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Analysis

Aiming to keep disagreements behind closed doors, Rivlin heads to Washington

In 1st formal meeting between an Israeli official and Biden since inauguration, Israeli president aims to set out positions of Bennett’s government, bridge chasms Netanyahu created

US then-vice president Joe Biden, right, walks with President Reuven Rivlin during their meeting at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
US then-vice president Joe Biden, right, walks with President Reuven Rivlin during their meeting at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Seven years after he was sworn in and two weeks before he is to leave office, President Reuven Rivlin embarked on an important journey of reassurance and renewal, heading to Washington on Saturday night.

In his seven years in office, Rivlin was far from a frequent flier. He traveled abroad sparingly, being careful not to step on then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toes regarding honors and the handling of the country’s foreign relations. The president, whose role is mostly ceremonial, was sent on an occasional diplomatic mission, usually to advance Netanyahu’s political and security agenda.

This time, however, is different.

Rivlin is the first senior Israeli official to formally meet with US President Joe Biden since his inauguration in January 2021. (Biden “dropped by” a meeting at the White House between his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen last month.) He is also the first senior official to go to Washington after the change of government in Israel.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi just finished up a week of extensive meetings in the US, but he did not meet with the president. This was reserved for Rivlin, whose visit comes as Biden is increasingly turning his attention to American foreign policy after beating back the domestic outbreak of COVID-19 with a vaccination drive.

Rivlin’s invitation to the White House came before the change of government in Israel earlier this month, but the timing created mutual curiosity for both new administrations.

Then US vice president Joe Biden, right, poses for a photo with President Reuven Rivlin, left, during a meeting at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

In Washington, the Democratic Party returned to power after a four-year political rollercoaster. In Israel, after 12 years of Netanyahu’s rule, his Likud party is in opposition and a group of new leaders largely unfamiliar to the Americans have taken over.

Before leaving, Rivlin met separately with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and received a political and security briefing.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and President Reuven Rivlin meet at the President’s House, June 23, 2021. (President’s House)

Here are the main issues on the agenda for the short trip:

Personal relationships

Netanyahu sabotaged his relationship with the Democratic Party. His controversial 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress in opposition to the Iran deal — which was arranged without the support of then-president Barack Obama in a breach of protocol and boycotted by many Democratic members of Congress — created a chasm that has not been fully bridged to this day.

And Netanyahu continues to deepen the damage in his recent speeches in Israel, including his final address as premier this month in which he compared the US efforts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal to the decision by then-US president Franklin Roosevelt not to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz in 1944.

The former prime minister revealed details from his last conversation with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in his farewell speeches (twice — in the plenary and the next day at a Likud faction meeting) and claimed that he, unlike the
new government, would continue to reveal details from closed talks and continue to publicly repel US moves while Bennett and Lapid would grant a tacit hand to the nuclear deal.

Then US president Donald Trump welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Washington knows this is a lie. Bennett and Lapid have said that they too, oppose the nuclear deal but want to improve relations with the Biden administration and create an effective dialogue.

It is against this background, coupled with tensions between Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, and Netanyahu, that Rivlin arrives in Washington, where he’ll need to do some healing and reassuring.

Biden must be immensely curious: He has never met Bennett and only knows of Lapid indirectly via the good ties the Yesh Atid leader has forged with the Democratic Party.

Biden and Bennett spoke on the phone just hours after the new government was sworn in — a promising start, but there is still a long way to go.

The Palestinian issue

This issue is not high on the list of priorities of the new administration in Washington, but after last month’s conflict between Israel and Gaza terror groups, it is clear to everyone that the matter cannot be ignored forever.

Rivlin will need to update Biden on Israel’s goals and go into detail on the Israeli prisoners and slain soldiers held by Hamas, an issue that is plaguing Egyptian mediators.

Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed (Flash 90/Courtesy)

He will need to try to explain the positions of this new Israeli government on the Palestinian issue — no small task thanks to the disparate ideologies of its eight factions — not to annex, not to separate, not to clash, but instead to contain.

The United States is committed to assisting Israel as much as necessary in defense procurement. While it is not Rivlin’s job to ratify Israel’s financial aid, it is likely to be on the table as well.

Iran

US officials have clarified in press briefings that they will not continue the indirect Vienna talks with Iran on a potential return to the nuclear deal forever, and that after the election of the hardline Ebrahim Raisi as president, it may be impossible to break the deadlock.

Rivlin is not visiting Washington to receive intelligence updates, but it is possible that in a private meeting with Biden, he will be able to extract some information on how Washington sees progress on that front.

Moves made by Trump, who unilaterally abandoned the agreement and ramped up sanctions with Netanyahu’s encouragement, have left what many see as a huge problem for Israel and the United States. Iran saw itself as liberated from the agreement and began rushing toward uranium enrichment at unprecedentedly dangerous levels.

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line the hall damaged on Sunday, April 11, 2021, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran. (IRIB via AP, File)

However substantive his talks, however, Rivlin’s main goal, it seems, is to keep the debates between the countries behind closed doors.

Rivlin will also attend meetings with congressional leaders. Earlier this month, Lapid spoke with both the Democratic Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and the Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell, later saying they are “both true friends of Israel.”

While in the US, Rivlin will convey the following message to the heads of Congress: Israel’s new leadership will not take a partisan approach. Those days are over.

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