New leaders, new era: US-Israel relations reach crossroads

By Matthew Lee and Joseph Krauss - Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Their countries at crossroads, the new leaders of the United States and Israel have inherited a relationship that is at once imperiled by increasingly partisan domestic political considerations and deeply bound in history and an engrained recognition that they need each other.

How President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett manage that relationship will shape the prospects for peace and stability in the Middle East.

They are ushering in an era no longer defined by the powerful personality of long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu, who repeatedly defied the Obama administration and then reaped the rewards of a warm relationship with President Donald Trump.

Bennett’s government says it wants to repair relations with the Democrats and restore bipartisan support in the U.S. for Israel. Biden, meanwhile, is pursuing a more balanced approach on the Palestinian conflict and Iran.

The relationship is critical to both countries. Israel has long regarded the United States as its closest ally and guarantor of its security and international standing while the U.S. counts on Israel’s military and intelligence prowess in a turbulent Middle East.

But both Biden and Bennett are also restrained by domestic politics.

Bennett leads an uncertain coalition of eight parties from across Israel’s political spectrum whose main point of convergence was on removing Netanyahu from power after 12 years. Biden is struggling to bridge a divide in his party where near-uniform support for Israel has eroded and a progressive wing wants the U.S. to do more to end Israel’s half-century occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.

Shortly after taking office, the new Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, recognized the challenges Israel faces in Washington.

“We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate and House and they are angry,” Lapid said upon taking the helm at Israel’s foreign ministry a week ago. “We need to change the way we work with them.”

A key test will be on Iran. Biden has sought to return to the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama saw as a signature foreign policy achievement. Trump withdrew from the pact to cheers from pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers and Israel. Though Iran has not yet accepted Biden’s offer for direct negotiations, indirect discussions on the nuclear deal are now in a sixth round in Vienna.

The new Israeli government remains staunchly opposed to Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal. But it maintains it will discuss the issue behind closed doors rather than staging public confrontations, such as Netanyahu’s controversial address slamming the agreement to the U.S. Congress in 2015.

In a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, Lapid said the two agreed on a “no surprises” policy and to keep lines of communication open.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, says that rather than trying to scuttle any agreement with Iran, the new government will press the U.S. administration to keep some sanctions on Iran in place and seek “strategic compensation” for Israel as part of any return to the deal.

Resolving differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be another significant challenge for the two leaders.

Biden has already moved to reverse Netanyahu-backed Trump policies that alienated the Palestinians and caused a near total rupture in official U.S.-Palestinian contacts. Almost immediately after taking office, Biden restored Trump-slashed U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, which in just four months totals more than $300 million. He announced his administration’s intent to re-open the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, closed by Trump, that handled relations with the Palestinians. And, administration officials have spoken of the imperative that Israelis and Palestinians enjoy equal measures of security and prosperity.

In a call on Bennett’s first day in office, Biden affirmed his “steadfast support for the U.S.-Israel relationship” and “unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”

By Matthew Lee and Joseph Krauss

Associated Press