Jun 16, 2021 - World

Naftali Bennett: How Israel's new PM plans to handle relations with Biden

Photo illustration of US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Stephanie Lecoq/Pool/AFP, Amir Levy/Getty Images.

New Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is signaling he intends to move cautiously at first on issues like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an approach that will suit the Biden administration just fine.

Why it matters: Bennett is aiming to avoid an early confrontation with the U.S., and his fragile and ideologically diverse government will have a hard time taking any groundbreaking steps on foreign policy in the first place.

  • The Biden administration is also planning to take it slow, avoiding any big initiatives that could destabilize the new government, a U.S. official tells me.

The backstory: Bennett has presented hawkish views on Iran and the Palestinian issue throughout his political career, supporting an increase in Israeli military strikes against Iranian forces and proxies, backing settlement expansions, and even calling for the annexation of most of the West Bank.

  • But he will have a hard time implementing those policies as the leader of a broad power-sharing government.

Bennett presented an Iran policy similar to Benjamin Netanyahu's in his swearing-in speech, but he said he'd pursue it in a less confrontational style than his predecessor.

  • He stressed the need to deepen relations with both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. and to manage the differences on issues like Iran “out of basic trust and mutual respect."

Driving the news: President Biden spoke to Bennett two hours after he was sworn in on Sunday.

  • Bennett felt good about the call, his aides said. Biden's team also feels confident that it will be able to work cooperatively with the new Israeli government, a person familiar with the White House thinking told me.
  • "The White House wants to have close and regular consultation and engagement with Bennett and his team based on candid exchange of views, respect for differences, a desire to work toward stability and security," the source said.
  • Biden has not yet invited Bennett to the White House, but Israeli officials think that could happen sometime in July.

Behind the scenes: Bennett has met multiple times over the last several months, and once in recent weeks, with Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman, author of the book "Catch-67."

  • In his book, Goodman calls for an incremental approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focusing on “decreasing the conflict” until a final deal might be possible in the future.
  • Bennett read Goodman’s book and became interested in some of his ideas, a source familiar with his thinking tells me. In his speech on Sunday, Bennett echoed the book's main message.
  • "A stable security situation [in the West Bank and Gaza] and a focus on civilian matters could lead to economic measures, lowering of friction and decreasing of the conflict," Bennett said.

The big picture: The Biden administration sees the situation similarly, contending that conditions aren't right for a peace deal and that the focus should thus be on practical steps to improve the situation on the ground.

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