President, Premier, Partners, Problems. Photo: GPO

Take Care, Caretaker

Beyond Bennett-Biden Bond

By Amir Oren

Biblical Bilhah was one of the Abraham dynasty series of surrogate mothers, bearing two of Jacob’s children instead of his second wife, Rachel. In that sense, she was somewhat comparable to Thomas Jefferson’s Sally Hemings, but Bilhah’s sons were their brothers’ equals in leading the twelve tribes.

Naphtali, or in modern usage Naftali, one of Bilhah’s sons, was hailed as the Usain Bolt of the Book of Genesis, “a swift gazelle”. Unbeknownst to Henry Kissinger, during the Yom Kippur War NAFTALI was the secret nickname used by Golda Meir and her closest associates when refering to him in cables.

Ever since Kissinger reigned supreme in the Nixon and Ford National Security Councils, there was no high-level Naftali in the Oval Office – until the other day, when Prime Minister Bennett came calling on President Joe Biden. The host and guest hit it off famously, an instant friendship blossoming in less than an hour, as they found common ground. When Biden was a U.S. Senator, he made a point of commuting to Washington by train from his Delaware home, and it turns out that Bennett was a fellow Amtrak traveller from the other direction, riding the New York to Wilmington leg for business, so even though they never ran into each other, they can be counted as kindred spirits.

Biden also called Bennett “a military man”, a bit grandiose for a former soldier and junior officer in two of the Israel Defense Forces elite units, a Captain. But there was a deeper meaning and a broader context to this reference. At 49, Bennett was born a frw years after Biden’s Son Beau, a reserved Major who deployed to Iraq for a year while serving as their State’s Attorney General, safely returning home only to succumb to illness.

When Biden combines “gone to war, lost a friend” and “lost a son” in the same sentence, he expresses a fatherly emotion towards the Israeli son of immigrants from San Francisco who decided to enter politics following a military campaign he perceived as a fiasco (lLebanon, 2006) in which his closest buddy, Emmanuel Moreno, was killed. Moreno has become to Bennett the fallen brother, Yoni, Binyamin Netanyahu always put on a pedestal, sincerely yet intertwined in politics (Moreno’s widow and brother had opposite public views on Bennett heading a government vice Netanyahu).

Bennett’s White House visit managed, as scripted, to further legitimise him as Israel’s leader. An interim one, admittedly, with a two-year expiration date, but during this relatively short period, half an American Presidential term, much can happen, and total trust must be – and apparently was – established between the two Chief Executives. Otherwise, rivers of bad blood can seperate a Netanyahu from an Obama-Biden administration.

On Iran, Bennett did not get what he asked for, whether that request was fully thought out or only an echo of Netanyahu’s folly, having prodded Donald Trump to withdraw from the 2025 Nuclear deal. Not only did Biden reiterate his “diplomacy first” motto, he obviously refused to threaten Iran he would use military force to de-Nuclearise the Islamic Republic. Even the trite “all options on the table” were not out in the open on the table. The farthest Biden agreed to go was a promise he would be “ready to turn to other options”. Just ready to turn, and not all options but simply other.

Brings to mind the old Jewish story about a vagabond entering a house and demanding dinner, lest he “would do what my dad used to do in such a desperate situation”. After the fearful family feeds him, they are curious to know what was the extreme measure used by his father when denied dinner. The punchline: “Go to bed hungry.”

Biden has no intention to issue threats he may have to act on, just because another country, even a protected partner and close security ally such as Israel, wishes it. U.S. national interests and the means employed to support them are subject to sovereign American decisions.

Just like his predecessors, Biden channels his pro-Israel commitment towards defense, most of all to population, via anti-missile systems, both American (Patriot, AEGIS, over-the-horizon radar), Israeli or joint. Israelis are being told that they need not fear expending as many Iron Dome missiles as necessary against the Hezbollah or Hamas barrages – and should not rush into offensive, ground operations. No public mention was made of other munitions needed by the Israel Air Force, precision-guided bombs. It was too delicate to dwell on those, as they may hurt civilians when the IAF next strikes targets in Gaza or Lebanon.

As Bennett was waiting for his Biden meeting, delayed by the Kabul airport attack, a senior Defense official warned of a trend which might upend all current calculations, presumably – though he did not refer to it – including those having to do with Iran.

Navy Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told a Hudson Institute audience that the basic assumption underlying American doctrine for many decades is in peril. Nuclear deterrence was the mainstay of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War and remains so in today’s global environment. But it is bi-lateral, excluding China.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there was a rigid concept in Washington of “a Sino-Soviet Bloc”, interpreting first the Korean War and then the Vietnam conflict as if the Chinese were only doing the Kremlin’s bidding. A minority view, pointing to independent Chinese interests as the primary motives, leading to a breach with Moscow, were ignored until the Nixon-Kissinger approach to Mao and Chou. It was as if China was only a supporting nuclear actor, the Eastern equivalent to Britain as playing second fiddle in the American-led orchestra.

Now, however, both China and Russia are considered peer rivals of the United States, each on its own and twice as dangerous if in collaboration. They may no longer be deterred, cautioned Richard.

Left unsaid was a potential regional implication. From the mid-1950’s to the late 1980’s, the Soviets practically guaranteed the survival of Arab regimes allied with them, first Egypt and then Syria. In 1956 Premier Bulganin bluffed Israel to the extent that an oblique reference to long-range missiles helped drive Ben Gurion to reverse course and agree to withdraw from Sinai. In 1967, 1973 and 1982 Moscow made clear its determination not to let Israel topple protégés in Cairo or Damascus. Even its 1979 intervention in Afghanistan, though in a different context outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, can be partly viewed through this prism.

Notionally, there can be a new sort of anti-American alliance, a two-headed Warsaw Pact combining China and Russia and offering its Nuclear umbrella to Iran (and North Korea). If that happens, the entire Israeli calculus will be negatively impacted, constricting Jerusalem’s room for maneuver.

It is not inevitable, and the timetable for this trend points into much later in this decade and beyond, but attention should be paid to such a scenario. It will not take place on Bennett’s watch – not this one, anyway – as he is for all practical purposes a caretaker Prime Minister. As swift as Naftali’s ascent to power was, so gazelle-like could be his descent to a secondary position. Nevertheless, care should be taken, in coordination with Biden’s State and Defense Departments and intelligence communy, to plan against the day, by moving towards peace with the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese and defusing the Iranian time bomb.