The Day After Bibi

Israel's new prime minister
Jewish politics and power
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1. The final scene

There are many ways to mark the end of an era.

In Israel, the era of Benjamin Netanyahu, the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, ended with an unruly Knesset session. Israel’s transition from 12 years of Netanyahu dominating the political scene to a never-before-tested coalition cobbled together from differing, and at times diametrically opposed, ideological backgrounds, was accompanied by a soundtrack of constant interruption, heckling and boos.

Naftali Bennett, who, as of Sunday, is Israel’s new prime minister, barely had a chance to deliver the most important speech of his life. In between the shouts from Likud and right-wing parties’ benches accusing him of being a liar and a traitor, Bennett tried to convey a message of polite pragmatism, coupled with a call for national unity—the very thing that was so lacking at that moment in the Israeli parliament.

The unpleasant tone did not obscure the dramatic effect of the moment: For the first time in more than a decade, a person whose name is not Benjamin Netanyahu has taken the oath of office.

Bitter and visibly angry, Netanyahu responded with an address that was anything but a concession speech. For those Americans keeping tabs on Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s departing speech may be much more important than the one Bennett attempted to deliver.

2. Netanyahu’s warning

In his concession speech, the outgoing leader offered a gloomy assessment of the state of relations between Jerusalem and Washington.

“The U.S. administration asked me not to make our differences [over Iran] public,” Netanyahu said, and immediately proceeded to do just that. “With all due respect to our greatest friend, and to my old friend President Joe Biden, I told him I will not do so.” Netanyahu stated that he would keep publicly opposing U.S. efforts to return to the Iranian nuclear deal and warned that his successor, Bennett, lacks the international standing to mount any effective resistance to the plan.

Netanyahu went on to compare the Biden administration’s wish to rejoin the Iran deal to FDR’s refusal to bomb the Nazi gas chambers during World War II and made clear that any Israeli prime minister “needs to be able to say ‘no’ to an American president.”

Netanyahu is, of course, right about that: Every leader of a sovereign nation needs to be strong enough to stand up to pressure from any foreign power that could undermine the interests of their nation.
And yet, there was so much more to Bibi’s attack.

It wasn’t just a general call for toughness and resilience in the face of international pressure, but rather an attempt to single out Joe Biden’s America as a threat to Israel’s security, and perhaps even to its very existence.

The outgoing Israeli prime minister chose to cast the United States as a rival, as a nation that in the past refused to protect Jews when they were most in need during the Holocaust, a nation that only a seasoned and steeled Israeli leader can stop from going ahead with its (potentially) dangerous plans. “Members of the new cabinet,” Netanyahu warned, “are not interested in standing up to the United States, nor are they able to do so.”

Netanyahu clearly sees resistance to the United States (or at least to Democratic presidents of the United States) as his legacy, to judge from his departing speech. He takes enormous pride in having stood up to Obama and Biden during Obama’s presidency and wants to go down in history as the Israeli leader who prevented them from carrying out their ostensibly harmful plans.

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3. Bennett’s inheritance

Bennett, Israel’s new prime minister, who arrived at the position with little experience on the international stage, now has to deal with the anti-U.S. legacy that Netanyahu just left on his doorstep. Bennett, like Netanyahu, opposes the Iranian nuclear deal and does not believe the U.S. should rejoin it. So do most of his cabinet members.

The question, however, is how he will go about expressing these misgivings.

In his speech to the Knesset, Bennett praised Biden’s friendship with Israel and made clear he will be guided by a cross-party approach to U.S.-Israel relations. His defense minister, Benny Gantz, had delivered a similar message to U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin when the two met at the Pentagon earlier this month: Israel, Gantz told Austin, has reservations about returning to the nuclear deal, but will under no circumstances launch a public campaign against the U.S. administration.

For those trying to understand how the Bennett era will be different from that of Netanyahu, look no further than the Iran deal: Netanyahu believed, and still believes, that the only way to stop America from re-entering the agreement is by embarking on a full-scale public diplomacy war against the U.S. administration, regardless of how it will impact future relations with the administration and with Democrats. Bennett, on the other hand, is all about hashing out differences behind closed doors and avoiding public confrontations that could come across as personal or partisan. There’s only one problem with Bennett’s approach to the Iran deal: It probably won’t work.

The U.S. is just a hop, skip and a jump from rejoining the nuclear agreement with Iran, with very slight modifications, at best. Most experts believe it is inevitable and that there’s nothing Bennett can do to stop it. (The same is true for Netanyahu, but as opposition leader, he does not have to worry about pragmatism.)

This upcoming showdown will shape the future of Biden and Bennett’s relationship. Bennett, most likely, will lose his first major argument with the Biden administration, and Netanyahu, undoubtedly, will be standing on the sideline with a big “I told you so” smile.

4. Tell me you support Bennett without telling me you support Bennett

Joe Biden had a busy Sunday.

He started off his morning attending the final session of the G-7 summit in England, then held a news conference, flew to London, met with Queen Elizabeth, and then flew to Brussels. And still, he somehow managed to find time to pick up the phone and call Naftali Bennett, less than two hours after Bennett was sworn in.

This is pretty remarkable for a president who took a full month after assuming office to call Netanyahu.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is also running a full schedule alongside Biden in Europe, managed to squeeze in a call with foreign minister Yair Lapid, who, according to the coalition agreement, will replace Bennett as prime minister in two years.

The Biden administration isn’t sorry to see Netanyahu go. They can’t say that out loud, but their actions leave no room for doubt.

5. What’s next?

Here are just a few things to look for in the upcoming weeks, now that there’s a new government in Israel:

  • Who will be Israel’s next ambassador to Washington?
  • When will Biden invite Bennett to Washington? (Blinken has already invited Lapid, and Israel’s outgoing president Reuven Rivlin is expected to come for a farewell visit later this month.)
  • Who will be the dominant force in shaping Israel’s relations with the Biden administration: Bennett, Lapid (who is better known in the U.S.) or Gantz (who has current working ties with his American counterparts)?
  • When will Biden nominate his new ambassador to Israel and announce the reopening of the U.S. consulate for Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem?

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One thought on “The Day After Bibi

  1. Carol says:

    Are we tired of hearing Netanyahu disrespect yet another president of the United States? Our foreign policy is not decided in Israel. Besides, we realize that Iran has profited from Trump’s pullout by increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium more than 12 times the limit set under the JCPOA. (Thanks, Donnie.)

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