Naftali Bennett could have thought he was on a lucky streak.
Despite his Yamina faction winning only seven seats in the 2021 Knesset elections — tied for fifth place with four other parties — after all the backroom wheeling and dealing, Bennett somehow found himself coming out on top as prime minister.
Though managing an ideologically incoherent coalition of pro-settler nationalists, secular right-wingers, Islamists, centrist and left-wing greens, Bennett has so far managed to keep his government together, even approving a state budget for the first time in three years (though it has not yet passed a crucial Knesset vote).
The trip to the US — Bennett’s first as prime minister — was supposed to be his coming out moment. He would firm up his image as a national leader during a joint appearance with Biden in the Oval Office, proving to Israel that his style and temperament were far better suited to handling ties with a Democratic administration than those of his more combative predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bennett made clear that he believed his successes thus far were due to much more than luck. He indicated that he thought his approach to keeping his unwieldy coalition together could be the centerpiece of his relationship with the Biden administration.
“I bring from Israel a new spirit,” Bennett said before his meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, returning to a theme he had introduced before boarding the plane for Washington. “A spirit of folks who sometimes harbor different opinions, but can work together in cooperation and goodwill, in a spirit of unity, and we work hard to find common things we do agree upon and move forward on, and it seems to be working.”
The trip itself was something of a risk for Bennett, coming during another COVID-19 wave that threatens to put a damper on the upcoming Jewish holidays and undermine a central line of attack he pursued against Netanyahu. He was also flying in late August, when Congress is on recess and much of the DC political milieu is off on vacation in less swampy climes.
But Bennett’s luck seemed to hold during the first 24 hours of his trip. The unlikely prime minister sped through the streets of Maryland and Washington DC in a massive convoy, as police and Secret Service shut down the heart of America’s capital to make sure Bennett reached his hotel and appointments on time.
An honor guard at the Pentagon snapped to attention as he arrived for his meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
And his meetings with Austin and other senior officials seemed to go well.
Austin said publicly that “Iran must be held accountable for acts of aggression in the Middle East and on international waters,” pointing the finger squarely at Tehran for the July 30 attack on the Israeli-linked Mercer Street tanker in the Gulf of Oman.
Blinken and Bennett traded jokes about Israeli politics at the end of their public statements.
A senior Bennett advisor said Wednesday evening that the trip was a success to that point. “I think we are certainly returning home with our arms full,” she said.
Reality sets in
Then it all blew up in his face.
As suicide bombers detonated themselves at the gates of Kabul’s airport, killing at least 13 US soldiers and many more Afghans, what had been a challenge turned into a full-scale military and political crisis for Biden, whose approval rating had already dipped below fifty percent in the wake of his handling of COVID-19 and the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Even before the bombings, Bennett’s glittering expectations for the meeting were fast being revealed as chintz.
Biden has made clear his desire to focus on domestic challenges and great power competition with Russia and China, and not on Israel and the Middle East.
He has been determined to return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal that he helped craft as vice president, convinced that putting Iran’s nuclear program “back in the box” for a few years would free him up to deal with other issues.
Bennett came to Washington toting a new strategy for dealing with Iran’s regional threat and nuclear program without returning to the deal, which he eagerly anticipated presenting to Biden.
But Biden wasn’t about to change his approach just because Israel made the ask. The only question seemed to be whether they would manage to smooth over the differences.
And Afghanistan was already a fast-growing crisis, and a pressing priority, for Biden before Bennett took off from Israel.
There was literally and figuratively no escaping the issue for Bennett and his team in DC.
In the same hotel where Bennett and his team are bunking, a conference room was hosting a combined US government task force working frantically to coordinate the evacuation of Afghanis, using whatever partners they could find, including a Qatari ambassador and a CNN journalist in the country.
The message should have been clear — the US administration and media just don’t care all that much about Israel, or Bennett, right now.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it was in the wake of the Kabul attack. Bennett’s much-anticipated meeting with Biden was pushed off, only hours later being rescheduled for the next day. To make matters worse, the timing of Shabbat means that he’ll now have to spend two extra unplanned days in Washington, broadcasting to all the idea that he too thinks his time is less valuable than the US president’s.
Instead of returning triumphantly home to Israel for Shabbat — after Israeli primetime TV footage Thursday night of two smiling allies shaking hands or bumping elbows in the Oval Office — Bennett will be stuck in his DC hotel after his meeting with what will be a very distracted US president, which will take place as Israelis’ prepare for Shabbat and will get only second-tier coverage in American papers.
The Middle East comes back in
Bennett’s counterpart in the White House, himself an unlikely president, also had illusions shattered this week.
Never given much of a chance, Biden was written off as too old and too outdated after losing Iowa and New Hampshire at the start of the 2021 Democratic primary campaign. But he stormed back in South Carolina, causing the other moderate candidates to drop out while his progressive challengers split the vote between them.
Riding anti-Trump sentiment during the COVID-19 crisis, Biden won by avoiding much of a campaign in his Delaware basement.
He believed that he could avoid getting dragged into messy Middle East issues, to focus on immigration, climate change, and the coronavirus recovery, but that has proven increasingly difficult.
Only months into his term, the 11-day May conflict between Israel and Hamas forced the administration to get involved, and remain engaged.
A deal with Iran has proven far more elusive than expected and now seems increasingly unlikely.
And Afghanistan, a chapter on which Biden simply wants to close the book, is now a debacle that could harden into the narrative that defines Biden’s presidency.
Against this backdrop, Bennett’s goal of coordinating a more effective joint policy against Iran becomes even more unlikely. Bennett wants all options on the table, but as Biden pulls troops out of another deadly debacle in the Middle East, the president won’t soon be committing America’s sons and daughters to combatting any foreign military threat.
“Prior to the American collapse in Afghanistan this month, some Israelis may still have harbored the illusion that the United States might be prepared to act militarily to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons-threshold state,” said John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. “The abandonment of America’s longtime allies in the Afghan government and military should have dashed all such false hopes.”
“Israel is on its own, alone. No American cavalry will be riding to the rescue. The United States will not lift this awful burden from Israel’s shoulders.”
With any hopes of pursuing an American military threat dashed, Bennett could switch to the next best thing, asking for better military aid, particularly munitions and systems that will give Israel new capabilities to accomplish three tasks.
The first task is the continued campaign of covert airstrikes against Iranian forces and proxies across the region. The second is improving its ability to deter Iran by posing a credible military threat to its nuclear program and possibly its regime.
Finally, Bennett must ensure that Israel actually has the capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program if he determines he must order such a consequential strike. At least now, after the Kabul bombing, he’ll know there’s little point in even asking America to ride shotgun.
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