With Netanyahu gone, Biden breathes sigh of relief but differences with Israel remain

US State Department's Victoria Nuland likely to take on bigger role in Palestinian-Israeli portfolio

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) prepares to sign the guest book before his meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem March 9, 2010. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

Following the Knesset vote on Sunday that ended the Benjamin Netanyahu era, it took US President Joe Biden less than 25 minutes to issue a statement congratulating Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and less than two hours to schedule a call with him.

The swift reaction – which made the US the first country to offer its congratulations to Mr Bennett – was the product of both a bitter history between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu and a desire to repair relations after 12 years of the former prime minister's divisive political style.

Mr Biden witnessed first-hand how Mr Netanyahu undermined and embarrassed Washington during the Barack Obama years.

In 2010, when then-vice president Biden arrived in Israel on an official visit, the Netanyahu government announced a plan to expand illegal settlements in the occupied territories, undercutting US efforts to jump-start the peace process.

From there, Mr Netanyahu worked with Republicans in Congress to outmanoeuvre the Obama administration on Palestine-Israel as well as to hamper nuclear deal talks with Iran.

During the Donald Trump years, Mr Netanyahu became close to the former president, prodding him to reverse major decisions made under Mr Obama, such as withdrawing from the nuclear deal and making unilateral decisions that favoured Israel and punished the Palestinians.

With Mr Netanyahu gone, experts say the Biden administration will experience “inevitable relief”, but that this will not help the peace process gain any momentum.

Ghaith Al Omari, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former peace process negotiator, said Mr Netanyahu’s exit clears “much of the tension” that revolved around his governing style.

"His departure – especially after 12 years in office – is inevitably met with relief in the administration," Mr Al Omari told The National.

Martin Indyk, a former US peace process envoy who had his own clashes with Mr Netanyahu during the Bill Clinton years, tweeted: “You can almost hear the relief in the press release."

But although distrust could dissipate, not all disagreements will.

Mr Al Omari argued that though the atmosphere will improve, “major policy differences – whether on Iran or the Palestinians – will remain”.

The new government has already made clear its opposition to the nuclear deal that the Biden team is trying to revive with Iran in Vienna and it has not committed to avoiding unilateral steps, such as territorial annexation in the West Bank.

“Some aspects of the US policy – especially those related to Area C of the West Bank – are bound to create tension,” Mr Al Omari said.

Mr Bennett, of the of the nationalist right-wing Yamina party, is a proponent of annexation in the region. The US opposes such measures.

“Mr Bennett is viewed negatively by many Democrats in Congress," Mr Al Omari said, but he added that "Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has extensive, positive relations within the party".

Sources close to the administration told The National that following the Gaza conflict, Washington is moving towards assigning the Palestinian-Israeli file to a high-ranking official or appointing an envoy.

The sources mentioned bigger involvement for Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, in determining US strategy.

Ms Nuland accompanied US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his most recent trip to Palestine and Israel.

Last week, she addressed the American Jewish Committee and spoke about the Biden administration's "unwavering commitment" to Israel's security and rebuilding ties with the Palestinians.

But beyond that, Mr Biden has little appetite to prioritise Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. He faces a string of domestic and foreign policy challenges, with talks an unlikely prospect anyway owing to differences in the new coalition and a divided Palestinian camp.

“From the outset, the [administration] never intended to engage in high-level diplomacy and that will not change with a new Israeli government. Rather, it will proceed with its modest but concrete objectives,” Mr Al Omari said.

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