Top Biden aide Sullivan begins Israel trip aimed at syncing up with new government
US national security adviser meets with Herzog, who stresses importance of not letting ties get bogged down by disagreements on Iran and Palestinians
Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met Wednesday with President Isaac Herzog, kicking off two days of talks with senior officials in Jerusalem aimed at developing a baseline working relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government.
Sullivan is the first senior administration official to visit Israel since Netanyahu’s coalition was sworn into power, setting off fears that it could expand Israel’s presence in the West Bank while hindering Palestinians, as well as clamp down on civil liberties inside Israel.
A US official told The Times of Israel that the national security adviser is using his meetings to get a better understanding of the new government’s policies regarding the Palestinians and lay out some of the Biden administration’s red lines, from annexation of the West Bank, to legalization of wildcat outposts and massive settlement expansion.
While the previous government approved thousands of settlement homes in the West Bank, it was also made up of members who support a two-state solution and advanced measures to improve the livelihood of Palestinians under Israeli military rule.
That approach has been largely rejected by the new government, whose guiding principles declare that Jews have an exclusive right to all parts of the “Land of Israel” including the West Bank. The cabinet has already passed sanctions against the Palestinian Authority following Ramallah’s successful effort at the UN to have the International Court of Justice weigh in on Israeli policy in the territories.
The Biden administration has condemned both the UN General Assembly effort as well as Israel’s punitive sanctions.
In a nod to the US position, Israeli authorities delayed a plan to advance a housing project in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Nof Zion, which had been slated to be approved on the eve of Sullivan’s visit, Channel 12 news reported. The decision was made following a request by the US Embassy in Israel, the network said, without citing a source.
Biden officials have gone out of their way to highlight promises to oppose Israeli efforts that harm prospects for a two-state solution, but have simultaneously adopted a wait-and-see approach, saying they will gauge the new government based on its policies, not its personalities.
But one of those personalities, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, managed to draw Washington’s ire days after he was sworn in when he paid a visit to Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount. Several Biden officials issued statements condemning the move, calling for upholding the status quo at the holy site under which Jews are not allowed to pray but stopping short of directly stating that Ben Gvir’s visit demonstrated a violation of those unwritten rules.
Still, Biden officials have continued employing historical talking points about the US commitment to Israel’s security and the fact that the president is sending his most senior advisers to meet with the new government offers Netanyahu a nod of legitimacy. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is slated to visit in the coming weeks, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel and an invitation for Netanyahu to Washington is also in the cards.
In Sullivan’s meeting with Herzog, the two stressed that the bilateral relationship is “a cross-party and cross-government issue,” the president’s office said in an apparent attempt to place relations above the new Israeli government given the political differences with Biden and his Democratic party.
Herzog is seen to view his role as somewhat of an intermediary between Netanyahu’s government and the Biden administration, given his relatively more dovish stances on the Palestinians and his longstanding ties with various senior US officials. Wednesday’s meeting was his fourth with Sullivan since the two took on their most recent positions.
On Tuesday, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, that the Democratic senator leading a bipartisan congressional delegation asked not to meet with Ben Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, or any members of their far-right Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties.
Netanyahu still met with the delegation of seven senators on Wednesday along with Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council Director Tzachi Hanegbi, and the group discussed efforts to expand the Abraham Accords normalization agreements Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020, the premier’s office said.
Netanyahu also “presented the Israeli view regarding the Iranian threat and how it is possible to deal with it by fielding a credible military threat and using economic and diplomatic pressure, and the potential for tightening cooperation in this regard,” his office said.
Talking Iran and normalization
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that Sullivan would be discussing the threats posed by Iran in his meetings with Israeli officials, though the Biden administration appears to be at a crossroads on the issue.
It sought to re-enter the multilateral agreement abandoned by former US president Donald Trump, arguing that this only led Iran to accelerate its enrichment efforts. However, indirect talks with Tehran during the first year of the administration failed to bear fruit, and Biden officials have spent the past several months acknowledging that a deal is no longer relevant, given Iran’s more hardline approach in the talks, its cooperation with Russia in the Ukraine war and the anti-regime protests throughout the Islamic Republic.
The US has introduced a flurry of sanctions against Iranian officials in recent months but still maintains that diplomacy is the best route to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. While Israel has pushed for the US to pursue an alternative and more aggressive approach to stopping Iran, Biden officials have avoided doing so, at least publicly.
Where the countries may be more aligned is on the issue of expanding the Abraham Accords, as Netanyahu has his sights on an elusive normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.
Kirby said Sullivan would be discussing “deepening normalization between Israel and some Arab states,” though the US has also asserted that such efforts are not to be in place of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
A US official said that Sullivan is looking to hear Netanyahu’s perspective on the issue, given the seemingly hairy conditions.
Riyadh has long asserted that it will not normalize ties with Israel without a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US ties with Saudi Arabia, which are crucial for such an agreement, have been battered due to the kingdom’s human rights record and its role in the energy crisis.
A deal also appears more difficult under the current hardline Israeli government.
Preserving the status quo on the Temple Mount will likely be placed high up on the Biden administration’s agenda in meetings with Israeli officials. Kirby said Wednesday that Sullivan would be highlighting the issue on his trip, seemingly convinced that tensions in Jerusalem could have regional reverberations.
Sullivan will be meeting with Netanyahu, opposition chairman Yair Lapid along with other senior Israeli officials before traveling to Ramallah to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
US ties with the Palestinians have deteriorated over the past year, with Ramallah frustrated that Washington has not taken a more hardline approach to Israel amid massive tensions in the West Bank.
In Israel though, there was still an effort to present business as usual. In thanking Herzog for hosting him, Sullivan said, “President Biden sends his personal regards to you. He remembers fondly your visit to the Oval [Office] and looks forward to welcoming you back soon, and also to coming back to Israel after his very successful trip last year.”
Sullivan’s meetings also come as the Netanyahu government advances plans to significantly restrict the power of the judiciary, sparking widespread protests. US officials told The Times of Israel earlier this month that they don’t plan on pressuring Israel against the overhaul but the State Department did issue a vague statement last week stressing the importance of Israel’s “independent institutions.”