Blinken and Lapid meet in Rome to restore US-Israel relations
New leaders are trying to rebuild Israel’s ties with the Democrats who control Congress. It could help Israel, which opposes an expanded nuclear deal with Iran.
The diplomacy of silence. Visits in person. And a very public deal with no surprises on Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will meet in Rome on Sunday as their new governments seek to turn the page on former President Donald Trump and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including the he close alliance has deepened partisan divisions within the two countries.
Now, with Trump sidelined in Florida and Netanyahu leading the opposition, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett are focusing on pragmatic diplomacy rather than dramatic moves that risk fomenting the opposition. at home or distract from other priorities.
This means aiming for more modest achievements, such as strengthening the informal ceasefire that ended last month’s war with militant Hamas leaders in Gaza and rebuilding Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. A major push to revive the long dormant peace process between Israel and the Palestinians could upset the delicate balance.
“No one thinks it’s a good idea to start launching a major new peace initiative,” said Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East security expert at the nonprofit Center for New American Security. “But there are things you can do quietly under the radar, on the ground, to improve the situation.”
This approach – of managing the conflict rather than trying to resolve it – can be successful in masking internal divisions. But it also maintains a status quo that Palestinians find increasingly oppressive and desperate, and which has fueled countless cycles of unrest.
Americans and Israelis will try to settle their differences away from the public, as in Biden’s “silent” diplomacy, when he privately urged Netanyahu to end the Israel-Hamas war before a truce that took effect on the 21st. may.
“They know you can have a pitched battle, or run it behind closed doors and try to change the policy,” said US Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who has worked as a consultant on Lapid’s campaigns.
The two governments will attempt to preserve Israel’s fragile governing coalition, in part by reducing provocations that played a role in starting the 11-day war that claimed the lives of at least 254 Palestinians and killed 13 people in Israel. .
The new coalition in Israel shares little beyond the belief that Netanyahu should go. It is made up of eight parties, each effectively having a right of veto over decisions. So if even one party fled, the government of Israel would be in serious danger of collapsing, with Netanyahu just waiting off the stage.
At least in the short term, Lapid, a centrist, will be Israel’s key man in mending tattered relations with Biden and the Democrats. The party controls both houses of Congress but is increasingly divided over the Middle East conflict, with progressive members calling on the United States to exert more pressure on Israel.
“What they are building now is mutual trust,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States under Netanyahu. “I expect a change in tone rather than substance … but it is possible that it will produce something better for Israel.”
High on the agenda in both countries are talks in Vienna on reviving the 2015 Iranian deal with world powers to limit Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. Trump, with the backing of Netanyahu, withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 and imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Biden has vowed to restore and expand the deal.
Although opposed to a new deal, Israel’s new government appears determined to try to influence the talks rather than scuttling them altogether. Netanyahu angered many Democrats when he condemned the “very bad deal” ahead of a joint session of Congress in 2015.
Netanyahu’s challenge to the Obama administration, followed by his close ties to Trump, has been widely seen as having undermined traditional U.S. bipartisan support for Israel. And while the Israelis have praised Trump’s diplomatic gifts to Netanyahu over the years, their timing has often led to suspicion that he was trying to keep the prime minister in power through deadlocked elections and an ongoing corruption trial.
Contrary to Netanyahu’s approach during the Obama era, Lapid recently announced that he and Blinken had agreed to a policy of “no surprises” in an effort to keep the lines of communication open. The two are expected to discuss the matter in Rome on Sunday.
Even right-wing Bennett, who is ideologically aligned with warmonger Netanyahu, toned down the rhetoric on Iran.
“We will continue to consult our friends, persuade, discuss and share information and ideas out of mutual respect,” Bennett said Thursday. “But at the end of the day, we’ll be responsible for our own destiny, no one else.”
Reducing tensions – or at least not igniting them – is a key strategy, officials said. For example, Bennett is a religious nationalist who supports settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. But he risks losing his job if he alienates his partners in the conciliatory coalition.
Officials expect there will be little settlement expansion beyond so-called “natural growth.” But it’s a loosely defined term that could allow for massive construction, as well as the pursuit of large infrastructure projects that pave the way for explosive future growth.
An Israeli Defense Ministry body last week put forward plans for 31 settlement construction projects, including a shopping mall and a special school, Israeli media reported.
On the US side, the Biden administration has made it clear that it wants to get the country out of intractable conflicts in the Middle East and focus on other challenges, such as climate change and competition with China.
On Monday, outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is due to visit Washington at Biden’s invitation. A group of House Democrats are planning an official trip to Israel as early as the July 4 congressional recess.
There is even talk of Lapid and Bennett going to Washington later in the summer, separately or together, officials said. Bennett will be Prime Minister for the first two years, followed by Lapid, the architect of the coalition.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss administrative and logistics plans, which have not been finalized.
So far, the reset seems to be working. But with the Israeli coalition barely two weeks old, significant challenges lie ahead.
Biden has decided to reverse Netanyahu-backed Trump policies that alienated the Palestinians, and the administration has said Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of security and prosperity.
But the United States has yet to explain how it intends to achieve this without ending Israel’s half-century military occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas-ruled blockade of Gaza. and discriminatory policies in Jerusalem that fueled a spring of unrest.
On the Israeli side, making peace with the Democrats seems to be the most urgent priority.
“They are angry,” Lapid said as he took over as head of Israel’s foreign ministry. “We need to change the way we work with them.”
Kellman reported from Tel Aviv, Israel, and Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.