Low bar in Washington over expectations about Israel’s new government

US-ISRAEL AFFAIRS: Do two high-profile American visits suggest that the Biden administration is re-prioritizing the region?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Jerusalem in 2016. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Jerusalem in 2016.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

WASHINGTON – It’s been two weeks since the new Israeli government was sworn in, and the Biden administration has already announced two high-profile visits. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is scheduled to arrive next week. Later this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will reportedly visit Jerusalem as well.

The visits will come on the heels of Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer’s trip to Washington earlier this week for meetings with US officials. So far, the Biden administration has signaled that it would be vocal about two main issues – preserving the status quo in Jerusalem and preserving a path for a two-state solution. On Israeli domestic issues, the administration has been mostly quiet, with the exception of a comment from a State Department Official who remarked last week regarding the judicial reform that the country’s “independent institutions” are a crucial part of its “thriving democracy.”

Does the double visit, combined with a series of public statements on the administration’s commitment to the two-state solution, and the recent developments on the ground, suggest that the administration is re-prioritizing the region? Dan Shapiro, former ambassador to Israel and current distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week that the short answer is no.

These visits, he said, are important because they “give US officials a chance to set some limits that they hope will head off major disagreements and crises in the Israeli-Palestinian arena that could force the United States to spend much more senior-level time and attention than they have had to until now.”

American visits to Israel may indicate upcoming meeting between Netanyahu, Biden

David Makovsky, director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute, said this early engagement between Jerusalem and Washington could be indicative of an upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden.

“I think it’s very clear that the approach is going to be to focus only on one person, and that is Prime Minister Netanyahu,” said Makovsky. “They don’t know these other cabinet ministers. They don’t know Finance Minister [Bezalel] Smotrich or our National Security Minister [Itamar] Ben-Gvir. They want to have very clear commitments from the prime minister, and I think the visit of Jake Sullivan and then Tony Blinken is done to prepare for that White House meeting.”

Makovsky, who served briefly as the The Jerusalem Post executive editor in the 1990s, said “Post readers might remember that in 1989, president [George] H.W. Bush met with [prime minister] Yitzhak Shamir one on one and said, ‘I have a problem with those settlements.’ And [Shamir] replied, ‘Mr. President, it won’t be a problem.’

“What president Bush heard was that ‘it won’t be a problem’ means that Shamir is not going to [build in the settlements.] But what Shamir meant was that settlements are not a problem. That misunderstanding ruined their relationship for the first term,” he recalled. “So, I think precision is important.

Biden, Makovsky said, defines foreign policy as personal relationships with leaders.

“And he’s known Bibi for 40 years. It’s natural that he’s going to try to dialogue as his preference.” According to Makovsky, the four top issues for the administration would be: “no change in the status quo on the Temple Mount, no annexation, no new settlements and no legalization of outposts.

“The administration is going to be clear, and I think it’s very important that there’s no misunderstanding. The good news for Israel is you have a president who wants to work things out quietly,” he said. “But I think he wants to hear very clear commitments from the prime minister.”

John Hannah, Randi and Charles Wax senior fellow at Jewish Institute for National Security of America and former national security advisor to vice president Dick Cheney, said the administration’s approach “is pretty clear.”

“The president doesn’t want a problem with Israel if he can avoid it,” Hannah said. “He doesn’t expect Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. He’s not asking it to take big risks for peace. He knows that’s unrealistic. He knows the conflict won’t be resolved anytime soon. The bar is actually pretty low.

“All Biden is seeking is for the conflict to be managed in as stable and responsible a way as possible. Keep the lid on. Keep the status quo,” he continued. “No unnecessary provocations, disruptions or surprises that carry a significant risk of escalation, instability and even violence. Don’t unnecessarily take actions that will invariably inflame tensions internationally and regionally, create new headaches for US diplomacy, and distract from Biden’s main national security priorities vis-à-vis Russia and China.”

If Israel’s new government can help Biden manage the Palestinian front, Hannah said, “I’m actually relatively optimistic that the stars are aligning in a way that might allow Prime Minister Netanyahu to make important progress on his two main foreign policy priorities – enlisting greater US support to contain and deter Iran, on the one hand, and make peace with Saudi Arabia on the other.”

US, Israel aligned on opposition to Iran

ANOTHER MAJOR area of discussion between the countries is the debate around reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing this week that “at the strategic level, there is absolute consensus [between the countries].”

“There is absolute unanimity with our Israeli partners. We both wholeheartedly, fully are committed to the fact that Iran must never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon. That is the commitment President Biden has. That is the same commitment that we’ve heard from Prime Minister Netanyahu. We are in lockstep when it comes to that strategic goal.”

He went on to say, “There is no secret... that when it comes to how we do that, there may be some tactical differences. We’ve made no secret about that. We have a relationship with Israel that is close enough that it allows us to have candid conversations, and when we disagree, we disagree.

“We tell them what we think. They certainly don’t shy away from telling us what they think. We believe that diplomacy presents the most viable, durable, sustainable means by which to permanently and verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That has always been our focus.

“We continue to believe that diplomacy presents the most attractive option, but we also agree with our Israeli partners that we shouldn’t take anything off the table,” Price said. “We haven’t taken anything off the table. And as we meet with our Israeli partners, one of the many issues we discuss is the most – the various means by which we can see to it that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.”

According to Hannah, “thanks to the Iranian regime’s intransigence, its lethal support for Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine and its brutal repression of its own people, the negotiations to revive the JCPOA have never looked closer to death’s door.

“With a deal seemingly off the table, the administration will need a Plan B if it’s still serious about fulfilling its promise to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. A strategy inevitably focused more on diplomatic and economic pressure, a credible military threat, covert action and supporting the Iranian people will naturally require greater US-Israel coordination and cooperation,” he said.

An important pillar of that effort, he noted, “could be a diplomatic coup that has the US brokering a historic peace deal to bring together its two most important and influential regional partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia, in an open alliance to counter Iran.”

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the policies of Israel’s new government may affect many aspects of the relationship – “but not on Iran.”

“That is largely because Israeli policy has not changed as [former prime ministers Naftali] Bennett, [Yair] Lapid, and now Netanyahu came into office,” Abrams said. “Whatever happens on settlements, for example, Iran is a separate issue. More broadly, Biden has made clear that he will deal with Netanyahu and hold him responsible for whatever the new government does. And the key middleman is Ron Dermer, who has already visited the United States. There will be plenty of noise in the relationship but that won’t change the basics – like stopping the Iranian nuclear program.”

Similarly, Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that the administration is “looking to engage with familiar faces and figures known to be pragmatic, even if right-leaning,” and while “there are plenty of choices, but the White House has chosen to engage with Ron Dermer off the bat.”

“The former ambassador is known to many,” said Schanzer. “And he can likely be expected to manage the relationship from the US side in the early goings.”

He went on to say that “the Netanyahu government needs to tread carefully.”

“The White House has finally soured on Iran. And normalization agreements beckon. The Palestinians would love to play the role of the spoiler on both fronts. The Israeli government must now be careful about implementing policies that stoke tensions, even if some of those policies may seem long overdue,” he added. “It’s a balancing act now.”

Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow in The Washington Institute’s Irwin Levy Family Program on the US-Israel Strategic Relationship, said the Biden administration will initially try to address differences behind closed doors.

“Yet given the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu will have to balance between US-Israel relations on the one hand and demands of some of his coalition partners, significant disagreements are likely to emerge – particularly regarding certain aspects of the Palestinian issue,” he said.

“As these issues accumulate, public clashes will be very hard to avoid,” said Omari. “On the Palestinian issue, the administration will focus on preventing key issues that have the potential of triggering security deterioration, particularly those related to the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif and possible re-introduction of annexation to the agenda.

“Beyond preventing escalation, the US will also likely focus on preventing developments that may foreclose the possibility of a future two-state solution,” he said.

“In particular, it will focus on settlement expansion beyond the barrier, and the legalization of outposts. One area to keep a close eye on is the Homesh settlement, which was subject to US-Israel commitments under PM Sharon’s disengagement plan.”