Biden-Bennett talks hugely overtaken by Kabul disaster


There is not much that US President Joe Biden can be forgiven for at this moment in time, but he could be excused for looking fatigued during his meeting last week with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. If timing is everything, it could hardly have been worse for Bennett’s visit to Washington. After all, for any Israeli leader, a visit to the White House is a major event that enables face-to-face talks on strategic issues of the highest importance to the country, as well as supplying the photo-opportunity of shaking hands with the US president in the Oval Office.
On this occasion, however, the tragic events in Afghanistan overshadowed Bennett’s visit. This was the Biden administration’s most difficult week since it came to power, if only for the sheer magnitude of the mass evacuation operation at Kabul airport that was hit by a terrorist attack, which killed scores of Afghan civilians and US troops. This led, inevitably and unprecedentedly, to the meeting between the two leaders being postponed by a day. And even when the meeting eventually took place, Biden’s thoughts were no doubt preoccupied by the mess his country has left behind in Afghanistan, and the implications for his own country and his presidency.
All visits by Israeli prime ministers to Washington are at once an expression of the strong and lasting friendship between the two countries and Washington’s commitment to the well-being of the Jewish state, as well as an occasion for wide-ranging strategic discussions on issues of common interest. Bennett’s visit might have concluded as expected with a tough statement over Iran, but it was also remarkable for being the first prime ministerial visit to Washington of the post-Netanyahu era. No Democratic president enjoyed meeting with Israel’s long-serving but recently departed leader, who was detested for his longwinded and arrogant lectures on how they should conduct US foreign policy, and equally for his antics in Congress to promote his agenda.
Bennett, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity in Washington — the leader of a small party who has positioned himself against the odds to become a prime minister, yet for a period of no more than two years in a rotational premiership. However, the US administration, which long yearned for a change of government in Israel, has still ended up with an ally that harbors hawkish and uncompromising views on the Palestinians and on Iran, while Biden’s team has a more complex approach to both issues.
Yet, it was obvious that Biden is unwilling to take any step or make any statement that would undermine a fragile Israeli administration and by that provide ammunition to Netanyahu in his obsessive ambition to regain power. Hence, disagreements were bound to remain under wraps and not find their way into the public domain.
In their delayed meeting on Friday, top of the agenda was, as anticipated, the possibility of Washington’s return to the nuclear deal with Iran. Both countries’ common objective is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear military capability and, more generally, to restrain its aggressive policies in the region that threaten not only Israel, but also other US allies in the Middle East.
Biden’s rather bold statement at the end of the meeting, that if diplomacy won’t stop Iran from halting its nuclear program there are “other measures” to achieve that end, would have to be translated into specific policies if they are to mean anything. The Trump-Netanyahu strategy of sustained and uncompromising pressure on Iran has failed to prevent Tehran from edging closer to the fulfillment of its nuclear ambitions, and the military option is hardly a viable one.
It may be the case that Washington will not return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, not for lack of will but due to the recent election of Iran’s hard-line and conservative Ebrahim Raisi as president, who together with the other centers of power in Tehran forms an uncompromising leadership. Worryingly enough, the US performance in Afghanistan will do little to convince Tehran that Washington has the stamina to confront it.
Bennett was granted an audience of less than an hour with his opposite number, which could be considered almost generous in light of events in Kabul, and in a week when the US administration struggled to pass a controversial $3.5 trillion budget bill and infrastructure plan. However, one result of the US leader’s limited attention span regarding Israeli concerns was that, to Bennett’s relief, it also prevented a collision between the two over the Palestinian issue.
The US president is unwilling to take any step or make any statement that would undermine a fragile Israeli administration.
Biden is highly sympathetic to Israel, but unlike his chaotic and uninformed predecessor, he understands well the dynamics of relations with it, relations that don’t always serve his own country’s interests. Between ranking the Middle East generally — and the peace process specifically — rather low on his agenda, being occupied with other time and mind-consuming issues, and unwilling to weaken a fragile Israeli government, he let Bennett depart Washington with no sense of US pressure to progress with negotiations to ease the blockade on Gaza and improve living conditions in the West Bank.
However, Biden should have learned from the last round of hostilities in Gaza and violent clashes in Jerusalem that to entirely sideline the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not a viable option. Much damage to US-Palestinian relations was inflicted during the previous administration, and there are signs that Biden is making amends by, for instance, expressing his intention to reopen the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, and to partly restore financial aid to the Palestinians, as well as to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. –AN