Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely top the agenda during Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s meeting with President Biden. But USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen says the talks will also serve as a “relational reset … this will really be about setting a tone between these two new leaders.”

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Julie Mason: Yesterday's planned meeting at the White House between the president and the visiting Israeli prime minister was delayed because of that bombing in Kabul. They're back on the schedule today. What do the Israelis want? What's the big ask? Joining me now Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, is director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace here to talk about the Israeli prime minister's visit. Hi, Lucy. 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Hi, Julie. Thanks for having me on the show. 

Julie Mason: Oh, great to have you. So this is their first sit down, what's on the agenda?

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, I think beyond the agenda, and the substance that's on there, this meeting is very much about tone. We've heard a lot of verbiage coming from Prime Minister Bennett before his meeting, before getting on the plane, and while being here about a new spirit of cooperation he's bringing to Washington. And so I think that's an important thing, when we look at this meeting, this is the term that's being used a lot: a "relational reset." We have to remember the Prime Minister Bennett is coming in as prime minister after 12 consecutive years of Benjamin Netanyahu in that role, so his predecessor really dominated the Israeli political scene in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And his style, particularly with Democratic presidents, and most recently with President Obama under whom, of course, President Biden served as vice president, was somewhat famously confrontational. So again, Iran certainly will be on the agenda, Prime Minister Bennett has made it clear that that's his number one priority, Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be discussed, but beyond those key agenda items, this really will be about setting a tone between these two leaders who are meeting for the first time.

Julie Mason: And what should we expect from Bennett? How is he different from Netanyahu?

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, interestingly, on politics and ideology, one might say they're not that much different. Again, their positions on issues like Iran, which again is really Prime Minister Bennett's priority issue here, is very similar. Both have been opposed to the signing of the Iran deal, signed in 2015, under the Obama administration, and what you can expect, Prime Minister Bennett to be bringing to Washington and his discussions about Iran is really strong efforts to prevent the U.S. from entering back into the agreement and to taking a much more hardline approach to Iran. Similarly, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Prime Minister Bennett is very opposed to a Palestinian state, to a two state solution, and has traditionally been a supporter of settlement growth and expansion. So in terms of differences on policy, there might not be so much daylight. But again, there is a matter of tone here, Prime Minister Bennett seems to be someone who has internalized the notion that was held by many Israelis for years that Israel's at its strongest in its relationship with the United States when that relationship is a bipartisan one. And that's something we saw crumble under Prime Minister Netanyahu, particularly during the Obama years.

Julie Mason: Well, I mean, even during the Obama years, yeah, they they antagonized each other, and you could tell they didn't like each other, but Israel still got pretty much everything it wanted, you know, in terms of military assistance, and etc., from the Obama administration. I mean, that didn't let up at all.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: That's certainly the case, the level of support that the U.S. has provided Israel has been consistent, there was a 10 year Memorandum of Understanding signed under the Obama administration. This is still in effect. And so that is definitely the case, again, so much was, was in tone in relationship. And of course, President Biden is someone who has always prided himself on the strength of personal relationships with foreign leaders. So again, I think this is something that you're going to see when you have a president, a United States president, who's consistently, over his decades, first as senator and then as vice president, and now of course, as president has really been someone who's been a strong proponent of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. And someone who I believe is met with every prime minister of Israel since Golda Meir in the 1970s. You know, I think you're going to see a heavy lean on, on a focus during this meeting, on the shared interest, the years of strong cooperation, and statement of intent for that kind of cooperation to continue,

Julie Mason: Because it does sound like the policy differences are noteworthy. I mean, just on the JCPOA, Biden still wants to get back into that, doesn't he?

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: He does. I think the U.S., this administration, sees very strongly a return to diplomacy as the first option. You've heard comments from members of administration that that doesn't mean that if that doesn't work, they would rule out other approaches, but diplomacy very much seems to be in re-entering that agreement, if they can, seems to be very much the first priority. Whereas, you know, as mentioned, from Prime Minister Bennett's perspective, that's futile. It's a lost cause dealing with Iran that way, and I think they'd like to see something that's stronger, an alternative approach.

Julie Mason: And Lucy, can you give us a brief status update on the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, seems to have quieted down.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, so, on the eve of Bennett coming to Washington, you've seen this past week tensions really ratcheting up on the border between Gaza and Israel. There have been demonstrations at the border. You've seen Hamas really showing an impulse to ratchet things up, and I think ratchet up the pressure on Israel. They're not pleased with how the terms of the ceasefire is going after the last escalation in May. And I think that you're seeing signs of that, with trying to gain some leverage there. Egypt's been playing a very robust role, it seems, in talking both to Israel and Hamas in terms of keeping tensions at a minimum. And I think you have seen some quiet in the last few days, and I think, in no small part due to diplomatic efforts there of Egypt, but of course, that area is going to remain a flashpoint in this conflict, when things are quiet, they are never quiet for long and so that also, of course, is a shadow overhanging this meeting when Bennett got on the plane to come to Washington.

Julie Mason: Really, really interesting stuff, Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Lucy, thank you. 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Thank you very much. 

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