The Bennett-Lapid government’s year in diplomacy - analysis

Bennett may not have Netanyahu’s oratorial flair or his international renown, but he had something else: He’s not Netanyahu.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister and alternate-prime minister Yair Lapid at the cabinet meeting, December 25, 2021. (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/HAARETZ)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister and alternate-prime minister Yair Lapid at the cabinet meeting, December 25, 2021.
(photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/HAARETZ)

For a government whose political road has been very bumpy over its year of existence, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have navigated its diplomatic situation remarkably smoothly.

There have been plenty of challenges – this is Israel, after all, our international relations are anything but simple – but they have managed to pick up where former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu left off, running with his achievements and adding their own.

When Netanyahu left office Israel’s relations with the world were flourishing in many ways. The Abraham Accords were his crowning achievement,– the first peace agreements between Israel and Arab states in 26 years.

That came after he successfully leveraged Israel’s technological leadership, in defense and commercial realms, into closer ties with countries around the world. Plus, Netanyahu laid the groundwork for Israel’s natural gas resources to be a pipeline to an improved international standing.

Bennett may not have Netanyahu’s oratorical flair or his international renown, but he had something else: He’s not Netanyahu. There were some countries, especially in the West, whose ties with Israel were great on paper, but they viewed Netanyahu and his government as an obstacle to further developing that relationship, for political reasons beyond the scope of this article. When it comes to Jordan, it seems that was only an excuse – their behavior towards Israel when Palestinian violence broke out on the Temple Mount was not any better than it had been – but for at least some, it was a real concern.

The Biden administration

That brings us to a major foreign policy goal of every Israel government, to build on a strong US-Israel relationship. After US President Joe Biden took his time before calling Netanyahu, and his administration only seemed to take an interest in what is happening in this part of the world when a war with Gaza broke out, in came Bennett and almost immediately received an invitation to the White House.

 US President Joe Biden attends the Quad leaders’ summit, in Tokyo, Japan, May 24, 2022. (credit: YUICHI YAMAZAKI/POOL VIA REUTERS) US President Joe Biden attends the Quad leaders’ summit, in Tokyo, Japan, May 24, 2022. (credit: YUICHI YAMAZAKI/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Call it the not-Bibi effect. These days, with the coalition on the verge of collapse, the Biden administration strategically leaked to Israeli journalists that it is treating Israel delicately, trying to avoid pressure in recent weeks on areas that could cause greater friction.

That says that either the briefer isn’t telling the truth or the Biden administration doesn’t quite know how to do what it says it’s doing, since Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman recently suggested a summit with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, according to Axios, an idea that is a non-starter in this mixed Right-Left government.

Regardless of ideas that are going nowhere fast, overall, Bennett and Biden and their administrations have mostly successfully struck a balance between disagreeing and cooperating.

Contacts between Washington and Jerusalem have been constant, with National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata frequently flying out for meetings with his counterpart Jake Sullivan and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking frequently.

When it comes to the Palestinians, the Biden administration wants more Jerusalem-Ramallah communication and cooperation – and less construction in settlements – toward an eventual Palestinian state, and they have made that view known.

But if you compare their actions to the last US administration that viewed the region that way, the Obama administration, they are being a lot more subtle. Most of the statements are State Department boilerplate and not heavy pressure on Jerusalem.

While Bennett has reduced the number of planned Israeli homes in Judea and Samaria, there is no talk of a freeze as in the Obama era and he hasn’t felt pressured to declare support for a Palestinian sort-of state like Netanyahu did in 2009.

Another area in which Washington-Jerusalem relations and communications have improved since the Obama administration, in which many Biden officials worked, is Iran.

Contrary to 2013, when the US secretly started talks with the Islamic Republic, Jerusalem feels Washington has been transparent and has often called with updates – even though the sides mostly didn’t agree on how to proceed.

Iran

The shift from Netanyahu to Bennett did not change how Israel viewed the 2015 Iran Deal, to which the US sought to return. They, as well as Lapid, agree that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a bad deal, but they answered the question of how to push back against it differently.

In keeping with how the Bennett and Biden administrations have treated disagreements in other areas, they tried to work this out more quietly than Netanyahu, who launched a major public campaign including speaking before both houses of Congress. Bennett has spoken out against the Iran Deal throughout his year in office, but hasn’t made it the centerpiece of every public statement he makes.

The Iran Deal has not yet made a comeback, and that can partly be credited to Bennett and Lapid being louder and more active – a little like Netanyahu, though they didn’t go as far as he did – on a specific aspect of the negotiations.They spoke constantly about how removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US Foreign Terror Organization list, as Iran demanded, would be a travesty.

Ambassador to Washington Mike Herzog spoke with many Members of Congress about why they should oppose such a move and Israeli officials did the same with their counterparts. In April, Biden told Bennett he decided not to make the change.

Though, at the moment, Bennett’s way seems more successful than Netanyahu’s, it’s more complicated than that.

The US and its European partners in Iran talks – Britain, France and Germany – have said they still would like to revive the JCPOA, even if it seems unlikely at this point.It appears that no matter what Netanyahu or Bennett say to their counterparts in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, they’re convinced of the usefulness of the Iran Deal, and that its future depends much more on Iran than on anything Jerusalem would say.

Meanwhile, IRGC officials have been mysteriously dying, and Israel and its allies have been flexing muscles with various joint and separate military exercises.

Abraham Accords

The Iran problem ties in with Israel’s new friends, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco (Sudan normalization is on hold because of the coup in Khartoum).

While there are plenty of other areas of shared interest between the countries, the relationships were built on covert intelligence-sharing against a shared adversary and defense cooperation continues to be a major part of it.Credit for the Abraham Accords belongs to Netanyahu and former US president Donald Trump, but it was a no-brainer for this government to pick up where they left off. Some sources in Bennett’s inner circle have argued that Netanyahu didn’t sufficiently develop the relationships with the countries in question, but it must be noted that two elections made that difficult. Netanyahu certainly wanted to and tried to visit Abu Dhabi several times, to no avail.

Regardless, Bennett and Lapid picked up the Abraham Accords baton and ran with it. Bennett has been to Abu Dhabi twice now, Lapid has been to all three relevant countries.

Morocco and Israel signed a defense memorandum of understanding, Israel’s first with an Arab country, when Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Rabat, and Israel and the UAE have a wide-ranging free trade agreement, the first of its kind between Israel and an Arab state.

Lapid managed to bring together the foreign ministers of the Abraham Accord countries plus Egypt and the US for the Negev Summit in March, a masterful diplomatic achievement, in which the countries announced “a regional security architecture” that the Bahraini foreign minister said, according to sources in the meetings, would be akin to a “mini-NATO.”

The Arab foreign ministers powerfully condemned a deadly terrorist attack that took place in Israel while they were in the country, and acclaimed their cooperation with Israel in a variety of fields including energy and food security. The Negev Summit structure is set to go beyond that meeting, with a further parley between high-level officials planned in Bahrain this week.

Saudi Arabia

Meanwhile, there is talk about Israel and Saudi Arabia growing closer, another process in which Netanyahu was deeply involved – even secretly meeting with Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman – but stalled when Biden, who is highly critical of Riyadh, entered office.

This is another area in which US involvement is necessary, and regardless of who is prime minister, things are unlikely to move much without help from Washington.

Ukraine

The war on Ukraine is one area that Jerusalem handled with less aplomb than the others. Israeli intelligence led Bennett and Lapid to think, up until the very last minute, that Russia would not invade, and then they acted as though they each had an independent policy on the matter. Lapid condemned the invasion, while Bennett was very careful to stop short of that, expressing sorrow at the loss of life.

Israel has been caught in an unenviable dilemma when it comes to its response to Ukraine, because, in effect, Russia sits on its northern border due to its major military presence in Syria.

Jerusalem and Moscow have had a deconfliction mechanism by which the former informs the latter before it strikes Iranian targets and weapons convoys in Syria. Russia has always grumbled about it, but made sure to clear out of the way and not attack Israeli fighter jets. Jerusalem does not want to jeopardize its ability to drive Iran away from its borders by angering Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

On the other hand, the entire West, the countries with which Israel views itself as aligned, is united against Russia at this time, and Israel, of course, opposes the unprovoked invasion of sovereign states. 

So Israel voted against Russia twice at the UN and sent many planes full of humanitarian aid, and was the first country to build a field hospital in Ukraine. At the same time, there was disappointment from some countries in Europe that Israel would not provide military aid or allow them to resell their Israeli-made weapons to Ukraine.Then there was Bennett’s dubious effort at playing peacemaker. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had an idea, going back to Netanyahu’s tenure, that Israel could serve as mediator between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin. His thought was that Israel was one of the few countries in the world with good relations with both countries.

Putin refused, until a few weeks into the war. Then, Bennett jetted to Moscow – on Shabbat! – to meet with Putin and then flew on to Berlin to discuss the talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz

That seemed to backfire, however, when Ukrainian officials grumbled about Bennett breaking the unspoken boycott on leaders visiting Moscow, though Zelensky rolled back the criticism.

After numerous phone calls with the two leaders at war and a wave of Palestinian terrorism that struck Israel, Bennett’s star as mediator started to dim and he mostly stopped being involved in the Ukraine war

Now, Israel still faces criticism from prominent journalists and parliamentarians for being “neutral” on Ukraine. It isn’t in the words of most government ministers or in Israel’s UN votes, but largely because of Bennett’s perceived fence-sitting and the fear that military aid will provoke Russia to change its Syria arrangement with Israel.

As the government enters its second year, it seems unlikely that it will last much longer, but all of the challenges stated above will still remain. Whether Israel will return to Netanyahu’s policies or strive for something new remains to be seen.