WASHINGTON AND ISRAEL IN THE AFTERMATH OF BIDEN'S AFGHANISTAN DISASTER by Rubin Rothler

Three issues are going to top the agenda of the Bennett-Biden meeting in Washington: Iran, policy towards the Palestinians and collaboration in the fight against Covid. Bennett is hoping for a renaissance in the historic U.S.-Israeli alliance. 

As for the “new spirit” he hopes to bring to the meeting, Bennett told reporters before boarding the flight to the US that he would “seek common ground with the Biden administration on Iran and promised…a new and constructive approach to containing Iran’s nuclear program". Indeed this could perhaps be an auspicious time in certain respects, as they are both new leaders facing some similar daunting challenges on both the domestic and international fronts. Notably, Biden is in a precarious position following the Afghanistan debacle with all-time low ratings. He needs to appear strong in the war against terror, as most Americans view the premature withdrawal from Afghanistan as playing into the hands of Islamist groups seeking to harm U.S. interests and to re-establish bases for terrorist attacks on the U.S. and its allies. As noted in Debka: "The Biden administration’s handling of this issue has shocked US Gulf allies and prompted hard questions from Israel’s security policymakers. After abandoning allies to the Taliban’s tender mercies in Afghanistan, what’s to stop the US, they ask, from abandoning us to Iran?" William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, told The Jerusalem Post that “as we watch the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the alliance and partnership between the United States and the State of Israel is more critical than ever".
 
At a time that Biden wants to resume talks on reviving the Iran Nuclear deal, just earlier this month the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has accelerated its enrichment of uranium to near weapons grade. Bennett is harkening back to Netenyahu's robust opposition to revive the lapsed 2015 nuclear accord. According to a political source in Haaretz, Bennett plans to present Biden with a clear strategy to restrain Iran and is expected to tell Biden that Israel reserves the right to take unilateral action against Iran if it feels its security is under threat. As stated in the Jerusalem Post: "While Bennett spoke earlier this week about a new plan he had crafted to stop Iran, he did not really have that much new to offer the US that was substantively different from what previous Israeli governments had asked of their American partners. Israel wants to stop Iran without needing to attack. It has long believed that the way to do that is to combine a number of measures: sanctions, covert operations, economic pressure, and steps against Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East".
 
On Wednesday in a meeting with foreign ambassadors Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel "has the means to act and will not hesitate to do so - I do not rule out the possibility that Israel will have to take action in the future in order to prevent a nuclear Iran ''. He went on to elaborate that Iran "intends to destroy Israel and it is working to ensure it has the means to do that. To that end, it is also working via its emissaries in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, using drones and precise missiles, acting against commercial ships in the sea, and even conducting cyberattacks around the world...Iran is just two months away from collecting the required materials for a nuclear bomb. We don't know if the Iranian regime is willing to return to the negotiating table, and the world must prepare a Plan B, and stop Iran's progress right now". Gantz concluded by warning "At the end of the day, the goal is to reach an agreement that is 'longer, stronger, and broader'. Iran reaching the nuclear threshold places us on the brink of a regional-and potentially global-nuclear arms race...We in Israel have our own options. We've known how to use them in the past and I don't rule out that we might need to use them in the future. But Iran is first and foremost a challenge for the world, which needs to unite and act". The Jerusalem Post posits an interesting analysis here: "After all is said and done, we need to remember that Israel’s options are limited. It can continue to strike covertly at Iran, and share its vital intelligence with allies to get them to curb economic ties, but that will not be enough. What Israel would ideally like to see happen is for the US to issue a credible military threat against Iran, similar to what Gantz did on Wednesday. While there is very little expectation that the US under Biden would attack Iran – especially in light of what’s happening in Afghanistan – a credible US military threat is believed to have been one of the most effective tools until now in getting the Iranians to recalibrate. In 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, the ayatollahs in Iran thought they were next in line and suspended most aspects of their nuclear weapons program. It is a strategy that Netanyahu pushed during the Obama administration as well. He urged the president to  not only up sanctions against Iran, but to also prepare the US military in a way that would make it clear to the Iranians that he was not bluffing, and that military action was not just on the table as a figure of speech. Until today, there are disagreements among former officials on whether Netanyahu was actually planning to attack Iran, or was just bluffing and trying to get the Americans to take tougher action themselves. Based on the threats from Israel in recent days, it could be that this is the direction Israel is once again headed. It wants to get Iranians to think it is preparing an attack, but no less important is getting the world and specifically Biden to think that scenes of Israeli fighter jets flying to Iran is a realistic option. While the effectiveness of this policy can be questioned, there at least seems to be a coordinated strategy being led by Bennett and his government. As demonstrated on Wednesday, everyone knows their part. Gantz and Kohavi are making the threats, Lapid is working the diplomats, and Bennett is trying to get Biden on board".    
 
Furthermore, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US President Joe Biden face a major gap in intelligence sharing left by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to The New York Times. Netanyahu worked closely with the administration of former President Donald Trump, but when Biden assumed office, intelligence sharing between the two countries was significantly reduced, according to the report. The challenge facing Bennett as he meets with Biden is how to convince the US to allow Israel to continue its secret operations in Iran. “The US and Israel must jointly identify the redlines so that if Iran crosses them, Israel can act to prevent it from achieving military nuclear capacity,” Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash, a former director of Israeli military intelligence, told the Times.   
 
On the Palestinian issue, Bennett has said he would expand West Bank settlements by 'natural growth'. Although he dropped the annexation manifesto pledge, he also ruled out a Palestinian state, whereas Biden and the Democratic Party have consistently objected to settlement expansion and held to a two-state solution of the dispute. As surmised in the Jerusalem Post: "In short, he (Bennett) would subscribe to the status quo philosophy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be shelved until a more appropriate time, while the situation on the ground remains static...It is hard to apply the word stability to the current situation. So if Bennett has no intention of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he needs a plan for stability... and he needs one now. Its absence is particularly risky for Bennett because this issue, more than any other, creates division among his coalition partners, which includes an Arab party, Ra’am, and Meretz. While he is in Washington, Bennett should take careful note of Afghanistan's impact on Biden. It would only take one small incident, in Gaza, Jerusalem or the West Bank, to send the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spiraling out of control and doom Bennett's political future".
 
Both Premiers partly based their election campaigns on being efficient administrators in responding to the Covid Pandemic. In an interview with The New York Times that was published on Wednesday Bennett said "Covid is the biggest issue on every leader's plate". The Jerusalem Post quotes Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US policy in the Middle East at Bar-Ilan University as saying "Biden and Bennett are in a similar situation. They criticized their predecessors, and now they are facing a fourth wave. I can only imagine they will exchange views on how to manage this." The Post suggests that they are likely to discuss research and  development of new Covid treatments.   

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