The fallout from US troops leaving Afghanistan were expected to overshadow the first in-person meeting between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House on Thursday, but American Jewish leaders hope the event will solidify and strengthen ties between the allies and bolster regional security.
“The history is that strong relationships between the government of Israel and the government of the United States have transcended what party is in power, what government is in power from either country,” said Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO for the Jewish Federations of North America. “But the fact is, when there are new leaders, you have to renew those ties, you have to build the relationship.”
While other members of the Israeli government have in recent months been meeting with their American counterparts, Bennett is the first new Israeli prime minister in more than a decade, and unlike his predecessor, is not acquainted with Biden.
“The most important thing that can come out of this is a good rapport between the prime minister and the president, [so] they can start to build a very productive working relationship,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.
Both administrations have departed from the policies of their predecessors to varying degrees and have a number of divergent opinions with each other. Biden has notably sought to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump left in 2018, as well as restore aid and ties with the Palestinians, which Trump also severed. While Bennett, a right-winger, likely shares his predecessor’s views on Iran and the Palestinians, he may lack the clout to sway Biden on the issues.
“Israel has all along expressed its justified opposition to any deal with the Iranians that would create some kind of daylight for them to continue in some way—whether it’s sooner or later—their nuclear program,” said Dan Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International. “In light of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the election before that of Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran, [I hope] that there would be an opportunity to perhaps close any gaps that might have existed before between the two governments on the Iran issue.”
Fingerhut said that Bennett should deliver the message that the threats of instability and radicalism that threaten Israel are the same as those that threaten the United States—the terroristic threat that reached American shores almost 20 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001, is also related to the recent war between Israel and Hamas.
“I hope what comes out of it is the sanctions that are still in place now will remain in place, and I hope [Bennett] puts pressure on Biden to not make a deal, at minimum, unless America can visit any military facility at will,” said ZOA President Mort Klein.
“Right now, it has to give a notice of 28 days. It’s ridiculous. They clear everything out,” he said. “So the three things he’s got to do is to say if you make a deal, you’ve got to have a much longer sunset period—20 or 30 years. Two, you have got to keep the sanctions in place until we see some sort of transformation of the regime towards a civilized society. And three, any new deal has to allow them to visit military facilities at will, not give them a 28-day notice.”
Mariaschin said he hopes Israel’s concerns will be factored into American policymaking.
“The PA has not moved at all on pay-for-slay; funds are being given to UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees] … really with nothing substantial in terms of reforms, in terms of commitments to change school curricula” he said. “There’s also the issue [that the US] administration would like to reopen [its] consulate in eastern Jerusalem. And if one gives away all of your leverage, without receiving anything in return, then what should we expect?”
“There should really be no rush to conclude any kind of hasty return either to the table or to try to move on some kind of an arrangement without ascertaining that there would be something in return,” Mariaschin said, adding that since the Abraham Accords signed between Israel and neighboring Arab nations a year ago there have been encouraging signs for peace and stability in the region, despite the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not being resolved.
For Klein, opening an American consulate in Jerusalem to serve the PA is a critical issue. “This would be the worst appeasement message imaginable—that despite their outrageous behavior, they’re being allowed to open up a consulate in Israel’s capital.”
Another topic of conversation would be the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in America and throughout the world, especially in the wake of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip in May.
Said Fingerhut: “I know that Prime Minister Bennett—because Jewish Federation leadership was with him just days before he became prime minister—cares deeply about the rise of anti-Semitism around the world. That he sees his role as prime minister as caring for the Jewish people around the world and I hope and expect that will be also a topic of conversation between them.”