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What is waiting for Bennett in DC? An administration in crisis

CM 23/08/2021

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WASHINGTON – When reading through President Joe Biden’s schedule for the week, there is one line that repeats itself every day, Monday through Friday: “The President will meet with his national security team to hear intelligence, security and diplomatic updates on the evolving situation in Afghanistan.”
Indeed, when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s airplane touches down in Washington on Tuesday, he will find an administration in a crisis mode that is closely following the chaotic situation unfolding in Afghanistan – Biden’s most significant foreign policy crisis since taking office on January 20.
On the very same day that Bennett arrives in Washington, Biden will participate on a virtual G7 summit “to discuss continuing our close coordination on Afghanistan policy, humanitarian assistance, and evacuating our citizens, the brave Afghans who stood with us over the last two decades, and other vulnerable Afghans,” per the White House.

On the other hand, Bennett is coming to the meeting with one main agenda item in mind: Iran. As the Islamic Republic under its new president, Ibrahim Raisi, is not rushing to negotiate a return to mutual compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Bennett hopes to use this window of opportunity to persuade Biden that there are better alternatives than rejoining the 2015 nuclear agreement.
When asked about complicated foreign policy matters, such as cooperation with Russia or China, Biden often uses the idiom, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” The president and his national security staff would probably be interested in demonstrating that they can walk and chew gum in this case as well, and engage in a meaningful discussion with the Israeli prime minister even while operating in crisis mode. The question is whether the grim mood at the White House could also narrow the scope of the meeting or shift its focus.
“The administration’s attention span will no doubt be limited,” said Dan Arbell, scholar-in-residence at the Center for Israeli Studies at Ariel University. Arbell previously served as deputy chief of mission at the Israel Embassy in Washington, and worked as ambassador Michael Oren’s second in command from 2009 to 2012.
“Clearly, the Biden administration will be preoccupied with Afghanistan, focused on daily airlifting of thousands of US citizens, third-country nationals and Afghans at risk, as well as coordinating diplomatic efforts on this issue with leaders of the G-7 and other countries, and under pressure from Congress to provide answers on its botched policy and handling of Afghanistan,” Arbell added.
 Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen speaking at a press conference, on August 18, 2021. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO) Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seen speaking at a press conference, on August 18, 2021. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
“Nevertheless, it will want to demonstrate it can multi-task and continue with a somewhat business-as-usual approach at home and abroad,” he continued. “Moreover, the administration will likely extend a warm welcome to the Israeli PM, projecting an image of a strong US-Israel alliance, and also signaling it is hoping to turn a fresh page in the relationship after years of tension between Democratic administrations and Israeli governments led by [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
He went on to say that the recent escalation in Gaza in May “has taught Biden, Blinken and Austin that the Middle East does not wait for the US. The multiple regional crises in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and the Iran issue need constant US attention, and a meeting with Israel’s PM, despite Afghanistan, is seen as timely by the administration.”
THE HIGH-LEVEL meeting between the two will take place on Thursday, five days before the self-imposed August 31 deadline to finish the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, while the US is still deciding whether to extend that deadline.
Bennett will also meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, all of whom are closely working to evacuate remaining Americans from Afghanistan.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday that August 31 “is the mission we’ve been assigned by the commander-in-chief, and that’s what we’re trying to execute.” However, “if there needs to be a discussion about extending that timeline, then we absolutely will have that discussion at the appropriate time with the commander-in-chief.” These discussions are most likely to take place during Bennett’s visit.
“Washington is not gripped with anticipation for PM Bennett’s visit,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. “Washington’s attention is firmly fixed on the fast-paced events in Afghanistan, with little room for other issues, even the first visit by a new Israeli prime minister.
“This makes perfect sense: the US has fought a 20-year war in Afghanistan, and the situation there is dire. Bennett’s visit is still very important, however, far beyond ceremony. He is approaching the Iran file differently than his predecessor Netanyahu, even if their fundamental views on the matter are similar. The crux of Bennett’s approach is better coordination with the United States, even amid some fundamental disagreements. It will be hard to achieve coordination when the US’s principal attention and worries are one step to the east of Iran.”
David Makovsky, director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, “If impact is measured by headlines, the Bennett visit is bound to be eclipsed by the human and political drama that is playing out in Kabul.
“However, impact may be measured by how Bennett uses the visit rather than by the size of the headline,” he noted. “I think the administration is fully expecting Bennett to prominently raise the issue of Iran, so I don’t think they will be surprised. Whether he can impact US policy on Iran is not something that will play out publicly. Like Iran policy in Israel, it is a function of interagency debates that do not make headlines. The fact that Israel does not seek a public head-on collision with the administration that stirs partisan divides could only help Israel get a better hearing for its views.”


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