After decade of Bibi, how will Bennett approach first US visit ?

Isareli artillery firing into Gaza, near the Israeli border with Gaza (Yonatan Sindel - Flash90)

Joseph Stepansky

Al-Jazeera  /  August 25, 2021

With Democrats and right-wing Bennett seeking relations reset after Netanyahu, Palestine likely to be back-burnered.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, just two months on the job, will meet with United States President Joe Biden in a visit in which both are expected to attempt to reset relations between Israeli leadership and Biden’s Democratic Party.

Bennett’s first trip abroad as leader of a diverse – and precarious – coalition government also represents the first time in 12 years that the US will host an Israeli prime minister who is not Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party whose own belief in his unique grasp of the US public and politics, analysts say, saw headline-grabbing stunts and an erosion of once hearty relations between Israeli leaders and the Democratic Party.

“I think Bennett’s approach is going be more low key than Netanyahu’s. He wants to work behind the scenes quietly to express Israeli positions, not by grandstanding before Congress, or on CNN or Fox News,” Dov Waxman, a professor of political science and the director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, told Al-Jazeera.

“The emphasis now is really on showing that this is turning a new page in US Israeli relationship in the post-Netanyahu period and in some ways resetting relations – particularly with the Democrats,” he said.

Still, Bennett, a staunch supporter of Jewish settlements and of the annexation of most of the West Bank and an opponent of the two-state solution to the conflict, and who sits farther right than the right-wing, pro-settlement Netanyahu, remains an uncomfortable bearer of a relationship reset with a changing Democratic Party.

During the last decade, progressives within the party – and wider US public – have become increasingly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and skeptical of Washington’s once sacrosanct unconditional aid for Israel.

Nevertheless, members of the Democratic leadership remain firm supporters of unyielding US support for Israel, and “want to avoid the impression that Democrats are fighting against Israel”, Waxman said.

“There’s a diligent desire on both sides to emphasize or to project that this is a very strong relationship, a strong alliance between the United States and Israel and one that has bipartisan support in the US,” he added.

Unique relationship with US

Both Netanyahu and Bennett have close ties to the US, but became prime ministers under starkly different circumstances that informed or likely will inform how they leverage those connections.

Bennett, who had formerly been a close ally of Netanyahu’s, is the son of Americans who immigrated to Israel in the late 1960s. He spent his childhood shuttling between Israel, the US, and Canada and co-founded, and then sold, a US tech company.

His right-wing Yamina party came to power in June in an unwieldy, political-spectrum spanning eight-party coalition that will see Yair Lapid, the more centrist head of the Yesh Atid party, become prime minister in two years.

Netanyahu spent part of his youth and high school years outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and later attended college and worked in Boston, Massachusetts.

He later worked in the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, before basing in New York City as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988. He served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, before forming a coalition government of right-wing parties in 2009.

“Netanyahu always prided himself in knowing how to connect with Americans and American politicians,” Guy Ziv, an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service, told Al-Jazeera.

“He speaks with an American inflexion, has long prided himself on really kind of getting the United States.”

That self-perception fuelled a strategy towards the US that often saw Netanyahu appeal to the US public and legislators to circumvent pressure from US leaders, he said.

“It was no secret that he had very bad chemistry with President [Barack] Obama almost from day one, and tried to undermine him publicly on a number of occasions,” said Ziv. “In 2012, when he invited Mitt Romney, then GOP challenger, to Israel, it was in the midst of presidential election on the assumption that Romney would win the White House.”

“And then several years later in 2015, he came to the US at the invitation of [then Republican House Speaker John] Boehner to address the joint session of Congress, which was aimed to thwart the Iran nuclear deal,” he said.

“The US relationship with Israel has become a very partisan issue under his leadership.”

While Netanyahu saw himself as the sole “linchpin” in US-Israel, Bennett is unlikely to replicate his more boisterous strategy, UCLA’s Waxman said.

“Bennett also speaks very well-accented American English. His parents are from the United States. He also believes he has a good grasp of the United States of American politics,” said Waxman.

“But even if he had the same ability as Netanyahu and even if he wanted to [replicate his strategy], this prime minister is the head of a very fractious coalition,” he said.  “He doesn’t have nearly the kind of leeway or latitude when it comes to Israeli foreign policy that Netanyahu had.”

“This isn’t going to be a relationship that’s going to focus as much as on the chemistry between the two leaders … but rather, looking at it as a much broader set of relationships across the two governments,” he said.

Palestinian issues sidelined

The reality of Bennett’s tenuous position at home is likely to keep Palestine from the top of the agenda in Washington, even as deadly protests against the continuing Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, and renewed Israeli bombardments, have again raised the prospect of another escalation.

Friction between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas government has been building in the three months since an 11-day relentless Israeli offensive killed 265 people in Gaza, and 13 in Israel.

Instead, Bennett has stressed he will address Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s continued opposition to reviving the Iran nuclear deal, an area with greater consensus within his coalition. He is set to meet with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Wednesday.

“He has really put [Palestinian issues] on the back burner and is focusing instead on issues where there’s much more consensus in Israeli society,” said American University’s Ziv, adding that while Biden may raise issues like strengthening the Palestinian Authority or asking Bennett to refrain from expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, “I don’t think he’s going to press too hard.”

And while Biden and Bennett may discuss disagreements about US plans to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem – which would bolster ties with Palestinians downgraded under former President Donald Trump – they will likely try to deal with the situation behind the scenes, said Waxman.

“I think politically there is a kind of understanding in Washington of Bennett’s position and how potentially fragile his coalition is,” he said, “and the last thing the Biden administration would want is to do something that would destabilize the Bennett coalition and potentially lead to another election and the return of Netanyahu.”

Joseph Stepansky is a reporter and producer for Al-Jazeera covering US foreign policy, human rights and conflict