Fresh Start & Old Problems: How US Policy Toward Iran and Afghanistan Could Influence Israel

© REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNSTU.S. President Joe Biden and Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. August 27, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. August 27, 2021. - Sputnik International, 1920, 28.08.2021
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The new Bennett government is going to refurbish US-Israeli relations, but will be unlikely to instantly reach common ground on its Iranian and Palestinian dilemmas, Israeli observers say. The US has decreased its presence in the Middle East, and Afghanistan is claimed by the Jewish state to be fraught with certain risks, Tel Aviv warns.
On 27 August, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held his first meeting with US President Joe Biden in the White House, reportedly to "open a new chapter in US-Israel relations," as The Washington Post called it on Friday.
In his statement at the White House, PM Bennet specifically remarked: "I bring with me a new spirit." According to CNN, it is the first time in 12 years that an Israeli delegation has been led by someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu and has now "lent the talks a sense of renewal." The media outlet remarked, however, that "stark differences remain" between Biden and the new Israeli premier. Bennett, the head of a diverse Israeli coalition, was called by some in American media a "hardline conservative."

Bennett's Bipartisan Approach

"The new approach is mainly focused on the understanding that Israel has to return to the traditional political approach about the bilateral support from the American administration," says Dr Kobi Michael, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
The Israeli academic notes that the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, "left… almost burned land" between Tel Aviv's political leadership and the Democratic Party due to the former's "very complicated relations" with US President Barack Obama, and also by having "very special relations" with former another former US president, Donald Trump.
In addition to this, Netanyahu would consistently "intervene in American politics" to make Tel Aviv "part of the internal party struggle in the United States," notes Professor Meir Litvak, the director of the Alliance Centre for Iranian Studies and a principal research fellow at the Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.
In June it was reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid had asserted to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that new Israeli leadership would adhere to a "no surprises" policy and would inform the US government of any major actions beforehand. The move prompted fierce criticism from Netanyahu, who accused the Bennett-Lapid government of endangering the Jewish state.
Biden and Bennett have a common rival in Netanyahu, remarks Dan Arbell, a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Israeli Studies at American University, and a 25 year veteran of the Israeli Foreign Service: "I think that they will be happy to strengthen their own relationship, Bennett and Biden, to keep Netanyahu out."
© AFP 2022 / -A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on August, 3 2021 shows him (C L) flanked by outgoing president Hassan Rouhani (L) during the inauguration ceremony for Ebrahim Raisi (C R) in the presence of the head of judiciary authority Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei (R) in Khamenei's office in the capital Tehran.
A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on August, 3 2021 shows him (C L) flanked by outgoing president Hassan Rouhani (L) during the inauguration ceremony for Ebrahim Raisi (C R) in the presence of the head of judiciary authority Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei (R) in Khamenei's office in the capital Tehran. - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.09.2021
A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on August, 3 2021 shows him (C L) flanked by outgoing president Hassan Rouhani (L) during the inauguration ceremony for Ebrahim Raisi (C R) in the presence of the head of judiciary authority Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei (R) in Khamenei's office in the capital Tehran.

Iran Nuclear Deal

Despite adopting a softer tone towards the US Democratic administration, Naftali Bennett still backs a hard line with regard to Iran, according to The New York Times. Biden has repeatedly signaled that he is interested in a revival of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was unilaterally cancelled by Trump.
Bennett is likely to make "strong arguments" to convince Washington to "nuance its approach or slow down the process" of restoring the Iran nuclear deal, given "Tehran's progress in terms of uranium enrichment," suggests Arbell.
The new Israeli premier will tread carefully, unlike his predecessor, according to Dr. Alon Ben Meir, professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute.
"Bennett agreed with President Biden that diplomacy should take place first," Ben Meir says. "That is, every effort should be made to reach an agreement with Iran by diplomatic means. And should that fail, then the president said clearly that there will be other measures that can be taken. Then it [will] concur with that if Iran does not stop its effort to acquire a nuclear weapon, there will be other means by which to stop Iran. Neither side, of course, elaborated as to what these means are."
According to Ben Meir, "cyber-attacks, air attacks and sanctions obviously, interception of all kinds of shipments" and many other tools are on Bennett and Biden's table to "send a clear message to Iran that it has to end its nuclear programme" if that programme goes beyond the scope of peaceful uses.
Litvak rules out a military option: "The US, especially after Afghanistan, is not interested in any other military adventure in the Middle East," he says, adding that Israel "will not attack Iran by itself without American backing."
At the same time the Israeli professor remains skeptical about the future of the JCPOA: "It is now impossible to go back to the 2015 nuclear deal because I don't think that Iran is interested in going back to the deal," says Litvak. "Iran is probably unwilling to go back to the situation of 2015."
© REUTERS / IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFAPalestinian artist Saja Mousa, 26, paints at the remains of her house that was damaged in an Israeli airstrike during last month's Israeli-Hamas fighting, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip June 23, 2021. Picture taken June 23, 2021.
Palestinian artist Saja Mousa, 26, paints at the remains of her house that was damaged in an Israeli airstrike during last month's Israeli-Hamas fighting, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip June 23, 2021. Picture taken June 23, 2021. - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.09.2021
Palestinian artist Saja Mousa, 26, paints at the remains of her house that was damaged in an Israeli airstrike during last month's Israeli-Hamas fighting, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip June 23, 2021. Picture taken June 23, 2021.

Palestinian Issue Sidelined, Again

Another apparent bone of contention between the US government and the new Israeli premier is the Palestinian question. Previously, Bennett highlighted that he would extend an Israeli policy of expanding "natural" settlements in what the UN considers "occupied Palestinian territories". Biden has traditionally been critical of the Israeli settlement strategy and has pushed for the "two-state" solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In May 2021, Israel, led at the time by PM Netanyahu, became involved in a military standoff with Hamas which was preceded by clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound. The disturbances continued until a ceasefire came into effect on 21 May.
The Palestinian issue is especially sensitive given that Bennett's coalition is "very fragmented," as it is comprised of very different parties, including Arabs, according to Dr Kobi Michael.
"We have noticed that the Palestinian issue was a very marginal issue, if at all," he says. "And this is something that reflects the American understanding about the complexities that Bennett as a prime minister has with his coalition."
In addition to that, the Biden administration apparently understands that there is no prospect in exerting further pressure on Bennett "because actually there is no real interest on the Palestinian side" either, the academic suggests.
© REUTERS / US MARINESEvacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport
Evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.09.2021
Evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport

Could Biden's Afghan Pull-Out Backfire on Israel?

The US continues to decrease its presence in both Central Asia and the Middle East, triggering concern among Washington's Arab allies and in Israel, in particular, according to observers.
"There is a likelihood that Middle Eastern countries, Arab countries, will not be as certain about American support, for instance, against a powerful nuclear Iran," says Meir Litvak. "They will be worried that the United States will not come to their support."
Tel Aviv is said to be concerned about the ongoing US troop withdrawal from the Middle East, as well as from Afghanistan, as Israeli policy-makers believe that it could "embolden" Iran, according to Litvak.
"American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a negative sign because it means American defeat," claims the professor.
Washington's hasty pull-out from the Central Asia state and the Taliban* takeover may also embolden various jihadi groups, warns Michael: "I would say that the problem is the idea of inspiration, inspiration and encouraging of all the radical fundamentalist Salafist jihadist actors here in the region," he says. "And unfortunately, there are many."
He draws attention to the fact that "Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders were the first to congratulate the Taliban leaders about their achievements." Michael does not rule out that Islamists will now step up attacks against Tel Aviv.
"The American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the last events that we have witnessed in the last three days are a very, very negative contribution to the stability here in the region," he stresses. "I believe that we are in the beginning of a more problematic complex era in front of us."
Ben Meir conversely believes that "the withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan does not have any direct or indirect impact on Israel itself, as America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was overdue."
"Israel, like every Israeli government has said, does not expect, nor does it want, any American troops, for example, to protect Israel," Ben Meir highlights. "Israel's main concern as far as that is Iran." 
*The Taliban is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia and many other countries.
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