The two world leaders attempted to reset a rocky relationship, badly damaged by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Joe Biden did his best to placate Israel's new prime minister on Friday in a meeting intended to recalibrate the two countries' relationship, stating that the United States would "consider other options" if diplomacy surrounding the Iran nuclear deal fails.
"We're putting diplomacy first and we'll see where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we're ready to turn to other options," he said, speaking to reporters.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went in looking to pressure Biden on Iran, while maintaining a friendly posture. He told Biden he came from Jerusalem with "a new spirit of good will," and seemed heartened by Biden's subdued admission.
"I was happy to hear your words that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon and that there are other options if diplomacy doesn't work out," he told Biden.
Biden promised to rejoin the nuclear deal, which limits Iran's nuclear enrichment, on the campaign trail, but new hardline Iranian leadership and the distraction of the pandemic have stymied his plans so far.
The deal, reached by eight nations in July 2015 and known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the regional issue in which the United States and Israel have the most shared interest, as Biden seeks to deprioritize American involvement in the increasingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But their agendas differ sharply, as has coordination and intelligence-sharing under a new Democratic administration.
Under former President Donald Trump, Israel, emboldened by Trump's support and his sudden withdrawal from the Iran deal in 2018, ramped up its shadow war against Iran, striking proxy targets at sea, as well as in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The relationship became increasingly rocky after Biden took office, when Israel set off explosives inside Iran’s Natanz uranium plant in April.
Netanyahu had reportedly instructed Israel's spy agency to ice American intelligence agencies out of the plan, wary of how Biden might react.
"During the Trump administration, where Trump was basically doing almost everything Israel wanted short of going to war with Iran, there was more coordination, because there was hardly any differences," Shibley Telhami, University of Maryland’s Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, said in a phone call.
Now, the foreign policy gulf is coming to a head once again, this time with both leaders eager to keep disputes minimal and private at the very least.
Bennett, who heads a Frankenstein coalition of different parties in his home country, with a razor-thin margin for disagreement, seems intent on pushing Israel's hard-right stances as much as possible while maintaining the peace.
Israeli worshipers have recently been spotted praying on the Temple Mount with the protection of Israeli police, even though a compromise governing Israel's holiest and Islam's third holiest spot has long barred Jewish prayer there. Bennett had initially claimed that all had the "freedom of worship" there, before later backtracking amid criticism.
"No change in the status quo," his office later said in a statement, according to the New York Times.
And while he's not taking the aggressive and visible step of annexing the West Bank, settlement activity, the construction of new homes in areas of the West Bank whose legality the international community contests, has continued under Bennett.
That issue was a flashpoint between then-Vice President Biden, former President Barack Obama and Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, though it went unmentioned in Friday's meeting.
"This heralds a new decade, because the last one was either a soap opera of ups and downs under Obama and Netanyahu, or — I would argue — a dysfunctional sugar high under Netanyahu and Donald Trump," Aaron David Miller, who spent a quarter-century as a negotiator for the Arab-Israeli peace process, told The American Independent Foundation.
While Biden has met nine Israeli prime ministers before Bennett, Friday's White House summit marked the two leaders' formal introduction. In a normal week, it would have been seen as a consequential moment in U.S. foreign policy, though it was largely overshadowed by the turmoil in Afghanistan, which bumped the meeting from Thursday morning to Friday, as Biden headed to the Situation Room amid news that multiple U.S. service members and possibly as many as 170 others, including scores of Afghan civilians, were killed in twin suicide bombings outside the airport in Kabul.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.