts in the West Bank.
For the sake of their own countries and the world, it is a great relief to see more nuanced, considered and less confrontational leaderships in the US and Israel, replacing administrations that were led by two super-inflated egos. There will be issues on which the two governments will disagree and even clash, but this closest of informal alliances is most likely to remain intact, serving as it does the vital interests of each, both at home and abroad.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.