Israel probably has in Joe Biden a president who almost unconditionally supports the alliance with the Jewish state. But he could be the last of his kind.
The visit by new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the U.S. is being described by some there as a new beginning. One could see it like that. Until a few months ago, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu were governing in Washington and Jerusalem, respectively, a bro-ey pair. Trump gave Netanyahu free reign in his dealings with the Palestinians and gave him the gifts of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. In exchange, Netanyahu agreed to peace treaties with some Arab countries with which Israel was not at war.
The personnel have changed: now Joe Biden sits in the White House instead of Trump, and Netanyahu was replaced by Bennett. Is everything going to be okay now? Does everyone now go back to the starting line? Will America go back to being the “honest broker” that strives for peace between Israel and the Palestinians?
Not really. One could see during the war in Gaza in May that Biden did not want to rock the boat of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Then, it was Joe Biden who gave Netanyahu, who was still governing at the time, free reign. Whoever was hoping — in a very naïve misjudgment of the situation, it must be noted — for a fundamental recalibration of American policies in the Middle East under Biden was disappointed.
That is comforting for Bennett, who is hardly less of a hardliner than Netanyahu with respect to Palestine. But if Bennett were paying attention, then he would have noticed that it was not “the Americans” who supported Israel in their war against Hamas. It was not even “the Democrats,” on whom Israel, until now, could always rely. It was Biden personally, although the party’s left wing protested vehemently and even many moderate Democrats sharply criticized Israel. That was a warning: Israel’s status as an almost untouchable ally is not guaranteed forever in Washington. Biden is one of the last who still views the alliance as so unconditional.
The Inherited Burden of Iran
Biden is up to his neck in the Afghanistan crisis — Bennett himself felt its consequences when the White House canceled his meeting with the president on Thursday because of the attack in Kabul and postponed it to Friday. Biden is himself responsible in part for this crisis. But he also inherited it in part from Trump, who, in early 2020, negotiated a withdrawal deal with the Taliban that was equivalent to a U.S. surrender. U.S.-Israeli relations are suffering under a similar inherited burden: Iran and its nuclear program.
Very much to Netanyahu’s delight, Trump abandoned the nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018. Despite new, tougher sanctions, Iran has since made significant progress toward possessing nuclear weapons. If Tehran wanted to build a bomb, it would probably only need a few months.
Biden and Bennett want to solve this problem, but from different approaches. The U.S. president wants to revive the nuclear deal, which is proving to be difficult. The Israeli prime minister, in contrast, wants to build up a credible threat of force, which will not be possible without substantive support from the U.S. government. Netanyahu tried time and again to publicly commit Washington to the military option. Biden will not be open to such a form of guerrilla diplomacy. A war with Iran is basically the last thing that he wants.
When the past is so decisive for the present, it is hardly a new beginning. Instead, it is a continuation, with new people but old problems.