Prime Minister Naftali Bennett takes off today (Tuesday) for Washington for a meeting with US President Joe Biden on Thursday. Bennett is also expected to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
With Biden preoccupied with Afghanistan and the Covid pandemic, what can Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett except to accomplish on this trip?
Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy head of the Israeli National Security Council in Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office, spoke with the Jerusalem Press Club (JPC) to find out what we can expect from the Biden-Bennett meeting.
“I think that President Biden is very eager for this government in Israel to succeed,” Lerman told JPC. “Prime Minister Bennett is definitely trying to shed off the legacy of tensions between the previous Israeli government and the Democratic Party. This can lay very positive foundations.”
With a Democrat in the White House, Bennett will need to tread lightly to avoid alienating his already weakened standing with the Israeli right, many of whom have tagged him a pariah after he agreed to form a coalition with the Islamic Arab party after promising his supporters that would never happen. As far as laying “foundations” with a US Democratic government goes, that may be a stretch for both Biden and Bennett.
“Their main subject beyond doubt, given all that’s happening around us, is that famous four-letter word: I-R-A-N,” Lerman said. “That’s the one burning question by two sets of Iranian actions: One – the ongoing enrichment effort to 60% and beyond which has no other purpose than a military effort. And the second is their provocations across the region against Israel, against the Gulf states, against others… their bid to take over Lebanon, their attempts to disrupt Jordan… their involvement in Yemen. All of this adds up to what was discussed with [CIA director] Bill Burns and that laid the foundation for the meeting.”
It will be interesting to watch newly appointed Prime Minister Bennett navigate the minefield of Middle East policy vis-à-vis Iran and the entire region. Coming on the coattails of Benjamin Netanyahu who for years demonstrated a strength of character to be reckoned with by Democrat and Republican, Israelis will be watching to see how Bennett makes the case for Israel in a more hostile US government environment.
While it is not clear how much Biden will want to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, there may be an opportunity for Bennett to make some comparisons with how Israel deals with terror groups here at home.
Lerman believes that the US withdrawal and rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban can serve as an important lesson for Joe Biden to grasp just how dangerous it is to retreat from hostile territories. Lerman pointed out that Bennett can make the point with Biden that Israel is “not going to disintegrate like the National Defense and Security Forces of Afghanistan which melted overnight,” and should therefore press the US government for increased military and security support in the war against terror in the region.
“The Biden Administration clearly understands that Hamas is not a partner and that what we have on our hands is essentially a mafia organization trying to extract protection money from Israeli society through the threat to our people,” Lerman said in the interview.
Recent unprovoked violence in Gaza, as well as the exposure in a German newspaper of Hamas lies and funneling humanitarian aid to terrorists, should give Bennett plenty of ammunition to keep US pressure on the Islamic terror group.
“As to the broader question on the Palestinian question,” Lerman says, “I think there’s nobody in this Administration, neither [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken nor [National Security Advisor Jake] Sullivan nor [Nicholas] Burns, nor the President himself, who have any illusions that conditions are mature for a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations. It’s more of a question of intelligent conflict management and on this I think they can find some aspects to work on.”
The fact that the Palestinian question came on the tail end of this interview, and without an iota of expectation for any progress, shows once again that there has been a shift in the political misfortunes of the Palestinians who are increasingly being pushed into a corner. From here they have only two choices: rise up in a last ditch suicidal rampage or sit down and accept a deal. Bennett can make this clear.