Biden’s team should anticipate a few months of calm on the Palestinian issue and the Iran nuclear deal — thanks as much to gridlock in the Knesset as to Jerusalem’s desire to smooth relations with Washington. But they shouldn’t forget that Bennett is an ideologue farther to the right than Netanyahu. The new prime minister’s hardline credentials and the machinations of right-wing members of his coalition are likely to become a problem at some point. There’s no trainwreck in store for Biden with Israel’s new government — but he shouldn’t expect a honeymoon, either.
Netanyahu will essentially be replaced by a more extreme, though much less politically savvy, version of himself. At 49, an untested and ambitious Bennett — the first Orthodox prime minister and a former aide to Netanyahu — will have to keep his fervent annexationist convictions and implacable opposition to Palestinian statehood under control. His new coalition government will be weighed down and checked by opposing factions that may constrain — but not eliminate — the right-wing impulses of the prime minister and his conservative partners.
Bennett’s left-wing partners and, most importantly, the centrist Lapid — to whom Bennett will hand off the prime minister post after two years — hold the key to his survival. And in a delicious irony given Bennett’s fervent nationalist views, so does a small Arab party, Ra’am. In return for promises of legislative and budget support, Ra’am will vote with the coalition in the event of no-confidence votes. It’s mutually assured destruction, Israeli-style. The government may well collapse at some point under its own weight — after all, the average length of Israeli governments is just under two years. But for now, two powerful incentives will hold it together: avoiding a fifth election and getting rid of Netanyahu.
Bennett and Lapid, who for now will become foreign minister, will work hard to normalize ties with the Biden administration and with the American Jewish community. The two men, especially Lapid, will look to repair relations with Democrats even while maintaining the friendly ties with Republicans that Netanyahu preferred. This will be an increasingly tough balancing act as progressives within the Democratic Party push Biden to be tougher on Israel. Israel will also need to listen carefully to the complaints increasingly voiced even by mainstream Democrats. Both Israeli and American lawmakers will want a return to a more bipartisan relationship, but getting there won’t be easy. Republicans, for their part, will do whatever they can to prevent a rapprochement between their colleagues across the aisle and Bennett’s government. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) is reportedly returning from Israel with a request for a billion dollars in emergency military assistance, which is likely to be scrutinized intensely by the progressive Democrats who recently sought to block an arms sale to Israel.
The new Israeli coalition will also face the intriguing challenge of rebuilding strong ties with the American Jewish community. On this count, it will enter office with one huge asset: the absence of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition. Bennett will thus be free to loosen somewhat the ultra-Orthodox parties’ control over many aspects of personal status in Jewish life, such as marriage and divorce, conversion and the like. This will appeal to the majority of American Jews in the Conservative and Reform movements.
On the Palestinian issue, Bennett is more ideologically rigid than Netanyahu. He will need to continue some settlement activity in the West Bank — enough to maintain support within his own Yamina party and Gideon Saar’s New Hope party, but not so much as to arouse the anger of the left. In particular, Bennett’s freedom of maneuver will be severely constrained by the presence in the coalition of the Labor Party and Meretz, two parties committed to the two-state solution and opposed to settlements and annexation.
Bennett will also be unable to stray too far to the right given the need to retain the support of Mansour Abbas’ Islamist Ra’am party. Ra’am’s tacit support will be necessary to keep the coalition together. It is not altogether clear whether Bennett and the left can successfully navigate this fine line, especially if the extreme right seeks to provoke Palestinians, or if Hamas decides to return to confrontation with Israel.
This standoff on peace process issues might even usher in a period of calm on the ground, especially in Gaza. The Israeli left has complained that Netanyahu’s policies have strengthened Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. The new coalition could reverse Netanyahu’s policies, which resulted in allowing Qatar to funnel cash to Hamas, and move instead toward a more structured approach in line with the policies and priorities of the international donor community. As difficult as the issue of Gaza reconstruction is, the new government’s policy in the West Bank — where Bennett is likely to increase settlement activity — is a far bigger threat to the fragile coalition.
On the Iran nuclear accord, the new government is likely to tread carefully to avoid antagonizing the Biden administration. For weeks, American negotiators have been working in Vienna — indirectly through the Europeans — to revive the deal and restore limits on Iran’s nuclear program. Had Netanyahu remained in power, this might have been the one issue that turned existing U.S.-Israel tensions into a full-blown crisis. Netanyahu said recently that stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power was vital even if it came at expense of friction with Washington.
Members of the incoming coalition understand this well. Some might agree with Netanyahu that American Jewish critics of Israel will disappear in a generation or two “at most” and with Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s protégé and former ambassador to the United States, who recently argued that the strong, reliable support of Evangelicals, not Jews, was vital to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Other Israeli lawmakers, though, understand that American politics are too fluid for such simplistic and complacent assessments. They also understand, as illustrated by a hot mic incident revealing Netanyahu’s prior attempt to get approval for a strike on Iran, the profound risks of a hard-line stance on Iran, both for the relationship with the United States and, ultimately, for Israel’s position as a power player within the region.
Therefore, even though Bennett himself will remain hawkish on Iran, the new governing coalition will probably give Biden the time and space to stitch up a tattered nuclear deal and nudge Iran back toward compliance. As a practical matter, this will entail less lobbying against the deal in Congress, public statements indicating that Israel is prepared to give Biden, an old friend, the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps suspending for now Israeli attacks on Iranian soil, such as assassinations of scientists. This approach would carry relatively little risk for the new government, since negotiations on the new deal might fall apart anyway.
But make no mistake: This issue is not going away. Years of Netanyahu’s vilification of the Iran deal have seduced Israelis across the political spectrum into believing there remains a better deal to be had. Many Israelis argue that it’s not just Iran’s nuclear ambitions that are so dangerous, but also its missile development and malign activities in regional conflicts. For many, therefore, including Bennett, a nuclear deal — even one that stripped Iran of its right to enrichment forever — would simply not be enough. The period of calm Biden gets will be fleeting and uncertain, especially with Netanyahu leading the opposition and enjoying a bully pulpit in the Knesset and the media.
Indeed, Netanyahu will not simply disappear into an Israeli Mar-a-Lago. He will go into the opposition, where he’ll preside over the largest and most coherent political party in the country with a band of still-loyal followers. Netanyahu’s trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust will continue, most likely for months, all while he seeks to pressure right-wing members of the new government and works to secure its collapse. If and when it does, Netanyahu — still the most dominant and skilled politician in a country where 72 percent voted for right-wing parties in the most recent election — may be well-positioned to pick up the pieces.
Biden will catch a break with a less predatory and manipulative prime minister who won’t play to a Republican and evangelical base, and who is unlikely to openly oppose America’s Iran policy or engage in obvious provocations. Still, the contradictions that lie ahead are disorienting: an Israeli prime minister with anti-Palestinian convictions who will need to curb his own views to maintain coalition stability, and an Israeli government that wants to rebuild ties to a U.S. administration seeking an Iran deal that Israel opposes.
Biden should enjoy the respite he’s been given. Clashes between Washington and Jerusalem over the peace process and Iran will continue. The administration should not let these issues divert from its focus on domestic priorities, but events in the Middle East may not allow Biden to retain a relatively aloof stance. Indeed, the recent Israeli-Palestinian crisis — and the new prospect of an even harder-line prime minister — should remind the administration that while this issue may not be a priority, the region is often like the Hotel California: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.