Rivlin White House visit seen as test case for Bennett-Biden relationship; Netanyahu argues “no surprises” policy limits Israel on security matters.
President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
(photo credit: PETER KLAUNZER/REUTERS/YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hopes to go back to a “no surprises, no daylight” relationship with Washington, despite disagreements on the likely US return to the Iran nuclear deal.
President Reuven Rivlin is expected to meet with Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in the coming days to discuss matters on the agenda for his visit to the White House next week. Among the aims of the trip will be to return to the fundamental agreement for the US and Israel to coordinate and update one another, a source close to the prime minister said on Monday.
“We won’t be on board with any agreement with Iran,” the source said as the sixth round of indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal came to a close. “But we can influence it and influence what happens if Iran violates the agreement – if we are part of the conversation.”
Israel not only wants its national security concerns to be taken into consideration, but to suggest that it “has a lot to bring to the table in terms of expertise and intelligence that helps American interests,” the source added.
Bennett will be watching Rivlin’s trip to the White House closely, viewing it as an indicator of how he and his views will be accepted in Washington.
Bennett and Rivlin have key elements in common, a source close to the prime minister explained. They both oppose a two-state solution, but are in favor of humanitarian moves on the ground to improve relations between Israel and the Palestinians. They come from the Right, but have tried to take a statesmanlike position and be accepted by the Right and Left.
THE BIDEN administration invited Rivlin to Washington as early as March of this year, and the heads of the Democratic and Republican caucuses even asked him to speak before both houses of Congress, though that currently is not on the agenda for next week’s visit. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated that invitation during his visit to Israel last month.
Sources in Jerusalem have said that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up Rivlin’s visit. Biden administration officials expressed frustration to Bennett and his staff about the presidential visit being blocked even before he officially became prime minister.
Bennett views the Biden administration’s persistence in bringing Rivlin to Washington in his last days in office as a good sign, in light of the fact that president-elect Isaac Herzog’s views, especially on a two-state solution, are more in line with US President Joe Biden’s.
The prime minister and his advisers plan to keep an eye on how Rivlin is welcomed, the level of delegation and with whom the Israeli president meets.
Bennett’s administration seeks to emphasize that its major focus in the relationship with the US is not the Palestinians. Iran is the priority; other security matters, as well as economic and technological ties, would come before the Palestinians.
“Rivlin can convey to Biden and anyone else relevant that we’re on board to shrink the conflict, but don’t press us too much on the issue,” the source close to Bennett said. “We’re not sweeping the Palestinians under the rug, but we have a different approach. We will focus on the win-wins, things we can all benefit from, instead of taking past positions that did nothing for the Palestinians, Israelis or Americans.”
ONE EXAMPLE of a “win-win” is the vaccine exchange agreement, currently in negotiations, for the Palestinian Authority to administer Israeli COVID-19 vaccine doses that are expiring in the coming weeks to its residents, and for its expected vaccine delivery in September or October to go to Israel instead.
Another is the IDF dropping its policy of entering private Palestinian homes for intelligence-gathering purposes.
Netanyahu, in his new role as opposition leader, accused the new government of surrendering to American demands in relation to the Iran deal, citing a readout of a call between Blinken and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid from Friday, which said they agreed not to surprise each other.
Netanyahu said Biden and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had issued the same request to him when he was in office, and he rejected it.
“This is an incredible Israeli commitment that harms the heart of our national security,” Netanyahu said. “If Begin would have agreed to a policy of ‘no surprises,’ we would not have destroyed the nuclear reactor in Iraq,” he said.
“For 15 years as the prime minister of Israel, I was asked by our American friends to make this commitment many times and I always refused,” Netanyahu said. “Sometimes I updated them ahead of the operations we intended to carry out, and many times I did not update them.
“But I never, ever, agreed to tell them about all our operations, because it would invite pressure not to carry them out or leaks to the press that would prevent the operation and take away our freedom to act against Iran on existential matters.”
Netanyahu said his response was that he would take their requests into consideration, but on issues connected to Israel’s existence it must maintain the complete freedom to take action without the need to report in advance.
“I cannot think of a weaker and more emasculated message to our enemies in Iran,” he said. “I cannot think of a better gift for the ‘Executioner from Tehran.’ From now on, he and his friends in the regime know that they can sleep silently, with no surprises.”
FORMER FOREIGN minister Gabi Ashkenazi, also serving under Netanyahu when he was prime minister, said in March at a briefing with Israeli ambassadors in Asia that he and Blinken had agreed that they would not surprise one another on matters relating to negotiations to return to the Iran deal.
Netanyahu has often said that his open disagreements with former US president Barack Obama about Iran were a key to Israel’s ties with Gulf states.
But the former prime minister did not always have such a negative view of a “no surprises” policy. In contrast to the opposition leader’s claims, former ambassador to the US Michael Oren documented, in his book Ally, concerns of Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership about Obama seeking greater “daylight” – meaning less coordination and therefore more surprises – with Israel.
“Historically, that principle [of daylight] applied to the alliance as a whole,” Oren wrote. “Counterintuitive as it sounds, daylight was bad, and darkness – that is, the absence of open disagreements on policy – [was] optimal… By illuminating the gaps in their political positions, the administration cast shadows over Israel’s deterrence power.”
Netanyahu’s critics responded that the policy of not surprising the US has been intact before, during and after Netanyahu’s term in office, but never applied to secret military and intelligence operations – and would not now.
Gantz responded to Netanyahu by saying that what is truly dangerous for Israel is that he continues leaking the contents of his conversations with the president of the United States. He said that as defense minister, he would make sure that “Israel maintains its right to defend itself against any threat and in any place.”
Lapid responded that Netanyahu’s accusations were inaccurate, adding sarcastically that he “appreciates the advice of the opposition leader,” but he is no longer in charge.
The source close to Bennett said: “When you talk like Netanyahu, the US surprises Israel and that’s exactly what happened the last time [in 2015] where the Iran deal was made behind Israel’s back. That was not in Israel’s national security interest.
“A responsible opposition leader who puts country over politics should express whatever concerns he has with the prime minister directly, instead of calling a press conference,” he said, “and not politicize the relationship with our most important ally.”