Steven A. Cook
Foreign Policy / September 1, 2021
When it comes to policies Washington cares about, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his predecessor are practically the same.
There was a time in the mid-to-late 1980s when Benjamin Netanyahu was a ubiquitous presence on American television. At the time, he served as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, but he seemed less interested in the world body than wooing Americans, which he was particularly good at. Netanyahu presented Israel’s case to the American people like no one before and no one since. It helped that he spoke impeccable English, had excellent cultural awareness from the time he spent in the Philadelphia area and then Massachusetts earning his degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the brother of the only Israeli soldier killed during the famed 1976 Israeli raid on the airport at Entebbe, and was a good-looking guy.
He may have remained popular among supporters of Israel, but in time Netanyahu would overstep his bounds and undermine the goodwill he had in Washington. During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Netanyahu—then Israel’s deputy foreign minister—claimed that the administration’s Israel policy was based on a “foundation of distortion and lies.” For that, Secretary of State James Baker banished him from the State Department. When he was elected prime minister in 1996, Netanyahu did much to offend President Bill Clinton, whether it was ostentatiously meeting with Clinton’s opponents, referring to the president as “Bill” in public (a protocol breach), or undermining the Oslo Accords.
It is an understatement to suggest that Netanyahu and President Barack Obama were like oil and water, but the Israeli leader’s address to a joint session of Congress opposing the Iran nuclear deal was particularly egregious in the minds of many Democrats. Netanyahu only added to the red-state complexion of Israel’s approach to the United States when he aligned himself closely with President Donald Trump. As a result, there was a palpable sigh of relief in Washington, especially among Democrats, when Netanyahu was unable to form a government in May, making way for the premiership of Naftali Bennett.
If there was ever a case to be made that the problem in U.S.-Israel relations has been the messenger, not the message, Bennett’s visit to Washington last week proved it. Other than a determination not to rub just about anyone the wrong way, it is hard to discern any substantial policy differences between the current prime minister and his predecessor. This raises two questions: Is there Netanyahu-ism without Netanyahu? And can Netanyahu-ism be successful without Netanyahu? The answers are “yes” and “quite possibly.”
Bennett, who was once an advisor to Netanyahu before the two had a falling out in 2008, maintains a worldview that emphasizes a future in which Israel’s military strength, economic development, and technological know-how will make it an integral part of the region in partnership with such important Arab countries as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and, in due course, Saudi Arabia. In practical terms, this means deepening and broadening the Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel’s relations with several of these countries. When it comes to Iran, Bennett opposes the nuclear deal and the Biden administration’s determination to negotiate a “longer and stronger agreement” with the Iranians. Bennett also opposes a Palestinian state and wants to develop Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The prime minister is a proponent of “economic peace” as an end state to Israeli-Palestinian relations. These positions should be familiar, because they do not differ from Netanyahu’s policies.
Bennett did say that annexation of parts of the West Bank is off the table. The press has made a big deal of this, but it is not as much of a break from Netanyahu as it may seem. As always, a bit of background helps. The former prime minister only began invoking the possibility of annexation when he got deeper and deeper into legal trouble and needed to court Israel’s annexationists to shore up his flagging position among his coalition partners and ambitious figures within his own party. At the time, Israeli journalists and political analysts dismissed all the talk of annexation as a political ploy and declared that annexation wasn’t going to happen. It is unclear whether they were correct about Netanyahu’s calculations, but in the context of Bennett’s statement, there are two possible interpretations. Either it was never going to happen anyway and Bennett was stating the obvious, or Bennett, in keeping with previous Israeli governments including those under Netanyahu, is not going to talk about annexation even as it proceeds apace under the guise of “thickening”—in Israeli government parlance—existing settlements.
Even though Bennett’s agenda is essentially Netanyahu’s agenda––which runs counter to U.S. policy––President Joe Biden expressed his enthusiastic support for the new Israeli leader and reaffirmed the “unshakeable partnership” between the United States and Israel. Analysts have noted that neither the U.S. president nor the Israeli prime minister wants Netanyahu to return, so they are determined not to give him any opportunity to assail his successor’s handling of Israel’s most important relationship.
Yet in a way, Netanyahu has not gone anywhere. This underscores how much tone seems to have superseded substance in the bilateral relationship. Bennett opposes Biden’s signature Middle East policy as much as Netanyahu, but he is determined to be more cordial about it even as he is clear that Israel will continue to prosecute its shadow war with Iran. Bennett’s views on the Palestinians don’t deviate from Netanyahu’s, which conflict with stated U.S. policy. However, the prime minister is willing to make overtures to the Palestinian Authority. In return, Biden affirmed his support for promoting normalization between Israel and countries in the region. The president also expressed his confidence that Israel’s request to be part of the Visa Waiver Program would “get done.” And, if reports are accurate that Bennett requested additional military aid––including replenishment of stocks for Israel’s Iron Dome system as well as warplanes and other hardware––there is little doubt that the White House would support it.
The Israeli leader left Washington on Sunday having accomplished what he set out to do. He had a warm meeting with the president of the United States, who spoke of Washington’s “unwavering commitment … to Israel’s security” without giving anything up or altering his policies on Iran, the Palestinians, or the region more broadly. If Netanyahu has any perspective, he will surely grasp the importance of what Bennett did while he was in Washington. The Israeli prime minister advanced Netanyahu’s agenda without all the toxicity and clothing-rending Strurm und Drang that encompassed U.S.-Israel relations over last decade or so. In other words, so far it seems that Netanyahu-ism can thrive without Netanyahu.
Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; his latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East