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Israel's New Leader Wants A Fresh Start With America. That Will Be Tough

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a Cabinet meeting Aug. 1 in Jerusalem.
Abir Sultan
Pool Photo via AP
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a Cabinet meeting Aug. 1 in Jerusalem.

Israel's new prime minister has arrived in Washington with a monumental task on his shoulders: to clear the air after years of stormy relations between his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Democratic leadership.

Netanyahu left behind a polarizing legacy in the United States, with his open defiance of the Obama administration's Iran nuclear deal and its vision for Palestinian statehood, and his close affinity with Republicans and former President Donald Trump. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Biden seek to turn over a new leaf when they meet Thursday in the Oval Office.

"I am bringing with me, from Jerusalem, a new spirit of cooperation," Bennett said on the tarmac Tuesday before departing Israel.

But Bennett has landed in a changed America, where there are new foreign policy priorities, and shifting attitudes against Israel over its occupation of the West Bank and the unequal rights of Palestinians and Israeli settlers there. Building a new bridge will not be easy.

There are major areas of disagreement between the Biden administration and Israel on Iran

Bennett said his White House visit is crucial because of Iran. "We will present an orderly plan that we have formulated in the past two months to curb the Iranians, both in the nuclear sphere and vis-à-vis regional aggression," Bennett said Sunday.

Israel claims Iran, which has called for Israel's destruction, has advanced its uranium enrichment further than ever before, shortening the time it needs to create a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu encouraged Trump to leave the Iran nuclear deal, which former President Barack Obama brokered with other world powers to curb Iranian nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief. Bennett wants to convince Biden not to return to the nuclear deal, arguing Iran has already advanced in its uranium enrichment, and that sanctions relief would give Iran more resources to back Israel's enemies in the region. But Biden decided to renew talks with Iran earlier this year, sidelining Israel's influence on the matter.

Israel perceives two scenarios, according to former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas. The U.S. could reach a deal in the coming weeks and months, and Biden could ask Bennett to restrain his public rhetoric opposing the deal. Or the U.S. could suspend talks, leading Iran to continue enriching uranium to the point where it could quickly build a nuclear weapon.

That "puts Israel and the U.S. in a bind," Pinkas told NPR. It leaves Israel with the dilemma of whether to consider the risky step of unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear facilities at a moment that Biden's focus is on pulling out of Afghanistan. The U.S. president is uninterested in being dragged into another quagmire nearby and seeks to turn his international focus toward countering China's global dominance.

China is another point of contention between the U.S. and Israel, which relies on Chinese investment in key infrastructure. Bennett is expected to present the White House with his formulated policy regarding Chinese investment in Israel.

Biden wants Israel to help Palestinians. Bennett wants to lower expectations

Palestinian relatives mourn for Imad Hashash, 15, who was killed in clashes Tuesday with Israeli security forces. Palestinian authorities said the teenager died after being shot in the head during clashes with soldiers. Israel's military said soldiers were carrying out an arrest raid when they came under attack from nearby rooftops by Palestinians.
Majdi Mohammed / AP
Palestinian relatives mourn for Imad Hashash, 15, who was killed in clashes Tuesday with Israeli security forces. Palestinian authorities said the teenager died after being shot in the head during clashes with soldiers. Israel's military said soldiers were carrying out an arrest raid when they came under attack from nearby rooftops by Palestinians.

Cross-border violence has spiked between Israel and Gaza. A Palestinian demonstration at the Israeli barrier along Gaza's perimeter last weekend sparked violent clashes and serious injuries on both sides. Hamas, which rules Gaza, plans a similar demonstration Wednesday, as Bennett is in Washington holding talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top U.S. officials. Maintaining calm in Gaza is a shared concern between Israel and the U.S. following the deadly Gaza-Israel conflict in May.

But there is disagreement between Biden and Bennett over the fate of the half-century-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank, land Palestinians seek for a future state. The Biden administration supports the creation of a Palestinian state but says Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not ready for peace negotiations, and urges confidence-building steps to start.

Bennett, a right-wing supporter of Israel's settlements in the West Bank, believes an independent Palestinian state would pose a threat to Israel's security. His government, divided on the question of a Palestinian state, will not engage in peace negotiations or political concessions. "None. None. Nothing close to any negotiations with the Palestinians," an Israeli diplomatic official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue in a briefing with reporters. "Concessions are part of a political negotiation."

Instead, Bennett's government has adopted a policy of "shrinking" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a notion conceptualized by Israeli philosopher and author Micah Goodman, an unofficial adviser to Bennett. To that end, Israel has approved more jobs and homes for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Palestinian leaders seek political freedom, not just better daily life conditions. But they are willing to begin with baby steps and want the Biden administration to advocate on their behalf.

"The forthcoming Biden-Bennett meeting is certainly an opportunity to turn America's words into deeds, especially after scores of promises that are yet to see the light," said Sabri Saidam, a senior official in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party.

Two of the Palestinian Authority's key asks are politically controversial in Israel.

It wants the U.S. to reopen its Jerusalem consulate, the unofficial embassy to the Palestinian Authority that the Trump administration shuttered. Palestinians want a direct diplomatic line to the U.S. and see a Jerusalem consulate as a symbolic U.S. recognition of Palestinian claims in the city. But Netanyahu's right-wing allies in parliament oppose the reversal of Trump-era policy in Jerusalem and call on Bennett to oppose the move. The Biden administration said it intends to reopen the consulate, but it is not expected to do so for several months until the Israeli government further stabilizes and can withstand domestic controversy.

The other matter is financial. Though the U.S. asked Israel to help shore up the Palestinian Authority's financial crisis, Palestinian officials said Israel exacerbated the crisis last month by deciding not to give the Palestinians about 7% of the tax revenues Israel regularly collects on their behalf, to protest Palestinian stipends to prisoners convicted of attacking Israelis. About half of the Palestinian budget is dependent on these tax revenues.

Biden may give Bennett a warm photo op, but Biden's base thinks differently about Israel

Bennett's government aims to repair relations with Democrats after the rocky Netanyahu years. Biden, an ardent supporter of Israel, will welcome the chance for a restart. But a charm offensive without policy changes will not be enough to win over a party in turmoil over Israel.

Black Lives Matter protests and Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in May cracked open a debate among Democrats about support for Israel, the world's biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Some progressive House representatives have accused Israel of committing "apartheid" against Palestinians, and back the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, campaign against Israel.

"If we see more of the radical left and progressive liberal Jews continuing to support BDS and Black Lives Matter, and similar to the Palestinians, if they relate to Israel as a genocide state or an apartheid state, and so on, we may lose America," Israeli Cabinet minister Nachman Shai said this month.

Progressive American Jews, who overwhelmingly voted for Biden, increasingly view Israel's policies toward Palestinians through the lens of racial justice. "It's a Jewish American population that is maybe more aware than at any time since the civil rights movement of what inequality and inequity and injustice means," said Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

But she said the Democratic establishment has little appetite to adopt progressive positions and push Israel to change its policies significantly toward Palestinians in a way that could be turned into a wedge issue weakening Democrats ahead of U.S. midterm elections.

In a few election cycles, though, the Democratic Party could promote starker views against Israeli policies, which would have profound implications for the country.

"I think that's inevitable because the base looks different. I think that the young folks are fundamentally shifting how we have these conversations," said Noura Erakat, a leading Palestinian American activist. "Biden represents an old establishment."

Sami Sockol contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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