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Friday, February 3, 2023

How the Taliban takeover changes the dynamics in a Biden-Bennett meeting

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The timing of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s trip to Washington to meet with US President Joe Biden next week is notable.

Just last week, some analysts were saying that after passing a massive, bipartisan infrastructure bill, Biden is a stronger president than ever, and that Bennett should keep that in mind.

But now – after the fiasco of the US pullout from Afghanistan – Biden will be coming to the meeting from a much weaker position in the region than if the meeting had taken place last week or before then.

US PRESIDENT Joe Biden has been riding a new wave of populism that will become the central theme in the next decade’s election campaigns across the Western world: disparaging big tech corporations. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)

The events that unfolded in Afghanistan were hardly surprising to Israelis. They were history repeating itself.

Israel already knows what happens when it withdraws from territory. It may have worked out mostly well with the Sinai Peninsula, but the two other times out of three, Islamist terrorists took over. First, when the IDF left southern Lebanon in 2000, and then after the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

In both of those cases, a local population had been trained to keep the extremists at bay – first, the South Lebanon Army, which worked with the IDF, then, Fatah-affiliated Palestinian Authority security forces, trained by the US – and they were quickly overrun and massacred by Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively.

But the Biden administration acted like it had no idea what had happened in our part of the world, or – to make a comparison Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken do not like – in Vietnam.

The US intelligence estimate that was made public was that it would take 90 days for the Taliban to take Kabul; it took them less than a week. The US trained the Afghan military to defend its country from terrorists; the soldiers surrendered to the Taliban. Plus, the US said it would give special immigration visas to Afghans who worked with Americans; only a fraction of them have managed to get out so far, and many thousands of Afghans mobbed the airport in Kabul to try to escape.

All of this adds up to a US that has far less credibility to make demands of, and promises to, Israel.

The Biden administration is not currently pressuring Israel to make territorial concessions, though it vocally opposes building homes for Jews in Judea and Samaria and seeks a two-state solution in the long term.

The US – with the exception of the Trump administration – has long sought to offer security guarantees in exchange for Israel withdrawing from the West Bank. With Israel’s recent history, it’s a hard sell. While a narrow majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, according to many polls, fewer tend to support the territorial concessions that would allow that to happen. And a military withdrawal from the Jordan Valley is something that the political Center and Center-Left, in addition to the Right, oppose.

ISRAEL HAS never really entertained offers of international forces or US surveillance technology, as former secretary of state John Kerry suggested, to take the place of IDF boots on the ground in the Jordan Valley. But the current state of affairs in Afghanistan makes American security assurances weaker and less reliable. Who’s to say that the US won’t get sick of guaranteeing Israel’s security and stop doing it, consequences be damned?

The same is true of US security assurances when it comes to Iran. The Biden administration is still pushing for a return to a nuclear deal with Tehran that would allow it to have a nuclear weapon when the deal expires in less than a decade. Washington has asked Jerusalem to work with it instead of making a loud public campaign against the nuclear negotiations, as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did, saying it will make sure Iran can never threaten Israel with nuclear weapons. And Bennett agreed to greater cooperation on the issue, even saying on Wednesday that he is taking an “approach of partnership.” But the situation in Afghanistan must give him pause when taking a long-term view on the Iranian nuclear threat.

This is why the quintessentially Israeli philosophy about national security is that Israel needs to be able to defend itself on its own. Partnerships are good and should be cultivated, but Israel cannot rely on them.

The weakening of the US position in the region following Afghanistan could also make Israel more vulnerable in the sense that its enemies may test Israel to see if it is still strong even when its largest strategic ally is wavering.

But it could strengthen Israel’s standing in the region, by encouraging partnerships with other Middle Eastern countries with strong ties to the US, such as the Abraham Accords countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

When Bennett heads to the White House – whenever it will be – he will be encountering a US president with weaker levers of pressure and less credibility than it had just a week ago in regard to the Middle East. But as one source close to Bennett posited, he may also find that Biden is more willing to take Bennett’s and Israel’s regional allies’ positions more seriously, as the US seeks to reduce engagement in the region while avoiding a repeat of its blunders.


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