1. An Awkwardly Timed Visit
Naftali Bennett’s first visit to Washington as prime minister of Israel couldn’t have come at a less suitable moment: At the White House, President Joe Biden is fully consumed with the Afghanistan withdrawal and evacuation drama, and when not busy with that, is still trying to collect votes for his infrastructure bill. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress are on their August recess and will not be in town to meet the new Israeli leader. And for Bennett, too, this isn’t the best moment to embark on an overseas trip: Israel is in the midst of a surge in COVID infections, the school year is about to start with great uncertainty about in-person teaching and vaccination requirements, not to mention the troubling optics of a prime minister calling on his people to cancel their summer overseas vacation plans, only to get on a plane himself.
These restrictions have determined the outline of Bennett’s Washington visit, which will begin Wednesday. Plans for a grand trip, which would serve as an opportunity to introduce the new Israeli leader to the U.S. administration, Congress, media, think tanks and the public, were shelved in favor of a limited two-day blitz, culminating in a Thursday morning Oval Office meeting with Biden.
2. So Why Now?
Despite the tight timing and the limited scope of the visit, both sides felt it was important to hold a meeting between Biden and Bennett sooner rather than later.
For Bennett, the reason was obvious. A White House photo-op with the president of the United States is the single most important credential any Israeli prime minister can hope for. Standing next to the leader of the free world, being greeted majestically by his staff and answering questions from the press while sitting in front of the Oval Office fireplace are the images that will help cement Bennett’s position as a statesman, not merely a leader of a small party who took advantage of a rare political situation to assume Israel’s highest position.
Entering the White House will be especially precious for Bennett, who has replaced Israel’s long-serving former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose claim to fame was his close ties with American leaders.
Biden also has good reasons for making room on his busy schedule to meet with Bennett. The U.S. administration, still hoping to deliver on the promise of returning to the Iran nuclear deal, and still working to reset American foreign relations in the post-Trump era, needs to make sure everything is working well on the Israel front. Meeting with Bennett early on in his tenure can help ensure that relations with post-Netanyahu Israel are off to a new start, with less acrimony, more cooperation and–perhaps most important–no surprises.
3. What’s on the table?
First, there’s Iran. Iran, Iran and Iran.
The Tehran-Washington-Jerusalem triangle has reached an interesting point: The difficulties nuclear negotiators have encountered in their talks in Vienna, and the election of a hardliner president in Iran, have made Biden less confident that the U.S. can indeed return to the nuclear deal. America, for the first time since the elections, may be open to thinking about a Plan B in case rejoining the deal turns out to be impossible. Bennett’s input, especially if he comes to Washington with creative ideas, could be welcomed by Biden and his team.
Israel also seems to be open to some new thinking on Iran. The anti-deal front led by Netanyahu, but joined by a broad consensus in Israel, including Bibi’s rivals, is starting to crack. Reports on the inner-circle discussions of the Bennett team indicate that, contrary to his predecessor, Bennett may be willing to accept the fact that America engaging with Iran diplomatically is the only way forward, and that a flawed agreement, if reached, is better than no deal at all.
Iran’s recent advancements toward achieving breakthrough nuclear abilities are the reason both sides are now rethinking their approach: For Biden, it’s a reminder that left unchecked, Iran will not hesitate to rush toward a bomb, and for Bennett, recent developments prove that Israel’s previous all-or-nothing approach has only made the Iranian nuclear threat greater and more immediate.
Another issue on the table at the Thursday meeting will be Afghanistan, an issue neither leader can avoid addressing. Israel has no direct stake in the crisis, but it is watching closely, trying to gauge the future of America’s involvement in the world, and how Iran, Afghanistan’s neighbor, will deal with the new situation.
And then there’s the Palestinian issue. Once a top-item agenda issue in every meeting of American and Israeli leaders, that had been moved to the back burner since Trump.
Biden, in contrast to his Democratic predecessors Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, came to the White House clear eyed about the chances of achieving peace. But still, he strongly believes that it is essential to keep in mind the goal being peace and that a two-state solution should be kept alive, and this is definitely something Biden feels the need to raise with Bennett.
4. Bennett the unlikely moderate?
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Bennett should have been Biden’s worst nightmare. A former leader of the West Bank settler council who became the head of a political party to the right of the Likud, Bennett could have become a single-issue prime minister, caring only, or at least primarily, for the settlers and for ensuring that the dream of a Palestinian independent state never becomes a reality. But as Washington has learned in recent months, Bennett is proving to be anything but dogmatic on these issues.
Under Bennett, the new Israeli government moved forward last week with a new building plan that will, indeed, expand existing Jewish settlements, but – and this is a first – will also include permits for building Palestinian homes. Bennett has also avoided discussing, let alone advancing, any plan for annexation of the West Bank or for changing the status quo on the ground.
Now, to be clear, this does not make Naftali Bennett a peacenik, nor does it make his hybrid government any more likely to become a partner for any kind of peace initiative in the region. But sometimes you need to take what you can get, and a former settler leader willing to show some pragmatism is more than Biden and most Democrats could have hoped for.
5. A Homeless New Ambassador?
Mike Herzog, who was recently chosen to serve as Israel’s next ambassador to Washington, will not be part of Bennett’s team on the U.S. visit. Herzog has yet to be confirmed by the Israeli cabinet and will move to Washington only after cabinet ministers get to vote on his appointment.
But even then, there’s one small issue: Where will the new ambassador reside?
The government of Israel has for decades owned a home in DC’s Forest Hills neighborhood that has served as the official residence of most Israeli ambassadors. Most, but not all. In 2013, after Ron Dermer was selected for the position, the residence was deemed uninhabitable due to poor maintenance and stood abandoned for years, until it was finally torn down. The property owned by Israel is now a pile of rubble, waiting for rebuilding. Dermer and his family lived in a house rented by the government in nearby Kenwood. The Israeli taxpayer footed a rental bill of more than $15,000 a month for this temporary residence. Dermer returned to Israel last December, and his successor, Gilad Erdan, who served both as ambassador to Washington and to the United Nations, made his permanent residence in New York. While in DC, he stayed at hotels.
What will Herzog do?
With the Forest Hills residence not expected to be rebuilt anytime soon, the Israeli government may have to find a new rental, and pay the hefty bill for many more years.