Can Bennett, Biden manage to find common ground?

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Different views on Iran and settlements have been at the fore in recent weeks, but not every US-Israel dispute has to be a crisis.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office in August. (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office in August.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

About two months ago, this newspaper ran an analysis with the headline: “For Biden and Bennett, the honeymoon is over.”

It listed a number of clashes between the US president and Israeli prime minister’s administrations: Washington seeking a stop to all Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria, while Jerusalem pursuing slow but steady settlement construction; the designation of six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist groups, which the US spoke of disapprovingly; the Biden administration’s aim to reopen a consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, which the Israeli government rejects.

The tensions between Jerusalem and Washington remain, especially over the settlement issue, which has only intensified, with a number of incidents occurring in the last two weeks.

Two sources with knowledge of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s recent meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the latter sought to dedicate equal time to settlements and the Iranian threat, to the Israelis’ dismay.

Israel stopped the advancement of 9,000 new homes in east Jerusalem amid US pressure.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office in August. (credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST) US PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office in August. (credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

After a tweet from Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev mentioning that US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland sought to discuss “settler violence” sparked a political uproar last week, a senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem said that the Americans bring up the topic “all the time, obsessively.”

The latter two honeymoon-ending issues are somewhat less relevant at this point. The Foreign Ministry and State Department seem to have smoothed over misunderstandings about the NGOs, and the State Department stopped talking about them. The Biden administration technically hasn’t given up on the Jerusalem consulate, but hasn’t set any specific target dates or made official requests of Israel. A recent Times of Israel report that the Palestinian Affairs Unit in the US Embassy in Jerusalem is answering directly to Washington is false; the PAU’s diplomatic cables are still sent under the auspices of the embassy and must be signed by US Ambassador Tom Nides or Deputy Chief of Mission Jonathan Shrier.

But there are major differences between Jerusalem and Washington about the biggest issue of all: Iran.

The Biden administration is still pursuing a diplomatic solution with the Islamic Republic, indirectly negotiating a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Bennett’s government reached the conclusion months ago that the talks are an exercise in futility, and that Iran is using them to play for time while racing toward a nuclear weapon, and its public statements on the topic have become increasingly bold, with incoming Israel Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar telling Yediot Aharonot this week that Israel can attack Iran’s nuclear program tomorrow if need be.

Iran’s behavior during the two-and-a-half weeks of talks in Vienna that took place this month is only proving Israel’s point. Tehran presented proposals that reverse all the progress made in earlier rounds of negotiations with world powers in April-June, while simultaneously starting to enrich uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow facility, buried in a mountain, and its Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh did not deny a report that they would start 90% enrichment – the level needed for a bomb – if the talks fail, when asked about it.

Meanwhile, diplomats and foreign ministers from the E3 – Britain, France and Germany – have said that Iran is running out of time to return to the JCPOA, and US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley told CNN this week that there are only “some weeks left... [before] we will have to conclude that the JCPOA is no more,” which would lead to “a period of escalating crisis.”

Despite that urgency, the Vienna talks are on hiatus for Christmas, a holiday that the Iranians don’t celebrate. Their dangerous plans are not taking a break.

It was in that context that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan landed in Jerusalem this week – despite it being days before Christmas, Bennett noted appreciatively – with Israel and the US not seeing eye to eye on their biggest shared security challenge or the topic about which the Biden administration is “obsessed.”

Yet, by all accounts, from sources in both governments, it was a successful visit.

Before Sullivan arrived in Israel, a senior Biden administration official said that “the US and Israel are totally aligned in our determination to ensure Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon, and we’ve had a very active dialogue about our approach on that.”

But the official went even further, saying that Washington and Jerusalem are of the same mind when it comes to the dangers of Iran’s behavior during the Vienna talks.

“Given the rapidly accelerating pace of Iran’s nuclear program, its stockpiling of highly enriched uranium day after day, this is a very serious situation. And it’s something I think that both we and the Israelis very much agree on,” the official said.

And when asked about what actions Israel might take to try to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat, the Biden administration official unhesitatingly said: “We support Israel’s right to defend itself. I think that’s quite clear.”

While the official said he will not get into particulars about what Israel does to defend itself, there was no equivocating about that right.

Sullivan went into his meeting with Bennett saying that, at a “critical juncture for both of our countries on a major set of security issues, it’s important that we sit together and develop a common strategy, a common outlook, and find a way forward that fundamentally secures your country’s interests and mine.

“Those interests, like the values upon which our countries are built, are deeply shared and deeply felt,” he added.

And if the point wasn’t understood, Bennett said the meeting is “timely,” because “what happens in Vienna has profound ramifications for the stability of the Middle East and the security of Israel for the upcoming years.”

A senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem praised Sullivan’s “emotional intelligence” and said it was apparent that the Biden administration “felt that we’re not calm and needed TLC... before the next round of talks restarts in Vienna.

“We get updates from the Americans and other partners and have intelligence, so we know what is happening [in the nuclear talks], but we’re not there and we want to understand the direction in which things are going,” the source said.

Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, led the fourth meeting of the Strategic Consultative Group, which also includes officials from the Defense Ministry and US Department of Defense, and the Foreign Ministry and US State Department, as well as both countries’ intelligence communities, to discuss a “common strategy” on the countries’ shared security interests, as Sullivan put it, foremost of which is the Iranian threat.

That meeting, the Israeli diplomatic source said, was a “brainstorm about the right thing to do now, because the options are not good, assuming the Iranians won’t return to compliance with the JCPOA – an agreement that is bad enough, but this is even worse.

Bennett’s preference, which he has stated publicly, is for world powers to “exhaust their leverage on the Iranians, who are in a catatonic [economic] situation. World powers need to use this, to tell Iran that if they don’t take a dramatic step, they will pay a heavy price, and get a better agreement,” the source said.

When asked about settlements before Sullivan’s visit, the senior Biden administration official said “we’ve been engaged with the Israeli government at senior levels on this issue... in a fairly constructive and honest manner, and I think I’ll leave it at that.”

Compared to some earlier statements coming from the State Department and White House on the topic in the past, this seemed like an attempt to lower the flames.

And, in fact, the Israeli senior diplomatic source said Sullivan did not bring up settlements at all in his meeting with Bennett.

Plus, the sides were absolutely effusive about the ties between them.

The two national security advisers have a “level of dialogue, trust and candor... [that is] really quite extraordinary and has helped us navigate through some pretty difficult issues and also just kind of gaming out next steps as we look ahead over the coming months in the Middle East,” the senior Biden administration official said, adding that Bennett and Biden had “a very good personal connection.”

Sullivan conveyed “deeply personal thanks” from Biden, for Bennett’s actions when he was in Washington in August and the US suffered a major terrorist attack in Afghanistan. The prime minister’s meeting with the president was deferred by a day, even though it meant Bennett having to stay in Washington in order not to fly on Shabbat.

“You stepped up with support, both personal and on behalf of your country,” Sullivan said. “And that moment – I think like this moment we’re in now – just reflects the extent to which, when Israel and the United States stand together, we stand stronger, and that’s the spirit with which I’m here today.”

In public statements and behind closed doors, the Biden administration and the Bennett government seem to be back on track to where they were when Bennett first became prime minister, trying to show as little daylight as possible between them in public.

“Bennett built this relationship, and it was a strategic priority for him to revive the bipartisan [support for Israel in the US] and build excellent relations with the Biden administration,” the senior diplomatic source said. “Even though there are surely areas where Bennett and Biden do not see eye to eye on an ideological level, [Bennett] set this very complex mission from day one.”

When it comes to those areas of friction, Bennett’s approach is to “invest a lot in the relationship, which is of strategic importance, and be calm and discrete about our disagreements – but sometimes we have to say what we think, when it’s our vital national security interest,” the source said.

In other words, the disagreements between the governments in Israel and the US remain, but they are committed to hashing them out in private as much as possible and have a public front that is as united as possible.

Though the disagreements are real, and they make for interesting headlines, this week is a reminder to take them in proportion. Jerusalem and Washington can agree to disagree sometimes and still work very closely together.