Shift in Israel Provides Biden a Chance for Better Ties

WASHINGTON — President Biden waited more than three weeks after his inauguration to place his first call to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister at the time. It took Mr. Biden less than three hours after the swearing in on Sunday of Mr. Netanyahu’s successor, Naftali Bennett, to phone with what the White House called his “warm congratulations.”

Mr. Bennett responded in kind, and on Monday, Yair Lapid, his centrist partner in the awkward coalition assembled to oust Mr. Netanyahu, went even further, blaming Mr. Netanyahu for poisoning Israel’s relationship with Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party.

The change in government in Israel will hardly wipe away deep differences with the Biden administration: The right-wing Mr. Bennett is ideologically closer to Mr. Netanyahu than to Mr. Biden. And it did not make the longstanding issues in the Middle East any less intractable.

But the early interactions suggest a shift in tone and an opportunity, analysts said, to establish a less contentious relationship, with potential implications for dealing with Iran, the Palestinians and the wider region.

“The tone and tenor of the relationship has gotten off to a very good start,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005.

“The Biden administration clearly wants to send a message that they’re open for serious business and dialogue,” he added, noting the swiftness of the calls from Mr. Biden and one from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to Mr. Lapid.

In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Bennett’s office said he considered the American president “a great friend of the State of Israel” and planned on “strengthening ties between the two countries.”

And in a speech on Monday, Mr. Lapid said the Netanyahu government’s management of its relationship with the Democratic Party “was careless and dangerous.”

“We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate and House, and they are angry,” said Mr. Lapid, Israel’s new foreign minister and who, as part of the deal that formed the unlikely coalition, will succeed Mr. Bennett as prime minister in two years. “We need to change the way we work with them.”

Although Mr. Bennett shares and even amplifies many of his predecessor’s hard-line views on issues that have recently strained the U.S.-Israel relationship, including Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s stance toward the Palestinians, the combative Mr. Netanyahu’s exit after a 12-year tenure came as a relief to the Biden administration.

Mr. Biden has long considered Mr. Netanyahu a friend, albeit one with whom he often disagrees. But many administration officials and Congressional Democrats viscerally disdain the ousted Israeli leader, whom they came to see as a corrosive force and a de facto political ally of Republicans, including former President Donald J. Trump.

Biden administration officials “don’t like Bibi, and they do see the possibility for a fresh start with Bennett,” said Natan Sachs, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, during an online panel hosted on Monday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“I think a fundamental change is possible,” added Mr. Kurtzer, now a professor at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. “You now have a government in which there’s a prime minister who doesn’t think that he knows better than Washington what the United States should do.”

Analysts noted that Israel’s fragile new coalition government, which stitches together political parties of diffuse views, lacks the political consensus to adopt major new policies toward the Palestinians.

“There will be no major moves,” Mr. Sachs said. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid hope to make politics “boring,” he said, and focus on domestic matters like Israel’s economy and budget.

That means virtually no chance of an Israeli annexation of occupied West Bank territory of the sort recently contemplated by Mr. Netanyahu, a step that would have provoked a diplomatic crisis with the Biden administration.

At the same time, the new Israeli government has little interest in or capacity for new peace initiatives with the Palestinians.

Mr. Bennett has publicly opposed the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians long favored by the United States. American foreign policy experts have been told that Mr. Bennett has been referring to a book called “Catch-67,” by the Israeli author Micah Goodman, who argues that there is no possibility of any comprehensive final peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. His prescription is to reduce the friction around the issue rather than try to solve an intractable problem.

While Mr. Biden supports a two-state solution, he does not consider one realistic in the short term. Intent on shifting America’s focus from the Middle East to restoring alliances with Europe and countering a rising China, he has not actively pursued one and, unlike his past few predecessors, has not named an envoy to mediate a peace deal.

But Biden administration officials, who have called for the swift reconstruction of Gaza after the conflict that erupted last month between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, could soon find themselves frustrated by the slow pace at which international aid is moving into that area, whose infrastructure was badly damaged.

At the same time, any new burst of internecine violence between Jews and Arabs within Israel, like the one that set off last month’s Gaza conflict, could test relations between Mr. Biden and Mr. Bennett, a strong supporter of Israeli nationalist and settler groups that Biden officials see as an obstacle to peace.

Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American analyst and a fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, said that both Israeli and U.S. officials may hope to “put a new face on old policies” and return to a situation where Palestinian issues are not commanding global attention as they did this spring.

“The challenge is that the conditions on the ground are not necessarily going to lend themselves toward this charade,” he said.

Mr. Biden will still have to manage sharp criticism from progressive Democrats in Congress over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which has prompted increasing calls for cuts to or limits on the $3.8 billion in annual military aid the U.S. sends to Israel.

Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, visited Washington this month seeking $1 billion in additional U.S. funds to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system, which intercepted thousands of Hamas rockets fired toward Israeli cities. While stressing their support for the Iron Dome system, Biden administration officials have not committed to that figure.

Another test case for the new relationship could emerge from Vienna, where nuclear talks among several world powers, the U.S. and Iran resumed for a sixth round over the weekend. The Biden administration, offering sanctions relief, hopes to persuade Iran to return to compliance with a 2015 nuclear agreement that Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lapid have both opposed on the grounds that it does not adequately limit Iran’s nuclear program.

Halie Soifer, the chief executive of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said she was optimistic that the debate around the Iran deal would be more temperate than in the Obama era, when Mr. Netanyahu infuriated the White House by delivering a speech to Congress opposing the nuclear agreement.

“To the extent the Israeli government is no longer trying to intervene in our own domestic politics, we are hopeful that this will be very different than what transpired in 2015,” she said.

But Michael Doran, a former National Security Council official for Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush White House, warned that a threat as substantial as Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capability was too great to be papered over by friendlier attitudes.

“I don’t think the Israelis are going to drop their opposition” to the nuclear deal, he said. “I don’t think they’re going to drop their clandestine operations to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. And that’s going to create considerable friction between Jerusalem and Washington.”

Nor does Mr. Netanyahu plan to leave the public stage, particularly when it comes to an Iran deal he has long denounced.

In fiery remarks on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu angrily warned that Mr. Lapid would make for a weak opponent against a renewal of that agreement.

“The prime minister of Israel needs to be able to say no to the president of the United States on issues that threaten our existence,” Mr. Netanyahu said, according to The Times of Israel. “This government does not want and is not capable of opposing the United States.”

Annie Karni contributed reporting from Washington, and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.

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