Israel remains America’s closest Middle East ally, but there are likely to be disagreements when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett makes his first visit to the White House on Thursday.
The far-right Mr. Bennett, who unseated longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu in June, said he will encourage President Biden to take a much harder posture toward Iran, Israel‘s archenemy.
Biden administration officials say the meeting will show U.S.-Israeli unity, but Mr. Bennett already has made headlines by vowing to press the president to stop trying to revive the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.
“I will tell President Biden that it is time to stop the Iranians … not give them a lifeline in the form of reentering into an expired nuclear deal,” he said at a Cabinet meeting Sunday in Jerusalem.
President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran deal in 2018. Mr. Biden has spent the past six months trying to revive it, even though Iranian leaders refuse to talk directly with U.S. diplomats.
Mr. Bennett told his aides the deal is “no longer relevant, even by the standards of those who once thought that it was,” according to a report by The Times of Israel.
The prime minister’s two-day visit to Washington will also include discussions on other fronts.
He met Wednesday with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Mr. Bennett also reportedly met with Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Israel is facing a gradual resurgence of hostilities on its southern border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Three months ago, an 11-day war left 265 dead in Gaza and 13 in Israel.
The Biden administration wants the U.S. to help rebuild Gaza without channeling aid to Hamas. Another regional security issue likely to be on the agenda is the potential expansion of the Trump administration’s historic Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab powers.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week that Mr. Bennett‘s visit “will strengthen the enduring partnership between the United States and Israel, reflect the deep ties between our governments and our people, and underscore the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”
The extent to which the two men will show unity on Iran policy remains to be seen.
Friction over Iran
In his remarks Sunday, Mr. Bennett warned that Iran is “advancing uranium enrichment” and said he intends to present Mr. Biden with “an orderly plan that we have formulated in the past two months to curb the Iranians, both in the nuclear sphere and vis-a-vis regional aggression.”
Biden administration officials have shown no sign of backing away from pursuing a renewed nuclear deal with Iran. The effort stalled this summer in the face of increasingly bare-knuckle rhetorical posturing from President Ebrahim Raisi, Iran‘s new hard-line leader.
Mr. Raisi has vowed to fight “tyrannical sanctions” that Washington reimposed on Iran after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018. Mr. Trump said Tehran was violating the spirit of the deal by using sanctions relief to fund terrorists across the Middle East.
The 2015 deal dramatically eased sanctions in exchange for limitations to and U.N. inspections of Iranian nuclear activities. Iran claims the activities are purely peaceful, but the U.S., Israel and others accuse Tehran of pursuing nuclear weapons in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Mr. Netanyahu was one of the nuclear deal’s biggest critics, and Mr. Bennett has embraced a similar posture since ending Mr. Netanyahu’s tumultuous 12-year run as prime minister.
Mr. Bennett‘s rise surprised many on the international stage.
The 49-year-old millionaire from the technology industry is the son of American immigrants to Israel and a former head of a major Israeli settlers group in the largely Palestinian West Bank.
After repeated failures by the centrist-conservative Mr. Netanyahu to form a ruling coalition among Israel‘s varied and divided political parties, Mr. Bennett emerged in June atop an alliance cobbled together from eight parties, including Jewish ultranationalists and a small Arab faction.
Despite their varied political stances and sharply different personal backgrounds, Mr. Biden and Mr. Bennett are expected to praise each other publicly.
Mr. Biden, 78, is a career politician and left-leaning centrist. Mr. Bennett made millions of dollars in the New York and Israeli software markets as a young man before jumping into politics and building alliances across Israel‘s ideological spectrum.
The two men are likely to show unity for the future of the Abraham Accords.
The Trump administration sought to advance Middle East peace by putting Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the background while pursuing diplomatic normalizations between Israel and major Arab powers.
Unity over accords
The historic accords eased regional enmity and isolation for the only Jewish state in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco were the first Arab countries in decades to recognize Israel‘s existence and to establish diplomatic relations and normal trade and travel ties.
The Biden administration has not pursued the accords with the same fervor as the Trump administration, although The Associated Press reported in June that the White House had begun laying the groundwork to encourage more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel.
Saudi Arabia is among the Arab powers that have yet to join the accords.
Although a direct buy-in from Riyadh is unlikely in the short term, national security sources say Mr. Biden and Mr. Bennett will rally to expand the accords as a way to smooth Arab-Israeli tensions, which soared after the 11-day Israeli-Palestinian war in May.
Tensions between Israel and Hamas have threatened to derail efforts to expand the accords, let alone Biden administration attempts to push directly for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Indirect negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to reach an arrangement even for the reconstruction of Gaza have broken down in the past week.
Hamas, an Islamist terrorist group that has long received support from Iran, has launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel and staged violent demonstrations along the border. Israeli warplanes have responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.
With that violence as a backdrop, Mr. Biden is unlikely to press Mr. Bennett for any major concessions to the Palestinians in Gaza or even the West Bank. Still, the administration is frustrated by expanding Israeli settlement activity on land in the West Bank that Palestinians seek for their own independent state.
A report by Reuters news agency noted that Mr. Bennett has moved cautiously on the settlement issue as prime minister after advocating for Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.
The news agency said Israel‘s scheduled approval last week of 2,200 new Israeli settler homes, along with 800 houses for Palestinians, was postponed, apparently to avoid dissonance with Washington ahead of Mr. Bennett‘s visit.
Several groups critical of the Biden administration‘s Israel policy said they were planning to rally Thursday morning at Lafayette Park across the street from the White House to support Palestinian rights and to protest Mr. Bennett‘s visit with Mr. Biden.