The Prime Minister's visit to Washington – A one-time opportunity
Written by the Institute for Policy and Strategy Team, IPS
Executive Director Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead | October, 2021
|Photos: U.S. Secretary of Defense - Israel Bilat, CC BY 2.0 | The White House - whitehouse.gov, CC BY 3.0 us|
The United States and Israel are engaged in final preparations for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's visit to Washington, during which he will meet with President Joe Biden. This visit is fateful, and its outcomes will have a profound impact on Israel-U.S. relations, as well as on Israel's ability to cope with the exacerbating strategic challenges it is facing, first among which is the issue of Iranian nuclear progress.
Against the charged atmosphere and the sour relations between the Biden Administration and former Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Bennett appears to have considerable credit at his disposal at the White House. His visit to Washington is therefore a tremendous, one-time opportunity that must be used to reach concrete strategic understandings with our greatest ally.
Despite the desire to "embrace" the new prime minister in Washington, and take his political constraints into account, as is indeed anticipated, particularly on the eve of approving the new budget in Israel, the U.S. administration led by President Biden will expect the Israeli prime minister to rise above politics, and reveal himself to be a statesman whose eye is set on the future.
In this context, President Biden – who, in the shadow of Operation Guardian of the Walls, was forced to defend Israel against growing criticism among his own party ranks – will expect the Israeli prime minister to present a clear, structured strategy on a series of issues, particularly those in which Israel and the United States do not see eye to eye.
President Biden will ask to hear from Prime Minister Bennett about the following, among other issues:
- A clear vision for conduct and progress in the Palestinian Arena and how he intends to inhibit the drift toward a one-state solution, strengthen the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and stabilize Gaza.
- What his plans are for preserving Israel's democratic character and nature as well as for bridging the rift in Jewish-Arab relations.
- An Israeli commitment to stand by the United States and join the democratic front it is setting up against China as part of its historical struggle to lead and preserve liberal world order. The President will seek to understand how Israel intends to ensure that China's penetration, particularly in the technology sector, will not place American interests at risk.
- How he intends to restore Israel's relations with Jordan and strengthen the Hashemite Kingdom's stability, as the latter seems to have regained its status as key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
To build the trust between President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett, and garner the U.S. administration's full and concrete support of Israel, it is crucial to present a clear and constructive strategic direction in these issues that aligns with American interests.
The two leaders are also expected to discuss the changes taking place across the Middle East, including Lebanon's crumbling process, the instability and possible deterrence balance erosion between Hezbollah and Israel, and Iran's aggressive approach, inter alia by its proxies, manifested across the region, including in the maritime domain.
Undoubtedly, Israel's most pressing strategic challenge is currently Iran's expanding nuclear program, and the dramatically shortened breakout time Tehran needs to obtain enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb, if it decided to go down this path.
While the Vienna talks between the world powers and Iran are stalled, the latter continues to accumulate assets and expand its nuclear capabilities (gathering uranium enriched to 20% and 60% purity, developing advanced centrifuges, and engaging in uranium metal) in an effort to accumulate irreversible knowledge during the negotiations, as well as improved capabilities that would be translated into a lever to extract further concessions from the United States.
The objectives during the Prime Minister's visit in the Iranian context are:
- Validating the United States' declared commitment that it would never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
- A shared understanding that Iran should be denied the ability to reach the point where it cannot be prevented from breaking out to nuclear weapons. An American commitment to deter Tehran from establishing such a capability using a credible military threat.
- Agreeing on guarantees and assistance to Israel on the political, economic, and operatinal levels that would ensure its ability to protect itself by itself, and to be able to block Iran from breaking out to nuclear weapons.
- In the event of a return to the JCPOA, the two countries will consult one another on the features required as part of a "longer and stronger" deal, the timetables by which they must be reached, and the alternatives in case a stronger deal is unattainable.
- American commitment to take action to help Israel curb Iran's malign activities in the region, separately from the efforts to return to or expand the nuclear deal.
With regard to some of these issues, it is imperative that professional working groups be set up by both countries to work under the agreed directive of the leadership level. One must take into account that such a framework requires Israel's commitment to refrain from blindsiding the United States.
On the Chinese issue, a guarantee should be provided to the U.S. administration whereby Israel will work in full transparency with it with respect to the level of oversight over Chinese investments, particularly in technology, so as to ensure that U.S. interests will be safe from harm, and its technological edge maintained. The visit must warrant that Israel be included in the Democratic allies' front being set up by the United States vis-à-vis the Chinese challenge in political and technological contexts.
On the Palestinian issue – there is basis for agreement between Israel and the United States on the need to stabilize the Palestinian arena, with emphasis on rehabilitating Gaza with regional and international support; strengthening the Palestinian Authority as a ruling system that will manage the lives of the Palestinian population; and halting all proceedings against Israel in the International Criminal Court (ICC). In addition, the two countries will have to settle their disagreement on unilateral steps that threaten the two-state solution in the longer range. President Biden's declared stance whereby countries in the region must acknowledge Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state is an opportunity in this context.
Ultimately, the Prime Minister's visit to Washington is a one-time opportunity to build trust as well as tight and coordinated working relations with President Biden. It should also be used to mark the beginning of a process for reinstating Israel's standing in the United States as a bipartisan consensus supported by American Jewry. There is no substitute for the United States as Israel's greatest and most important strategic ally, and under the circumstances formed, it is instrumental in Israel's ability to grapple with the strategic threats and challenges is faces, first and foremost of which is Iran.
This document was written by the team of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS)
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