A PM Bennett won’t fix tensions with Dems, but ties with Biden should endure

Progressives’ issues with Israel extend beyond Netanyahu, and won’t be alleviated by his departure alone; still, some in the party view new prospective gov’t as cause for optimism

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Then-Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett (R) is interviewed by Brookings Executive Vice President Martin Indyk at the Brookings Institute in Washington on December 6, 2014. (Brookings Institute)
Illustrative: Then-Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett (R) is interviewed by Brookings Executive Vice President Martin Indyk at the Brookings Institute in Washington on December 6, 2014. (Brookings Institute)

Prospective prime minister Naftali Bennett didn’t hesitate when asked Wednesday night whether he has the political experience to stand up to US President Joe Biden if necessary.

“Of course,” Bennett told Channel 12 in his first interview since Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid notified President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday that he had succeeded in cobbling together a coalition that will replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Yamina leader Bennett.

“The guiding compass is Israel’s security. Israel’s security is more important than what they will say about us in the world,” Bennett said, echoing sentiments conveyed by Netanyahu earlier this week.

The embattled premier said Tuesday that “if we have to choose — I hope it doesn’t happen — between friction with our great friend the United States and eliminating the existential threat, eliminating the existential threat” wins.

Bennett’s public comments that he is willing to spar with the US, even before any disagreement has come to the surface, suggest that a major shift in the dynamic between the government of Israel and the Democratic administration in Washington is unlikely.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a ceremony to hand over control of the Mossad intelligence agency from outgoing director Yossi Cohen to his replacement David Barnea, June 1, 2021. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Some Washington insiders and Congressional officials maintain that while Bennett’s politics are generally further to the right than Netanyahu’s, a changing of the guard in Jerusalem will be a positive development for relations with Democrats. Even the pro-annexation Yamina chairman isn’t seen through the partisan lens that the Likud leader is, they say.

Undoubtedly, the growing frustration with Israel within the Democratic party, and particularly its progressive wing, extends beyond isolated disapproval of Netanyahu himself, and has seen increasing impatience with the country’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians — policies that are unlikely to see major changes under a Bennett-led government.

But given that the Biden administration has already proven itself independent of the party’s progressive wing and its vocal criticism of Israel, Washington’s determination to avoid public spats will likely continue, regardless of who is prime minister.

Moreover, the structure of the nascent coalition has several checks on Bennett’s more hawkish worldview built into it, including several parties in key leadership positions that back a far more conciliatory strategy to relations with the US.

From Golda to Naftali

The White House has avoided commenting on how it feels about the makeup of the prospective government. With its wafer-thin 61-59 Knesset majority, the Bennett-Lapid coalition still faces a tense battle, and a wait of up to 10 days, to be sworn in, and the Biden administration is focused on other issues at the moment.

“Israelis will make their own decisions about their government as any democracy would, and we will work with any Israeli government going forward as we have in the past,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Thursday.

He added a favorite line of the administration that Biden “has worked with every Israeli government of all parties going back to Prime Minister Golda Meir in the early 1970s” and that he will have no problem working with “whatever government emerges.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021 (Courtesy of Ra’am)

An administration official who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity agreed that the potential change in the Israeli government would not alter their approach, while adding that it does provide some promising signs — such as the prospective coalition’s inclusion of an Arab faction, the Islamist Ra’am party, as well as several others that back a two-state solution.

The official recognized that Bennett’s views on key issues are not in line with those of the Biden administration, but indicated that there are other global challenges with which they are more concerned.

One area where Bennett will be at a disadvantage compared to Netanyahu is his lack of familiarity with Biden, a source close to the administration speculated.

“Much of Biden’s foreign policy is based off of personal relationships with foreign leaders,” he explained. “Bennett could well build such a friendship, but he’ll be replacing someone who has known the president for decades and that relationship was crucial in weathering past storms.”

‘Starting fresh’

Still, for many in the Democratic Party, Netanyahu himself played a key role in creating those storms.

“Fairly or not, Netanyahu became a lightning rod for many Democrats with his congressional speech [against the Barack Obama-led Iran deal] in 2015,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This was exacerbated by what became perceived as an exclusive Netanyahu embrace of [former president Donald] Trump that seemed to veer from Israel’s traditional bipartisanship towards the US.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

One senior strategist at a pro-Israel organization in Washington said on the condition of anonymity that Netanyahu had been incredibly damaging to relations with Democrats. He noted that even when the premier shelved plans for West Bank annexation indefinitely last year, as a result of Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, some in the party did not believe it because they didn’t trust the prime minister.

Mark Mellman, who founded the Democratic Majority for Israel group which seeks to shore up support for Israel in the party, argued that Netanyahu’s departure would present “an opportunity to start fresh with a different government that is not seen as allied with one party in the US.

“Are there going to be policy differences with this government? I’m sure there will be, but I think they will be easier to deal with, absent Netanyahu,” said Mellman, who serves as a strategic adviser for Lapid.

He also pointed out that the Yesh Atid party chairman, slated to serve as foreign minister, has relationships with US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“Assuming it is seated, this Israeli government will have a much more bipartisan caste, and that is vitally important for the US Israel relationship,” he said.

It’s the policies, stupid

Others in the party were less optimistic.

“On the one hand, moving out of the Netanyahu era is positive,” said a senior aide to a progressive lawmaker.. “He’s been inciting against the Israeli left and Palestinian communities throughout his whole tenure.”

However, improved ties with Israel are not consequently a given, the staffer maintained.

“To a certain extent it was easy to talk about Netanyahu because he personalized this partisan approach, allying with Republicans and Trump the way that he did. But it was never just about Netanyahu. It was about policies,” the aide said.

He said progressives would continue pushing the Biden administration to put forward clear policy “that occupation should end and that there should be a move toward Palestinian independence and two states.”

While the White House has maintained that is its ultimate goal, the staffer suggested that Washington’s failure to sufficiently respond to Israeli steps that go against such policy paints a foggy picture of where it actually stands.

“If the goal here is to restore human rights to the foreign policy agenda, as the administration has said it is repeatedly, then we need to speak more forthrightly on this,” the aide said.

He recognized that the Biden administration has other priorities and wants to pick its battles, but maintained that legitimate first asks of a Bennett-Lapid government would include halting home demolitions and evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The staffer for the progressive lawmaker said they were cognizant that members of the Israeli left set to enter the government for the first time in decades will need time to adapt into their new roles, “but that [patience] cannot come at the expense of Palestinian rights.”

Israeli security forces scuffle with American-French protester Frank Romano on September 14, 2018, during a protest against the expected demolition of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Mellman argued though that the unique makeup of the prospective government would force progressive Democrats to rethink their stance on Israel.

“Having an Arab party as part of the government would be a dramatic development that undermines the worldview of harsh anti-Israel critics. It also demonstrates that trying to interpret Israeli politics through an American lens doesn’t work,” he said.

He pointed out, for instance, that the inclusion of Arab party Ra’am, which progressives would ostensibly support, will also bring into the government its anti-LGBT agenda, which is anathema to those same politicians.

For Republicans, feelings regarding the prospective government are also mixed, though for different reasons.

“It’s no secret that just about all members of our party have a deep amount of respect for Benjamin Netanyahu and the work he has done as prime minister,” said a Republican Senate staffer. Still, he stressed, “the relationship with Israel extends far beyond any prime minister.

“Contrary to our friends on the other side of the aisle, we don’t condition our support for Israel based on its leaders because the strategic, values-based relationship runs supreme,” the aide said.

“Will some of us need time to get to know the new leadership in Israel? Sure. But with how volatile the politics over there appear to be, I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Bibi anyways.”

Speaking with one voice

Bennett has long criticized Netanyahu for his failure to “speak frankly” to the US and the international community on the Palestinian issue.

“We’re in this pit we’re in precisely because we’re inconsistent. You can’t say that you favor a Palestinian state and then build communities there,” Bennett said of Netanyahu in a 2014 interview at the Brooking Institute.

He echoed that sentiment in his Thursday Channel 12 interview, highlighting how his years living in the US as a high-tech CEO taught him that Americans appreciate “sincerity.”

Head of the Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on May 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Pressed on how he’ll maintain a unified, sincere message when his coalition includes parties across the political spectrum, Bennett insisted that it would be possible.

“We will coordinate. Just as two adults who argue know how to coordinate. We sat down [New Hope chairman] Gideon [Sa’ar], Yair and I and we talked about things… Where we agree, we will do, and where we do not, we won’t,” the Yamina leader said.

This was, in fact, the same mindset Bennett had when he decided to partner with Lapid to join Netanyahu’s government in 2013, a partnership that Bennett eventually admitted did not succeed.

“I even built a theory around it — the 70-70 rule, where 70% of the people agree on 70% of the issues, so let’s just get them done,” he later recalled in the 2014 Brookings interview.

“But what happened was the 30% kept showing its face on all fronts… we have pretty big differences so it didn’t work. The experiment didn’t succeed,” he lamented then.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, left, embraces Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, February 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Naturally, Bennett was more optimistic in his Thursday interview, and shared one belief regarding the Palestinians that could encourage American leaders.

“My philosophy is to shrink the conflict. We won’t solve it, but where we can — more crossings, more [improvements to Palestinian] quality of life, more business — we will do,” he said.

For an administration that itself believes the ground is not yet ripe for high-level peace negotiations, and instead supports interim steps that can keep prospects for a two-state solution alive, Bennett’s outlook could well give Washington something to work with — even if there’s disagreement with regards to the end goal.

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