Will Biden and Bennett be different than their predecessors?

Will Biden and Bennett be different than their predecessors?
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
06 September, 2021
In-depth: US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have different styles than their predecessors. But will they be different in substance?

Naftali Bennett is not Benjamin Netanyahu and Joe Biden is not Donald Trump, and the new leaders likely hope that their new positions and less abrasive styles will win over sceptics. 

However, while things may shift in the bilateral US-Israel relationship, experts suggest that, for much of the rest of the world, both leaders will represent status quo policies for their countries.

Last week, as Biden was hosting Bennett at the White House, 6,000 miles east, leaders from across the Middle East were gathering in Baghdad for a regional meeting. In attendance were representatives from countries that are often at odds - Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states. 

Notably absent were the two long-time regional powers - the US and Israel.

"It's kind of an indication of things changing and evolving in the region. Israel and the US are being left on the sidelines"

"You've got a meeting in the US on one side of the world, and you've got a meeting in the Middle East on the other side," James Devine, associate professor of international relations at Mount Allison University, tells The New Arab

"It's kind of an indication of things changing and evolving in the region. Israel and the US are being left on the sidelines."

Indeed, in a relatively short period, long-time regional adversaries have seen rapprochements, such as Saudi Arabia's low-profile meetings with Iran on the sidelines of ongoing nuclear deal negotiations, as well as a regional general consensus of Israel's heavy-handedness in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem this past spring.

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Meanwhile, without substantial policy changes - which are unlikely - Israel and the US will continue a relationship that perpetuates the status quo. That is to say, that while these two leaders' styles are markedly different from those of their predecessors, in substance there will likely be little difference.

"As far as the occupation… of Palestinians goes, it's unlikely that we'll see any dramatic transformation coming from this new Israeli government," Diana Greenwald, assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York, tells TNA.

Bennett, a former protégé of Netanyahu, has been saying that he wants to "shrink the conflict" borrowing a phrase used by the writer and philosopher Micah Goodman, who has been his unofficial counsel. He has advised taking piecemeal steps to marginally improve the lives of Palestinians, such as paving roads and reunifying families separated due to the occupation.

"Shrinking the conflict does not change or erase the fact that one's political rights, opportunities, and access to basic security depend on one's ethnicity in Israel and Palestine"

"What's interesting to note is that shrinking the conflict does not change or erase the fact that one's political rights, opportunities, and access to basic security depend on one's ethnicity in Israel and Palestine," says Greenwald.

Bennett, she says, is trying to walk a fine line in order to maintain his coalition, a wide spectrum of delicately balanced political actors that Netanyahu was unable to assemble, while also trying to establish warm relations with the US. He appears to be trying to promote a middle ground that appeals to his broad coalition at home and to the US, his most reliable ally.

"But what the prime minister is promoting as some kind of middle ground on the Palestinian issue - neither outright annexation nor allowing a Palestinian state to form - is not a middle ground," says Greenwald. 

"It's using new language and making new improvements in the economic sphere to avoid making larger concessions that would lead to the end of the occupation or equality."

A Palestinian man sits near Israel's wall dividing the Palestinian neighbourhood of Al-Tur in the Israeli annexed East Jerusalem with the West Bank. [Getty]
A Palestinian man sits near Israel's wall dividing the Palestinian neighbourhood of Al-Tur in the Israeli annexed East Jerusalem with the West Bank. [Getty]

Back in the US, his more diplomatic style might have an impact on the American political establishment, many of whom had grown tired of Netanyahu's bombastic style, which once led to a walk-out by Democratic members of Congress, during Obama's tenure.

Under Netanyahu, particularly during the Trump administration, Israel became a largely partisan issue that pitted right-wing (often evangelical Christians) against progressive - and a growing number of moderate - Democrats.

For most of its existence, Israel had mainly been a bipartisan issue in the US, wherein politicians of both parties would compete to demonstrate their pro-Israel credentials. Netanyahu's policies and rhetoric helped move that unconditional support to the right-wing of the Republican party.

"Bennett will not be sabotaging Biden and inciting right-wing Jews against him"

Can Bennett reverse Israel's partisan divide? 

His understated style has the potential to make Israel once again a bipartisan issue. At the very least, he is likely to have the ear of the more moderate wing of the Democratic party. 

On Iran, he is more likely to influence the deal than sabotage it. 

On the Palestinian issue, he is more likely to offer token concessions than upset the status quo. 

And if he has a major difference with the US administration, he is more likely to address it directly with Biden than through the media.

"He will not be sabotaging Biden and inciting right-wing Jews against him," Ronald Stockton, professor of politics at the University of Michigan, tells TNA.

Shrinking Palestine infographic

Instead, in his first meeting with the US president, Bennett laid out his concerns in a cordial manner. Biden appeared to only be half-listening (rumours quickly circulated online that he had fallen asleep during the meeting), his thoughts most likely consumed with the ending of America's 20-year war in Afghanistan, where, on the day of Bennett's scheduled visit, 13 US service members had died during evacuation efforts.

Upon his return to Israel, Bennett was condemned in the Knesset for not being harder on Biden. After years of Netanyahu's abrasive approach, Bennett's traditional diplomacy might take some getting used to, though there is no doubt he will continue the same fundamental policies as his predecessors.

"I don't think there will be major and meaningful changes when it comes to unconditional support to Israel or reaching a two-state solution," Anwar Mhajne, assistant professor of political science at Stonehill College, tells TNA.

For his part, Biden can be expected to return to the pre-Trump status quo from his time as vice president - good news for those who want a return to normalcy, though not so much for anyone hoping for substantial change with new leadership.

Mhajne says, "The previous administration almost killed the two state-solution, antagonised the Palestinians, and risked escalating tension with Iran. The new administration has the opportunity to bring the US back as an important peace broker in the region."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews