Israel's new government will make Middle East affairs a lot easier for Joe Biden

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The new Israeli government, headed by a prime minister to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu, will bring neither change nor unity, the veteran left-wing Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote this month in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

So why are the champagne corks popping in Washington? President Biden took almost a month to call Benjamin Netanyahu after becoming president. Yet, the same day the new government got its confidence vote, Joe Biden was on the phone congratulating his new friend Naftali Bennett.

Netanyahu's departure is good news

Why would the Biden administration be so welcoming of an unwieldy government that’s living on borrowed time, led by a prime minister who has championed annexation of the West Bank and contains right-wing pro-settlement parties? Why indeed?

If the new government endures, it could make managing the U.S.-Israeli relationship (and perhaps a regional issue or two) a good deal easier for a president who has a lot on his plate at home and doesn’t need a major Middle East distraction.

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First, if you’re Joe Biden, Netanyahu’s departure is good news by any standard. Mistrustful of Washington and bent on playing Republicans against Democrats when it comes to Israel, Netanyahu’s leaving will lower the temperature across the board and create more trust and confidence in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Biden, who knows Netanyahu well, doesn’t need to be reminded of his embarrassment and humiliation when in 2010 on a trip to Israel as vice president the Israelis announced a major expansion of building in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu will remain a powerful force in opposition, and it shouldn’t surprise if months from now he’s having lunch with Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster. But, without the instruments of state power, there’s a limit to his machinations when it comes to undermining U.S. objectives on both Iran and the Palestinian issue.

Second, Naftali Bennett starts his tenure as perhaps the weakest prime minister in Israel’s history. And that’s actually a good thing in these circumstances–– and for Biden. He controls only six seats and will be dependent –– as all the other parties will –– on one another, lest any of their members pull out and the coalition collapse leaving Netanyahu to pick up pieces.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 14th, 2021.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 14th, 2021.

At 49, if he wants a career in politics, Bennett will have to make this government work. He will have his hands full at home, and will have no time or desire to fight with Joe Biden. On the contrary, by showing he can manage the relationship –– getting the billion dollars to resupply Iron Dome missiles; an early visit to Washington, he can boost his stock and stature.

Third, had Netanyahu continued as prime minister, a clash with Biden would have been likely – either over U.S. plans to reenter the nuclear deal or over the Palestinian issue. Bennett has made his opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action clear. But it isn’t an obsession as it was with Netanyahu, and it’s highly unlikely he’ll challenge the administration’s effort to do a deal with Iran, let alone play internal politics as Netanyahu did in 2015 by end running the Obama administration and addressing Congress at the Republicans’ invitation.

As for the Palestinians, Bennett will have to restrain his right-wing impulses on annexation and major settlement expansion, lest he cause the coalition to collapse or get into an unwanted clash with the Biden administration. Indeed, Bennett will try to avoid the Palestinian issue altogether. It remains to be seen how he will handle pressure from right-wing coalition members and from Palestinians who will continue to resist Israeli occupation.

Potential for clash between Biden and Bennett

Fourth, Netanyahu’s departure could be a significant boon for the Biden administration’s domestic politics. Bennett won’t be aggressively playing the Republican and Evangelical card against the administration’s intention to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. And it should somewhat ease tensions within the Democratic Party. Right now, Biden is trying to navigate a fine line between a Republican Party looking for ways to paint Democrats as anti-Israel and a Democratic party whose progressive wing wants to up pressure on Biden to press Israel on the Palestinian issue. Indeed, Israel’s new Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has already publicly dedicated himself to mending fences with Democrats.

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The greatest threat to U.S. improved relations with a new Israeli government without Netanyahu – if not to the government itself – is Middle East realities. Israeli politics are volatile; Netanyahu will be pressing from the outside, and the Palestinians will not sit still. And without a credible Israeli approach to deal with that issue and some flexibility from the Palestinian side, a crisis is likely. Biden should enjoy his respite from Netanyahu and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because there’s a pretty good chance it’s likely to be just that.

Aaron David Miller is the senior fellow for Geoeconomics and Strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel's new Prime Minister might not bring positive change.

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