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US-Israel Relations Reach Crossroads   06/20 10:22

   Their countries at crossroads, the new leaders of the United States and 
Israel have inherited a relationship that is at once imperiled by increasingly 
partisan domestic political considerations and deeply bound in history and an 
engrained recognition that they need each other.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Their countries at crossroads, the new leaders of the 
United States and Israel have inherited a relationship that is at once 
imperiled by increasingly partisan domestic political considerations and deeply 
bound in history and an engrained recognition that they need each other.

   How President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett manage that 
relationship will shape the prospects for peace and stability in the Middle 
East.

   They are ushering in an era no longer defined by the powerful personality of 
long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu, who repeatedly defied the Obama 
administration and then reaped the rewards of a warm relationship with 
President Donald Trump.

   Bennett's government says it wants to repair relations with the Democrats 
and restore bipartisan support in the U.S. for Israel. Biden, meanwhile, is 
pursuing a more balanced approach on the Palestinian conflict and Iran.

   The relationship is critical to both countries. Israel has long regarded the 
United States as its closest ally and guarantor of its security and 
international standing while the U.S. counts on Israel's military and 
intelligence prowess in a turbulent Middle East.

   But both Biden and Bennett are also restrained by domestic politics.

   Bennett leads an uncertain coalition of eight parties from across Israel's 
political spectrum whose main point of convergence was on removing Netanyahu 
from power after 12 years. Biden is struggling to bridge a divide in his party 
where near-uniform support for Israel has eroded and a progressive wing wants 
the U.S. to do more to end Israel's half-century occupation of lands the 
Palestinians want for a future state.

   Shortly after taking office, the new Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, 
recognized the challenges Israel faces in Washington.

   "We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate and House and they 
are angry," Lapid said upon taking the helm at Israel's foreign ministry a week 
ago. "We need to change the way we work with them."

   A key test will be on Iran. Biden has sought to return to the Iran nuclear 
deal that President Barack Obama saw as a signature foreign policy achievement. 
Trump withdrew from the pact to cheers from pro-Israel U.S. lawmakers and 
Israel. Though Iran has not yet accepted Biden's offer for direct negotiations, 
indirect discussions on the nuclear deal are now in a sixth round in Vienna.

   The new Israeli government remains staunchly opposed to Biden's efforts to 
resurrect the deal. But it maintains it will discuss the issue behind closed 
doors rather than staging public confrontations, such as Netanyahu's 
controversial address slamming the agreement to the U.S. Congress in 2015.

   In a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, Lapid 
said the two agreed on a "no surprises" policy and to keep lines of 
communication open.

   Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel's Bar-Ilan 
University, says that rather than trying to scuttle any agreement with Iran, 
the new government will press the U.S. administration to keep some sanctions on 
Iran in place and seek "strategic compensation" for Israel as part of any 
return to the deal.

   Resolving differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be another 
significant challenge for the two leaders.

   Biden has already moved to reverse Netanyahu-backed Trump policies that 
alienated the Palestinians and caused a near total rupture in official 
U.S.-Palestinian contacts. Almost immediately after taking office, Biden 
restored Trump-slashed U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, which in just four 
months totals more than $300 million. He announced his administration's intent 
to re-open the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, closed by Trump, that handled 
relations with the Palestinians. And, administration officials have spoken of 
the imperative that Israelis and Palestinians enjoy equal measures of security 
and prosperity.

   Yet, neither Biden nor Blinken has signaled any move to alter Trump's most 
significant pro-Israel steps. Those include his abandonment of longstanding 
U.S. policy that settlements are illegitimate under international law, his 
recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and his recognition of Israeli 
sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory seized from Syria in the 1967 
Arab-Israeli war. The administration also hopes to expand Arab-Israeli 
normalization agreements that the Trump administration forged in its final 
months in office.

   In a call on Bennett's first day in office, Biden affirmed his "steadfast 
support for the U.S.-Israel relationship" and "unwavering commitment to 
Israel's security." He pledged to work together on all security matters, 
including Iran.

   Biden's support for Israel's heavy airstrikes during last month's war with 
Gaza's militant Hamas rulers, who fired thousands of rockets at Israel, angered 
progressive Democrats in Congress. With newfound strength in numbers, they are 
demanding that the administration do more to support the Palestinians and that 
conditions be placed on the massive amount of military aid the U.S. provides 
Israel.

   While well-established Democratic lawmakers remain unstintingly supportive 
of Israel and its absolute right to defend itself, the growing number of 
progressive voices in their caucus have turned the issue into a political hot 
potato. The change in Israel's government is unlikely to ease their calls for 
action as Israeli-Palestinian violence has continued in recent days.

   Yet, the Biden administration has already urged the new Israeli government 
to ease tensions with the Palestinians. In two phone conversations with Lapid 
over the last week, Blinken has spoken of "the need to improve 
Israeli-Palestinian relations in practical ways" and pledged to deepen 
Arab-Israeli ties.

   It's not clear that the new government will be responsive.

   Centrist members like Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz clearly want to 
adopt a more cooperative approach with the Biden administration, while Bennett 
and his right-wing partners face pressure from their base to maintain 
Netanyahu's hardline approach, not only on Iran but on the conflict with the 
Palestinians.

   The former prime minister, already eyeing a return to office, has branded 
Bennett as weak and inexperienced, and will probably pounce on any perceived 
capitulations.

   The Israeli government already faces tough decisions, including whether to 
evacuate an unauthorized settlement outpost established last month and whether 
to intervene in the legal process through which settler organizations are 
trying to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in east 
Jerusalem.

   The Biden administration is pressing Israel to refrain from any unilateral 
steps -- such as settlement expansion or evictions -- that could hinder the 
eventual revival of the peace process, which has been moribund for more than a 
decade. But Washington has yet to issue public condemnations of settlement 
activity beyond general calls for both sides to refrain from unilateral steps 
that could inflame tensions or harm prospects for an eventual peace deal.

   Bennett is a strong supporter of the settlements and is opposed to 
Palestinian statehood, but he is also seen by many as a pragmatist. He may be 
able to turn his weakness into a strength, arguing that any major concession -- 
to the Palestinians or the settlers -- risks bringing down the government and 
returning Netanyahu to power.

   "The forces that brought this coalition to power are strong enough in my 
judgment to sustain the pressure from the right and probably also American 
pressure to make a major change in the policies toward the Palestinians," 
Gilboa said.

 
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