As Americans watch what appear to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s final days in office, many are wondering how his expected successors, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, will prioritize restoring bipartisan U.S. support for Israel in D.C.
Their preexisting contacts and personal backgrounds, as well as a shared desire to improve and build upon ties, help provide insight into how the incoming Israeli government will approach the so-called “special relationship” with its most important strategic ally.
The prospective prime ministers in the rotation agreement – Bennett is due to serve first, with Lapid replacing him in August 2023 and serving as foreign minister in the meantime – both have excellent English and a deep understanding of American culture. They have also built up relationships on both sides of the political aisle over the years.
Both visited America several times while serving in official state capacities, Bennett most recently while defense minister in February 2020 and Lapid as leader of the opposition in January (though this trip was to meet with campaign advisers).
While the majority of Lapid’s previous trips to the United States have largely been focused on politics and relationship-building with lawmakers behind closed doors, Bennett’s trips have largely been dedicated to the so-called “hasbara circuit,” appearing on international media and explaining Israeli positions on issues of the day.
‘Like Clinton and Rabin’
One of Lapid’s senior advisers is senior U.S. pollster Mark Mellman, founder of the Democratic Majority for Israel – an organization that seeks to bolster support for Israel within the Democratic Party, and has quickly become a formidable force among the pro-Israel establishment in Washington.
Mellman, who has close relationships with many senior officials in the Democratic Party, has made a point to separate his domestic political work from his work for Lapid and his centrist Yesh Atid party – a separation that will be tested with Lapid set to become the face of the Israeli government to the U.S. in the near-future.
Lapid is known to have a particularly good relationship with Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, the Jewish lawmaker from Florida who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism.
The former journalist and TV host, who first entered the Knesset in 2013, has also met several times with leading Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Cory Booker, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, one of the more progressive Jewish Democrats in Congress.
He has also met with Republican officials such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, as well as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Lapid also met with U.S. President Joe Biden during the latter’s time as vice president, as well as with special Iran envoy Robert Malley and Philip Gordon, then-White House Middle East coordinator and currently deputy national security adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris.
Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum had told Haaretz that Biden and Lapid agree on many issues, saying that “it’s almost like Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin in terms of being on the same wavelength.”
An official close to the Biden administration previously told Haaretz that Lapid “has good relationships with Democrats – most politicians in Israel have good relationships with Democrats. There are pro-Israel stalwarts in Congress who are happy to speak with Israeli leaders, regardless of party, except when they actively seek to offend them.”
Speaking at the D.C.-based Brookings Institution’s conference this year, Lapid told delegates: “We need to go back to making Israel acceptable for both sides of the aisle, for Democrats and Republicans.” He added, “I’m going to do much better work in making sure Israel goes back to being a bipartisan issue in the United States.”
GOP megadonor links
Over the course of his decade in politics, Bennett has had particularly warm ties with Republicans of yore, including the late Sen. John McCain, and also Sen. Graham. He is known to be close with GOP megadonors Miriam Adelson, the widow of Sheldon Adelson, and businessman George Rohr. The latter helped establish Chabad Houses across U.S. college campuses and bankrolled the revival of Eastern European Jewish communal life.
One of Bennett’s top advisers is also closely linked with the Republican Party: George Birnbaum previously served as a senior foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu in the 1990s, and has since run and advised dozens of international political campaigns – including Ben Carson’s failed 2016 presidential bid.
Birnbaum is a protégé of the late Arthur Finkelstein, who consulted for Republican presidential candidates for decades; Finkelstein had served as Netanyahu’s chief strategist, and his short, snappy messaging is widely credited with introducing negative campaigning to Israeli politics.
Finkelstein and Birnbaum notably crafted the anti-George Soros campaign in Hungary during Viktor Orbán’s 2017 campaign. Bennett and Birnbaum are not considered to share a mind meld to the same extent as Lapid and Mellman, however.
While Bennett is well-regarded among his right-wing, American-Jewish establishment base, he has often been cast aside for Netanyahu. Furthermore, his policies are often diametrically opposed to those of the American-Jewish left. He has previously addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington that has been accused of drifting too far toward the Republican Party.
Both Bennett and Lapid enjoy strong relations with U.S. Jewish establishment organizations such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Bennett worked well with Daniel Shapiro while the latter served as U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama years and also maintains a relationship with former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, with whom he has already met since the coalition agreement was reached. He is expected to use the head of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, who was recently in the running for the U.S. ambassadorship to Israel, as a conduit to the Democratic Party.
Bennett has met with numerous bipartisan members of Congress (and governors who ended up becoming senators) on their visits to Israel over the past decade, and holds personal ties dating back to his days in business, living in New York and family members that remain Stateside. (His Jewish-American parents immigrated to Israel from San Francisco in 1967.)
His immediate priority, however, will be staffing up and setting a government policy agenda before determining which of those preexisting relationships in America he can count on.
While U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the United States will work with whatever Israeli government emerges, the administration has telegraphed that Lapid will be their point of contact in the new government – particularly after Blinken managed to add Lapid to his schedule during his recent visit to the Middle East, but not Bennett.
Since the coalition’s successful formation last week, old footage of Bennett’s appearance at the Brookings Institution alongside former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has made waves, raising concerns that Bennett’s stated stances on settlements, annexation and the Palestinians would rankle Democrats. He has previously said that a two-state solution would be “suicide” for Israel and called for the annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank.
There is a general openness toward him, however, because his success means keeping Netanyahu in the opposition and also because the proposed coalition includes left-wing parties and, for first time in Israel’s history, an Arab party.
Bennett, for his part, has adapted rhetoric on “shrinking” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a notable diplomatic signal to the Americans. The brainchild of Shalom Hartman Institute Research Fellow Dr. Micah Goodman, this path is seen as an alternative to “solving” or “managing” the conflict. It seeks to contain the conflict by empowering Palestinians without compromising Israeli security.
While Bennett would adapt this philosophy with the understanding that the Palestinians would also need to make similar gestures, it is a clear sign that he intends to not disregard the Biden administration’s desire for improved relations on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians.
Whatever differences Lapid and Bennett have ideologically, they share a generally similar approach to U.S.-Israel ties, evidenced during their time in government together from 2013 to 2015. They are also both believed to anticipate a positive, cooperative relationship on this front moving forward.