When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his way to Israel last week for his first visit to the country, the State Department released a statement mentioning three Israeli officials he was scheduled to meet in Jerusalem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. The focus of the visit was supposed to be the cease-fire that had been reached days earlier in Gaza, and the aversion of another crisis in the Palestinian arena.
But during his 48 hours in the country, Blinken ended up also meeting two other Israeli officials, who were not mentioned in the original press release: Defense Minister Benny Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid. What the two of them have in common, and what differentiates them from Netanyahu and Ashkenazi, is that both are important figures in the emerging coalition that is currently being assembled in an attempt to end Netanyahu’s hold on power.
“The whole trip was put together in a matter of days,” said a source close to the Biden administration. “They started with knowing they had to meet with the prime minister and the foreign minister, as well as Palestinian President [Mahmoud] Abbas. Then they added on from there.”
While Gantz did not appear in the original State Department statement naming the officials set to meet with Blinken, his name did appear in a daily itinerary distributed upon Blinken’s arrival. Blinken’s meeting with Lapid didn’t even appear in that document: the first public indication that it took place emerged when Lapid shared a picture from the meeting on his Twitter account. The meeting was interpreted in Israel as a hint that the Biden administration was preparing for the possibility that Netanyahu, after 12 years in power, may soon no longer be leading Israel.
Haaretz has learned that the Blinken-Lapid meeting, which took place at the David Citadel Hotel near the old city, lasted for about 30 minutes, and included only six participants – Blinken, Lapid and several close aides. In an unusual move, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Gilad Erdan, who joined other meetings that Blinken held during the day with Israeli officials, was not present.
Sources in Washington and Jerusalem told Haaretz that when Blinken took off for Israel, the political negotiations in Israel to replace Netanyahu seemed almost irrelevant. “When they started planning this trip, coalition talks in Israel were dead,” said a source close to the administration.
During the fighting with Hamas, Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the Yamina party and Lapid’s partner in the formation of a new coalition, declared that because of the security situation, he was taking the option of a government without Netanyahu off the table.
But by the time Blinken arrived, things were starting to change. As the cease-fire took hold, there were indications that Bennett and Lapid had renewed their coalition negotiations. Lapid, who had been designated with the task of forming a government earlier that month, still had two weeks left to try and complete the task. Officials within the Biden administration started pushing for a meeting, and so did people in Israel close to the opposition leader.
The officials pushing for a meeting made it clear to Blinken and his staff that having a public meeting with Netanyahu, but not meeting Lapid, would be a “political achievement” for the incumbent prime minister, and would send a message that he is the only relevant address in Israel at the exact same time that the opposition was renewing the effort to form a government without him.
Lapid announced after the meeting with Blinken that the two had “discussed the security and political challenges we face and the importance of the special relationship between Israel and the United States.”
By meeting Lapid and, separately, Gantz, Blinken had an opportunity to speak with two of the most important actors in the government-to-be, assuming it actually gets sworn in. Lapid is slated to be foreign minister for the government’s first two years, and then become prime minister as part of a rotation deal with Bennett. Gantz is supposed to be defense minister for the government’s entire four-year term, continuing to hold the same position he has held since May of 2020.
One important political figure who was not included in Blinken’s schedule at all, however, was Bennett, who is set to become prime minister for the first two years of the government, if it is sworn in. The fact that Blinken met Lapid but not Bennett did not go unnoticed in the Yamina chairman’s orbit. But for the American side, the reason was clear: Lapid was the one who officially had the “mandate” from Israel’s president to form a government, even if his intention was to have Bennett lead that government once it is formed. Under these circumstances, and with a limited amount of time, “it made more sense to meet with Lapid than with Bennett,” said the source close to the administration.
Pollster Mark Mellman, who has been advising Lapid for years and is also the founder of the organization Democratic Majority for Israel, told Haaretz this week that “a government without Netanyahu will start out in a vastly better place with Democrats” in Washington.
Mellman explained that “Right or wrong, fair or unfair, Netanyahu has been strongly identified with the Republican Party — and in our hyper-polarized society, Israel has paid a high price for that on the Democratic side.” He added that “Lapid has spent considerable time with President Biden [before he became president] and they have an excellent relationship on which to build.”
Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told Haaretz that he expects the Biden administration’s philosophy moving forward will be to engage with the entirety of Israel’s political spectrum, as has been the case for previous administrations prior to the Donald Trump presidency, which gave a clear preference to Netanyahu over other Israeli politicians during the course of Israel’s three election cycles in 2019 and 2020.
Apart from the meetings that Blinken had in Jerusalem, the administration will also have an opportunity to get a better understanding of the political developments in Israel thanks to Gantz’s visit to Washington this week, which includes meetings with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The main focus of the visit is Iran, amidst the ongoing negotiations over a new nuclear deal. Israeli officials estimate that some form of a new agreement could be reached within the next two weeks, before Iran’s June 18 election.
The Biden administration is also preparing to soon announce the appointment of an ambassador to Israel, most likely Tom Nides, vice chairman of investment bank Morgan Stanley and a former official in the Barack Obama administration. The administration faced growing pressure from Democratic lawmakers to appoint an ambassador after the recent escalation of violence in Jerusalem and Gaza.
The administration is aware, however, that the Bennett-Lapid government is not yet a done deal, and still needs to be sworn in by the Knesset. Blinken said on Wednesday, after Lapid and Bennett informed President Rivlin they had succeeded in forming a coalition, that Biden “has worked with every Israeli government of all parties going back to Prime Minister Golda Meir.” He added in an interview to CNN that “[i]n democracies, governments change. We’ll work with whatever government emerges, whether it’s Prime Minister Netanyahu or anyone else.”