Israeli premier Naftali Bennett took off Tuesday for talks in Washington with top Democrats including President Joe Biden, seeking to “reset” relations with Israel’s closest ally and reach consensus on arch-foe Iran.
In his first state visit since taking office in June, the prime minister will meet Biden on Thursday and attempt to mend ties, which were strained under former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, accused of openly favouring the Republican party.
“Right now the biggest transaction taking place between the two countries is a refresh and a reset of bilateral relations,” Scott Lasensky, former president Barack Obama’s senior policy advisor on Israel, told AFP.
Netanyahu alienated Democratic leaders through his relentless public criticism of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers negotiated by the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president.
Netanyahu’s tight embrace of Obama’s successor – president Donald Trump, whom he repeatedly called “the best friend” Israel ever had in the White House – further rankled Biden’s party.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hinted at a new approach when he met his US counterpart Antony Blinken in June.
“In the past few years mistakes were made. Israel’s bipartisan standing was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together,” Lapid said.
Shortly before departure, Bennett told reporters he would bring to Washington “a new spirit of cooperation” from Israel’s government.
No Iran ‘lifeline’
While he may aim to warm the diplomatic waters, he remains a foreign policy hawk staunchly opposed to the Iran accord, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful but has progressively withdrawn from key commitments, including on uranium enrichment, in response to sanctions imposed by Trump after he unilaterally yanked the US out of the deal in 2018.
“I will tell President Biden that it is time to stop the Iranians… not to give them a lifeline in the form of re-entering into an expired nuclear deal,” the 49-year-old Israeli premier said Sunday.
Bennett’s meeting with Biden, 78, comes two months after talks in Vienna on reviving the deal broke up without any discernible progress.
Or Rabinowitz, an expert on nuclear proliferation and US-Israel relations at the Hebrew University, told AFP “Israel wants to set a new jargon”, or understanding, with the US over what would constitute Iran crossing a threshold toward building a nuclear weapon.
Bennett suggested that approach Sunday, saying, “we will present an orderly plan that we have formulated in the past two months to curb the Iranians.” He offered no specifics.
Briefing reporters ahead of the trip, an Israeli official who requested anonymity said when planning for the White House visit began a return to the Iran deal appeared “imminent”, but now “things look a little less clear,” notably following Iranian elections.
Ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi took the oath of office in Iran early this month, after winning a presidential election in June.
‘Nothing’ for Palestinians
Bennett leads an ideologically disparate eight-party coalition that ranges from dovish parties to hardliners like himself, and he has avoided the Palestinian question in favour of consensus issues like health and the economy.
Shira Efron, a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Biden’s administration had modest ambitions, mainly focused on undoing some of Trump’s moves to favour Israel.
“The Biden administration understands this is a shaky coalition,” she said.
“I don’t think Biden is going to push Naftali Bennett to try to restart peace negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians.
Political scientist Ali Jarbawi at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank expected talks between Bennett and Biden would mean “nothing” to Palestinians suffering under Israeli “apartheid”.
Israel firmly rejects accusations that its treatment of the Palestinians amounts to apartheid.
“If they talk about Palestinians at all, they will talk about improving the lives of Palestinians under occupation, so it’s the same as it used to be,” Jarbawi said.
An expected friction point at the talks will be the Biden administration’s pledge to reopen a consulate general in Jerusalem responsible for US-Palestinian affairs.
Trump closed that mission in 2019 after he had moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bolstering Israel’s disputed claim of sovereignty over annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim for the capital of a future state.
Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at George Mason University who advised the Trump administration on Israel, said re-establishing the consulate would “almost certainly” feature at the talks.
And while Bennett “is ideologically and fundamentally committed to the integrity of Jerusalem”, the Israeli premier will face a test on whether he can remain true to his ideology in the face of US pressure over consulate issue, Kontorovich said.