Naftali Bennett’s first visit to Washington as prime minister was a fairly low-stakes affair.
He came at a time when US government and media attention were focused elsewhere, on the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan and the latest COVID-19 wave. Moreover, his goals in his first meeting with US President Joe Biden were modest: establish a personal connection, present a strategy to stop Iranian nuclear and regional ambitions, advance a visa waiver program and secure a replenishment of Iron Dome missiles.
In this subdued context, Bennett revealed the contours of both how he intends to deal with Iran and how he will lead his unwieldy coalition in general — in each case a low-key approach that hopes to be effective without rocking the boat too much.
Some might say his policy is an example of prudent, cautious statesmanship; others that he’s given up on his principles in order to secure two years as prime minister with no particular goals in mind other than remaining in power.
Death by a thousand cuts
The major international challenge facing Bennett is the Iranian nuclear program.
After expectations that the Biden administration’s eagerness to secure a return to the 2015 deal — known formally as the JCPOA — would lead to easy negotiations with the Islamic Republic, that accord is becoming ever more elusive. Iran’s moderate then-president Hassan Rouhani introduced a number of demands to the Vienna talks that he knew the US could not accept, and his hardline successor Ebrahim Raisi will likely take an even more aggressive approach.
While Bennett’s predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to irreparably damage ties with Barack Obama’s White House and possibly with the Democratic Party in his fight against the emerging JCPOA, Bennett reportedly pledged to Biden that despite opposing an American return to the deal, he will not wage a public campaign against it.
Instead, Bennett is opting for a broad approach that looks to counter Iran beyond its nuclear program. He intends to push back on its proxies, on its maritime attacks, on its economy and on the stability of its regime.
The idea, said his advisers last week in Washington, is to push on a number of weak spots simultaneously, in the hope that enough pressure will cause the Islamic Republic to collapse.
Bennett returns to two historical analogies to explain his strategy. He argues that the Middle East is in a Cold War scenario, with Israel playing the role of the US and Iran — a rotting regime hated by most of the population — akin to the Soviet Union. Enough pressure on multiple fronts, Bennett argues, will cause the system to eventually collapse.
The other analogy he uses is the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. In order to stop the German U-boat attacks devastating Allied shipping, the US, UK, and Canada developed a range of tactics and technologies to ultimately take control of the North Atlantic. The “little bit of everything” approach that dispersed the Nazi wolfpacks, he says, can also halt Tehran’s nuclear program and possibly even bring the Islamic Republic to its knees.
This approach can be seen as patient and appropriately cautious. While maintaining the goodwill of Israel’s most important ally, Israel will work to covertly present Iran with a range of challenges, forcing it to defend itself everywhere all the time until the whole edifice collapses.
On the other hand, it is hard to describe Bennett’s proposed approach to Iran as much of a strategy. Like many of Israel’s responses to threats, it is a series of impressive tactical efforts without a clear logic uniting them into a properly conceived campaign. Airstrikes and sabotage can certainly be helpful, but on their own they are not going to cause Iran to withdraw its support for armed proxies or compel the supreme leader to suspend his nuclear research program.
The new spirit of unity
“I come here from Jerusalem, our eternal capital,” said Bennett after his one-on-one conversation over coffee with Biden last Friday, “and I bring with me a new spirit, a spirit of goodwill, a spirit of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty, a spirit of unity and bipartisanship of folks who, as you suggested, harbor very different political opinions, even opposing.
“Yet we all share the deep passion to work together to build a better future for Israel,” he told the president in their joint press appearance. “And that’s what Israel is about. We’re out to be good, to do good.”
Bennett and his staff repeated this message throughout the visit — that he has been able to bring together Israeli politicians with very different worldviews around professional, non-ideological discussions to find solutions to the country’s pressing problems like COVID-19, climate change, and the state budget.
Supporters would argue that Bennett’s uniting approach to governing is a welcome and timely change from the partisan bickering Israelis have grown used to in their politics. What’s more, a pandemic like COVID-19 is beyond politics and ideology, and cooperation is required to cope with a disease that has killed 7,000 Israelis.
The flaw in this approach, as nice as it may sound, is that it is incoherent. There is no politics without ideology, just as there is no ideal solution to any challenge.
Take the coronavirus pandemic. Goals need to be defined and weighed against each other: protecting lives, protecting the economy, protecting civil rights, protecting education. Without ideology, there is no way to prioritize and no way to make the difficult choices necessary to craft a policy around a set of goals.
More broadly, there is no objective definition of the “better future” for Israel Bennett described to Biden. Every shekel invested in new capabilities to counter the potentially existential threat from Iran is a shekel not invested in the potentially existential threat from climate change. A larger welfare budget means a smaller education budget, and money sent to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora is not spent on combating violent crime in Arab cities.
On policy issues, a leader is expected to wisely balance the competing needs and interests of various constituencies, and come to a coherent policy that reflects the values, desires, priorities, religious sensibilities and rights of most of the public.
The coalition can hold fast and “muddle through,” in the words of a senior Israeli official, for only so long. At some point, Bennett will have to point at real goals based on an underlying worldview, and he may well be forced to do so in the face of a challenge that threatens to rip the government apart.
Avoiding dramatic moves might seem like the right approach for the anti-Netanyahu coalition governing the country. But real threats and problems will arise, and playing small ball for two years is no way to solve them.
The “new spirit” of cooperation is nice, but Bennett will have to start expressing his government’s principles and goals if he wants to be a leader worthy of the name.
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