The Biden-Bennett summit: A US-Israeli reset?

US-Israeli duplicity and divergence over Palestine, Iran and China.

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett are scheduled to meet on August 26 [File: AP/Andrew Harnik]

This week’s US-Israeli summit will certainly be overshadowed by the Afghan fiasco. Less certain, however, is how US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will leverage the debacle in their August 26 talks, which are likely to focus on Palestine, Iran, and China.

Since both leaders are facing daunting challenges at home, and both governments have agreed to avoid political surprises and public outbursts that undermined the “special relationship” in the past, the media is likely to find the meeting dim and dull.

Indeed, with Biden facing a political firestorm over Afghanistan and Bennett lacking in credibility, statesmanship and political weight, having won just 6 percent of the vote in the last elections, the visit may be more optics than substance.

Still, there may be more behind-the-scene disagreement than meets the eye.

Biden will push Bennett to abandon Israel’s cooperation with China, notably in the hi-tech sphere, while Bennett will pressure Biden to abandon the Iran nuclear deal negotiations. The two will disagree on what is next for Palestine but promise rather disingenuously not to abandon the “peace process”, or the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The Biden administration is laser-focused on its greatest strategic challenge, China, which has been exploiting US blunders in the likes of Afghanistan and Iraq and expanding its influence at a breathtaking rate in the Greater Middle East, Asia and beyond.

It is alarmed that China’s investment in Israel has exceeded $19bn in the past 18 years, including $9bn in technology, while bilateral trade reached $17.5bn last year.

Biden will tell Bennett that, as the major beneficiary of advanced US research and development and of US foreign aid largesse, Israel is strictly bound by its agreements with the US, and must therefore “cease and desist”, or face the consequences.

Israel has largely ignored such warnings by previous US administrations, but Biden may not be in the mood for games and may lose it.

If not on China, then on Iran.

Bennett is expected to leverage the US humiliation in Afghanistan to pressure Biden to stand up to Iran and its new hardline president, even though the US president has made clear his intentions to reduce US military and strategic commitments in the Middle East.

One fact mainstream media conveniently and willfully ignores is that Tehran is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and its nuclear programme remains largely peaceful, while Israel refuses to join the NPT and is the only nuclear military power in the Middle East.

But Israel will not let the facts get in the way of its fury at US policy towards Iran, and the scenes of the US withdrawing forces from the Greater Middle East. Despite all its bravado, nothing worries Israel more than the US abandoning the region.

That is why Bennett will push Biden to abandon the Iran nuclear deal and prepare for alternative scenarios, including supporting Israeli unilateral actions against Iran.

At the very least, Bennett’s fallback position is reportedly to demand that the US impose new harsher conditions on Iran and compensate Israel in case of a return to the deal.

Israel has already received a $38bn 10-year commitment from the Obama administration plus the latest most advanced US jet fighters and other military hardware, but then again, Israeli chutzpah knows no bounds.

No less in Palestine, where it demands total US acquiescence.

The Israeli government, with considerable help from its allies in Congress, has convinced the Biden administration to back off on its minimal pledges to the PA, including the reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington.

Indeed, Biden, the self-declared Zionist, has already shown himself downright duplicitous, refusing to reverse his predecessor’s position on Israel’s illegal settlement expansion and annexation of occupied Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights, giving Israel a de facto green line to continue colonising Palestine.

Meanwhile, the PA may be counted on for more self-harm, as it cracks down on peaceful dissent and blocks popular mobilisation against the Israeli occupation.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has told Israel to draw a lesson from what happened in Afghanistan, but the conclusions Bennett is likely to convey to Biden might not be what he hoped for. The Israeli prime minister will try to convince the US president that the Palestinian government, like the Afghan government, cannot be relied on to contain the Islamist Hamas or maintain security on its borders, and hence the Israeli military must remain in Palestine for the long haul.

Bennett could argue that as the 85-year-old Abbas may not last much longer at the helm of the PA, Israel and the US must move quickly to prep up a friendlier more pliant Palestinian leadership, to avoid chaos in the occupied Palestinian Territories that could be exploited by Hamas and other more radical groups.

All this renders all talk of reviving the dead “peace process” and the two-state solution utterly superfluous, even if Biden insisted on such “peace talks” for the sake of keeping up appearances of diplomatic normalcy.

To that end, Biden will encourage further Arab normalisation with Israel and outsource any future mediation to the likes of Egypt, which has invited Bennett for an official visit in the coming weeks, human rights be damned.

In sum, a less scandalous meeting followed by a less exhibitionist, more cordial press conference will be deemed a “reset” in relations.

But in reality, this week’s meeting will prove no different from previous meetings. There will be some haggling, nagging, and even pleading, but Israel will once again leverage US failures, as it leverages the successes, to its advantage, and will eventually do what it takes to keep the US fully involved in the Middle East.