(AP) — Secret diplomacy. In-person visits. And a very public no-surprises deal with Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid
met in Rome on Sunday as their new governments seek to move on from former President Donald Trump
and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
, whose close relationship exacerbated partisan divisions within both countries.
With Trump in Florida
and Netanyahu leading the opposition, President Joe Biden
and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett
are focusing on pragmatic diplomacy rather than dramatic initiatives that risk fomenting domestic opposition or diverting attention away from other priorities.
“Mistakes were made in the last few years,” Lapid told Blinken as they sat down for talks in a Rome hotel. “Israel’s bipartisan standing was harmed; we will correct those mistakes together.”
Lapid stated that since taking office, he has spoken with Democrats and Republicans
and has “reminded them all that we share America
’s most basic, basic values — freedom, democracy
, free markets, and the constant search for peace.”
Despite the fact that the two governments are new, Blinken stated that “the foundation that we are working on is one of an enduring partnership, a relationship, and friendship
between the United States
The push entails focusing on smaller goals, such as bolstering the informal cease-fire that ended last month's war with Gaza
's militant Hamas
rulers and replenishing Israel's Iron Dome defense system. A major push to resurrect the long-dormant peace process between Israel and the Palestinians
could upset the delicate balance.
“Nobody believes it is a good idea to launch a major new peace initiative,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a Mideast security
expert at the nonprofit Center for a New American Security. “However, there are things you can do quietly under the radar, on the ground, to improve the situation.”
This approach, of managing the conflict rather than attempting to resolve it, may succeed in masking domestic divisions, but it also maintains a status quo that Palestinians find increasingly oppressive and hopeless, and which has fueled countless cycles of unrest.
Americans and Israelis will try to settle their differences behind closed doors, as in Biden's "quiet" diplomacy, when he privately urged Netanyahu to end the Israel-Hamas conflict ahead of a May 21 truce.
“We believe that direct and professional discussion, rather than a press conference, is the best way to discuss those disagreements,” Lapid said.
Both governments will try to keep Israel's fragile governing coalition together, in part by reducing provocations that contributed to the 11-day war that killed at least 254 Palestinians and killed 13 Israelis.
The new Israeli coalition shares little other than the conviction that Netanyahu had to go. It is made up of eight parties, each with veto power over decisions, so if even one party defected, Israel's government would be in serious jeopardy
, with Netanyahu waiting just offstage.
At least in the short term, Lapid, a centrist, will be Israel's point person for mending ties with Biden and the Democrats, who control both houses of Congress
but are increasingly divided on the Mideast conflict
, with progressive members calling for the US to exert more pressure on Israel.
“What they’re building now is mutual trust,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US under Netanyahu. “I expect a change of tone rather than substance... but there’s a chance it could produce something better for Israel.”
The top priority in both countries is reviving Iran’s 2015 agreement with world powers to limit Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. Trump, with Netanyahu’s support, pulled the US out of the deal in 2018 and imposed sanctions
on the Islamic Republic. Biden has promised to restore and expand the agreement.
Instead of scuppering the talks, Israel's new government appears intent on remaining involved and attempting to influence them.
“Israel has some serious reservations about the Iran nuclear deal
that is being put together in Vienna
,” Lapid said, before promising that Israel would express its concerns privately. Netanyahu had publicly opposed the deal when it was being negotiated by the Obama administration.
“We have the same goal,” Blinken said, “but we sometimes disagree on tactics, and I think we are very clear and direct to each other when that is the case, and that is exactly how it should be.”
Even Bennett, a right-winger ideologically aligned with Netanyahu, has toned down his rhetoric on Iran.
“We will continue to consult with our friends, persuade, debate, and share information and insights out of mutual respect,” Bennett said Thursday, “but at the end of the day, we will be responsible for our own fate, nobody else.”
According to officials, a key strategy is to keep tensions at bay – or at least to keep them from escalating.
Blinken spoke of the importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
but provided no timetable or strategy to “offer a more hopeful future for everyone: Palestinians and Israelis alike with equal measures of opportunity and dignity.”
While the Biden administration
supports and hopes to expand on the Trump administration
's Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries, Blinken stated that they "are not a substitute for engaging on the issues between Israelis and Palestinians that need to be resolved."
On the American side, the Biden administration has made it clear that it wants to pull the country out of the Middle East
's intractable conflicts and focus on other issues such as climate change
and competition with China
Outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is scheduled to visit Washington
on Monday at the invitation of Biden, and a group of House Democrats
is planning an official trip to Israel as soon as Congress returns from its July 4th recess.
According to officials, there is even talk of Lapid and Bennett visiting Washington later this summer, either separately or together. Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first two years, followed by Lapid, the coalition's architect.
All of the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration plans and logistics that have yet to be finalized.
So far, the reset appears to be working, but with the Israeli coalition having only been in place for two weeks, significant challenges loom.
Biden has taken steps to reverse Trump policies that have alienated Palestinians, and the administration has stated that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal levels of security and prosperity.
However, the US has yet to explain how it intends to achieve this without ending Israel's half-century military
occupation of the West Bank
, its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza, and discriminatory policies in Jerusalem
that fueled the spring unrest.