Washington doesn’t know Naftali Bennett, the likely next prime minister of Israel.
The 49-year-old former settler leader with strong nationalist views supports the permanent Israeli annexation of the West Bank. He’s managed to cobble together an astoundingly diverse coalition that for the first time in Israeli history includes Arab parties. His parents are originally from San Francisco and he once lived in New York.
But what can the Biden administration, Congress and the American Jewish community expect from Bennett?
Should a Sunday confidence vote go his way, Bennett will replace Benjamin Netanyahu, a domineering figure known to the American public for more than 30 years, one who enjoyed close relationships with key American politicians and diplomats. That’s not to diminish his frequent and often bitter clashes with Washington officials — and American Jewish leaders as well. But there was a sense of comfort with Netanyahu, who was risk-averse and at times moderate. Americans knew who they were dealing with.
The consensus among a dozen officials and Mideast experts who are familiar with Bennett’s thinking — some speaking to the Forward on the condition of anonymity because the government has yet to be sworn in — is that the U.S.-Israel alliance has much to gain with Bennett and the coalition he has managed to pull together.
Hitting the reset button on the relationship is key, said Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “The ‘tricks and shticks’ that kind of dominated Netanyahu’s approach to things — the spin — all of that is going to be gone when Bibi is gone,” said Indyk, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, using the prime minister’s nickname.
“I think there will just be a kind of a collective sigh of relief breathed in Washington.”
Both Bennett and Yair Lapid, who will serve as foreign minister in the first half of the term, come with a clean slate, said Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli columnist, making it “convenient” for both sides to kick off a healthy working relationship. “Biden will play nice because they are less experienced,” he explained. “And the administration will be treated with awe that it didn’t get from Netanyahu.”
Bennett and his coalition partners will need as much support as they can get from American allies. They will assume power in a particularly tumultuous moment, and will face an array of daunting challenges — including unifying the country after two years of political deadlock that forced four national elections with no clear winner. Netanyahu was a polarizing force in Israeli society. A coalition unprecedented in its diversity, and one that may be difficult to sustain, came together to topple him. This power-sharing government includes parties from the center-left and is — for the first time in Israel’s history — backed by an Islamist Arab party.
And this uniquely new government will also be served a full plate of urgent and thorny issues — the situation in Gaza, the conflict with the Palestinians, the Iranian threat, and frayed relations with U.S. officials, the Democratic Party and large swaths of American Jewry.
The question yet unanswered in Washington is: how will Bennett handle these challenges?
The original idea for the so-called “change government,” made up of parties who agree on little other than their desire to remove Netanyahu, was to avoid contentious issues like security and Palestinian rights and to focus on rebuilding the economy and domestic reforms. “The government is going to want to focus on apple pie and motherhood,” said David Makovsky, director of the program on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
Mark Mellman, president and chief executive of the Democratic Majority for Israel, said that nobody should expect the new government to “solve an accumulated decade or more of problems” quickly. “There will be improvements,” he said. “But no one should expect radical changes in policy from a broadly based, unity government.”
Makovsky, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said that the Biden administration came in with little expectation that it would make much headway on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I don’t think they have any anticipation that they’re going to hit a home run on this issue,” he said.
But the reality on the ground may determine that Bennett and Biden may wind up engaging far more on the issue than planned. As evidenced by the recent hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the conflict is can’t be ignored. Incidents like the protests over an East Jerusalem land dispute can touch off unexpected wars. More violence in the future would put the Bennett-Biden relationship to the test: Biden will face pressure from the progressives to be tougher on Israel and Bennett won’t have much maneuverability, right or left.
As a former administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, put it: “If there’s no flare-up, there will be time for the two leaders to get to know each other.”
A new tone from Jerusalem
In Bennett’s favor is the widely held belief that he will change the tone of Israeli politics and diplomacy for the better. His elbows, many appreciate, are not as sharp as Netanyahu’s. The government he leads has been described as the broadest ever in Israel’s history. To hold it together, all its players have similarly committed to treat each other with respect.
Some have pointed out how Biden rose to power with a parallel promise to restore civility in the wake of the polarizing presidency of Donald Trump.
“The dynamic between President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett could be one of the most interesting dynamics in the history of relationships between American and Israeli leaders,” a Bennett confidante suggested, noting the pressures each face from competing constituencies. And yet, the official said, both came to power with a desire to heal and to promote unity.
Bennett may apply his less outwardly aggressive approach to relations with American politicians as well as Israeli ones. Netanyahu did not seem to care how many Democrats he offended, sidelining former President Barack Obama and accepting an invitation from Congressional Republicans to speak on the U.S. House floor against the administration-based Iran nuclear deal. Bennett will likely choose to avoid such divisive situations.
“I believe this new government will work overtime to restore relations with Democrats that had been badly frayed in the Netanyahu era,” said Mellman, who served as Lapid’s chief campaign strategist. “I think you will see a different tone from this new government.”
Many who care about the U.S.-Israel alliance are keeping a close eye on the pick for ambassador to Washington. Whomever Bennett appoints, they say, will need to have the relationships and credibility to manage this increasingly complicated relationship.
Bennett himself, given his character and the diversity of his coalition, may be well-positioned to better manage relations with the U.S., said Jeremy Saltan, a longtime Bennett ally and member of the Yamina Party’s list. “Bennett’s leadership was the driving factor in the formation of the coalition,” he said. And while he will be the dominant figure in the decision making process, his partners “will have a seat around the table when it comes to the important issues of the day and he will take their positions into account.”
Jason Perlman, a media consultant who previously worked on Bennett’s foreign press team, similarly said the U.S. can expect a “much more respectful statesman-like approach” from the next prime minister, though he could not predict whether that would translate into any policy change on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The new government may also make for less contentious negotiations on a new Iran nuclear deal. Indyk predicted that “the comfort level would be a lot higher” for the Biden administration with Bennett in that he does not bring Netanyahu’s “baggage” on the issue — his hostility toward any negotiations.
The American Jewish community, which leans heavily Democratic, has rejected Netanyahu much in the same way it rejected Trump — and, as some American backers of Israel worry — distanced itself from Israel in the process.
Susie Gelman, chairwoman of the Israel Policy Forum, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that a new Israeli government could be “setting a better tone” for the U.S.-Israel alliance and relations with Jewish Americans.
The deterioration of Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community was rooted in part in the makeup of Netanyahu’s government, which included ultra-Orthodox parties who rankle many American Jews by refusing to compromise on issues like the Kotel egalitarian prayer plan and conversion.
Although Bennett and Lapid may decide not to make significant changes in religious affairs — to leave the door open for more parties to join the coalition in future — it will still “be seen as a positive development in the eyes of many American Jews that the Haredi parties are not part of the government for the first time in a long time,” said Dan Arbell, a scholar in residence at the Center for Israel studies at American University.
Americans who have been close with Bennett over the years describe him as smart and as someone who reads a room well. And he is no stranger in the U.S.
His parents emigrated to Haifa from San Francisco. He lived in New York for several years for business, and served as Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs in Netanyahu’s previous government. “He is someone who understands the American public,” said Saltan, who serves as Yamina’s director of Anglo operations.
“Americans can expect a prime minister who thinks outside of the box and is a straight shooter,” he added. “He is an excellent leader and a superb decision maker, who will jump on mutually beneficial opportunities and build bridges the same way he was able to form the most unlikely government coalition in Israel’s history.”
But Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a visiting professor in Israel studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., warned American Jews to be careful what they wish for: Netanyahu may be gone, but his replacement may not please them. “I just don’t know that this is going to be the great rapprochement between American Jews and Israel,” she said. “I think that American Jews have to understand that maintaining a consensus, pragmatic government is going to involve sweeping a lot of issues under the carpet that desperately need to be addressed. It won’t fix any of the major problems in Israeli society.”
Pragmatism requires Bennett and Lapid to find the lowest common denominator to govern, Hirschhorn added. But “if Bennett chooses to push his ideological goals, you now are in the position of having a leader who is significantly to the right of Netanyahu,” she said.
That would not bode well for U.S.-Israeli relations.
How Naftali Bennett will perform as Israel’s leader