Why Biden Is Trying to Keep Naftali Bennett Afloat

The right-wing Israeli leader’s fragile coalition is vastly preferable to a return of Netanyahu.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Blinken puts his hand on Bennett's upper back in a friendly gesture as the two men stand behind a podium with a placard that reads "Prime Minister's Office"
Blinken puts his hand on Bennett's upper back in a friendly gesture as the two men stand behind a podium with a placard that reads "Prime Minister's Office"
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken address the media following their meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem on March 27. JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Days before the new Israeli government was inaugurated in June 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked in an interview about Naftali Bennett becoming Israel’s next prime minister. Blinken answered with a standard talking point used by all of his predecessors, declaring, “I’m not doing politics” and stating, “We will work, as we always have, with whatever the Israeli government is.”

That “purer than Caesar’s wife” trope masks a more complex reality. Over the years and at critical times, Washington has most certainly played politics: taking sides in the prime ministerial sweepstakes and acting in ways that might strengthen one Israeli prime minister at the expense of the rise or return of another. The Biden administration is no different.

In fact, a look at U.S. President Joe Biden’s first year reveals his prime directive: Do nothing that would create problems for Bennett or destabilize his fragile coalition lest the government collapse and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power—and this happened even while so many of Bennett’s policies clashed with the Biden administration’s. Indeed, although Saudi Arabia will be the primary focus of Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East, among the trip’s objectives is to boost the stock of Bennett’s shaky coalition. Unfortunately for both Bennett and Biden, the visit isn’t likely to have much of a positive impact on a coalition that’s now living on borrowed time.

Days before the new Israeli government was inaugurated in June 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked in an interview about Naftali Bennett becoming Israel’s next prime minister. Blinken answered with a standard talking point used by all of his predecessors, declaring, “I’m not doing politics” and stating, “We will work, as we always have, with whatever the Israeli government is.”

That “purer than Caesar’s wife” trope masks a more complex reality. Over the years and at critical times, Washington has most certainly played politics: taking sides in the prime ministerial sweepstakes and acting in ways that might strengthen one Israeli prime minister at the expense of the rise or return of another. The Biden administration is no different.

In fact, a look at U.S. President Joe Biden’s first year reveals his prime directive: Do nothing that would create problems for Bennett or destabilize his fragile coalition lest the government collapse and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power—and this happened even while so many of Bennett’s policies clashed with the Biden administration’s. Indeed, although Saudi Arabia will be the primary focus of Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East, among the trip’s objectives is to boost the stock of Bennett’s shaky coalition. Unfortunately for both Bennett and Biden, the visit isn’t likely to have much of a positive impact on a coalition that’s now living on borrowed time.

Of all the mythologies of the U.S.-Israel relationship, one stands out: that Israel never intervenes in U.S. politics and Washington stays out of Israel’s. Israeli politics are undoubtedly complex and all-consuming; former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously quipped that Israel had no foreign policy, only domestic politics. And more often than not, U.S. presidents and secretaries of state managed to steer clear of the country’s complexities. But not always.

Having worked on Arab-Israeli negotiations in the U.S. State Department for more than two decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations, I had a ringside seat for two separate attempts by U.S. administrations to intervene in Israeli politics to weaken one prime minister and strengthen another.

In 1991, then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker purposefully denied Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir billions of dollars in housing loan guarantees because of his settlement policies—a move that directly contributed to his defeat by Yitzhak Rabin, who received a commitment on that assistance within months of his election.

In an even more blatant intervention, in 1996, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton hosted Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres at the White House just a month before his electoral contest against then-challenger Netanyahu. Peres lost to Netanyahu in a squeaker. Years later, Clinton would admit he intervened to try to help Peres win largely because his policies on peacemaking were much closer to Washington’s.

And then, of course, there was the consummate intervener, former U.S. President Donald Trump, who over the course of four years—despite his frustrations with Netanyahu—showered the Israeli prime minister with what could only be described as a sugar high of goodies. Driven partly by domestic politics, specifically Trump’s desire to appeal to U.S. evangelical voters and set the Republican Party up as the go-to party on Israel, and partly by his own grandiose ambitions to become the most pro-Israel president ever, Trump took a series of actions at critical times to support Netanyahu in his electoral bids, including visiting Israel on his first overseas trip as president and praying at the Western Wall (the first sitting U.S. president to do so); recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there; waging a maximum pressure campaign against the Palestinians; and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (a move that, interestingly enough, the Biden administration has let stand).

And now, though perhaps more quietly than his predecessor, Biden is also throwing his weight behind one Israeli leader over another.

Biden and Bennett are hardly sympatico bedfellows. The 50-year-old Bennett is a right-wing prime minister who opposes the Iran nuclear deal, a Palestinian state, and a divided Jerusalem and is an enthusiastic supporter of settlements and the annexation of large parts of the West Bank. So why does the Biden administration have such a strong stake in supporting him and giving his government a huge margin to maneuver on issues that Biden opposes?

Above all, it’s because Bennett isn’t Netanyahu. And if you’re Biden, that’s good news by any standard. Already preoccupied with a full agenda, the last thing Biden needed was an Israeli prime minister inserting himself into domestic U.S. politics by siding with Republicans against Democrats and vociferously opposing the Iran nuclear deal. Moreover, as a strong Israeli prime minister in a right-wing government, Netanyahu would move to ramp up settlement activity in the West Bank and build more aggressively in East Jerusalem.

Biden likely remembers well his humiliation during a vice presidential visit to Israel when Netanyahu’s government announced the construction of additional housing units in East Jerusalem. The fact that the Bennett government is a collection of right-wing, centrist, and leftist parties serves as something of a break on such provocations. And in the unlikely event that the government survives until the fall of 2023, the current Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid—a more centrist politician than the right-wing Bennett—will become prime minister.

Right from the start, the Biden administration seemed determined to bet on Bennett. Within hours of Bennett’s inauguration, Biden phoned him to convey his congratulations. In comparison, Biden took almost a full month to reach out to Netanyahu after Biden’s own inauguration. And Bennett was the only foreign leader to visit Biden during the fraught August of 2021 amid the U.S. Afghanistan withdrawal crisis. During their meeting, Biden called the U.S.-Israel relationship as an “unshakeable partnership.”

Over the past year, the Biden administration’s willingness to give Bennett the benefit of the doubt, a wide margin to maneuver, and a pass on key issues of disagreement has been striking. Biden seems to have learned from his former boss, U.S. President Barack Obama, not to press Israel publicly on the Palestinian issue as he did. Despite a commitment to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem—which had long served as the de facto U.S. Embassy to the Palestinians until the Trump administration closed it in 2019—Biden has slow walked the issue out of concern that it would roil Bennett’s coalition. Well over a year into Biden’s presidency, it remains closed. On settlement activity, even deep in the West Bank, the administration has stuck to standard talking points and stayed away from any talk of freezing settlements—let alone linking Israeli actions on settlements to U.S. deliverables.

The hallmark of the Biden administration’s dealings with the Bennett government seems to be continuous coordination and making sure there’s no “daylight” between them—at least publicly. Compared to the Obama administration’s messy public spats with Netanyahu’s government, the Biden-Bennett interaction has been steady, with few if any public rifts. Every week, there seems to be another senior Israeli official visiting Washington or a U.S. official turning up in Jerusalem.

That’s especially true on Iran, where the Biden administration has kept the Israelis well briefed and engaged in joint planning in the event negotiations to rejoin the nuclear deal fail. Israel was delighted with the administration’s decision to hold firm against delisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, a key Iranian demand in the nuclear negotiations.

Even on Ukraine, where Israel’s interests in Syria and large population of Russian Jews precluded it from alienating Russian President Vladimir Putin, imposing sanctions on Moscow, or providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine, the Biden administration has allowed the Israelis wide maneuvering room. When I interviewed U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides in early May, he stated flat out that the Biden administration “really like[s] this [Israeli] government,” adding, “It’s a beautiful thing.” And on Ukraine, he strongly asserted that the United States and Israel are in “total lockstep.”

Keeping the Bennett coalition afloat and preventing Netanyahu’s return are clearly priorities for the Biden administration. But with the Israeli government teetering, Biden will have his work cut out for him. Assuming the government doesn’t collapse and schedule new elections before Biden’s Middle East trip next month, the U.S. president will want to empower Bennett as much as he can. Reports that Washington is brokering a deal that will incrementally improve relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia will help some.

But the medium itself—the trip—is the message. Israelis put great stock in their prime ministers’ ability to manage the U.S.-Israel relationship, which means Bennett will clearly benefit from Biden’s warm embrace, though it won’t be enough to save his government. And for Biden’s politics, as my bubbe used to say about her chicken soup: It can’t hurt either.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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