U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give statements after their meeting, at the prime minister's office, in Jerusalem, Monday, April 12, 2021.
Tanzina Vega: Earlier this week, US secretary of defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Israel to meet with Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister, Benny Gantz. The visit was a signal from the Biden administration that Israel remains an important ally for the United States. Secretary Austin's trip also came at a chaotic moment in Israeli politics. Prime minister Netanyahu is currently attempting to form a majority coalition in the country's parliament, this after the fourth Israeli election in the past two years, once again ended without a clear path forward for any of Israel's leading political parties.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is also currently on trial in a corruption case that could drag on for years. The US and Israel's conflicting approaches to policy with Iran were underscored in recent days. This week Israel was reportedly responsible for an attack at a key nuclear site in Iran, and that attack took place as US negotiators are attempting to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. Joining me now is Noga Tarnopolsky a freelance reporter based in Israel. Noga, always great to have you on.
Noga Tarnopolsky: Wonderful to hear you Tanzina.
Tanzina Vega: As we mentioned, secretary Austin's visit to Israel came at the same time as the attack on an Iranian nuclear site that Israel is allegedly believed to be responsible for. How did the timing of that color Austin's visit to Israel?
Noga Tarnopolsky: I have to say, I think it overshadowed the visit because Netanyahu, instead of being able to show off in a way that he was meeting with the new US secretary of defense, he was forced to scramble. His office was to explain why a top Israeli official had leaked the news to The New York Times and thus endangered this entire operation in Iran, which is a massive intelligence operation that clearly had been in the works for more than a year let's say.
I would say it overshadowed it. Austin from the very beginning appeared to want to make this a working visit, that was my impression. He made no statements that could even appear quotable. He met with the defense minister and spent a lot of time, I think reinforcing the behind-the-scenes Israeli American military and intelligence ties, and that was more or less it.
Tanzina Vega: We know that President Obama and Netanyahu had a, I would say distant relationship very different from the relationship that President Trump and Netanyahu had. What do you see President Biden's relationship with Netanyahu turning out to be based on what we know so far?
Noga Tarnopolsky: I think that what we see so far in the first hundred days is President Biden being really very shrewd and using the experience that he accrued as Obama's vice president and as the long-time head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to basically keep relations with Israel good, but keep Benjamin Netanyahu in a bind in terms of his ability to shake things up.
Given the anomalous relations that existed between Israel and the United States, both under Obama, where relations were personally terrible, and under Trump, where it was sort of, you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back relationship, it's really interesting to observe. What appears to me right now the Biden administration's cleverness.
I have to say the new undersecretary of state for Israel and Palestine is a man called, Hady Amr who we've barely heard anything about, but he has the reputation of being very knowledgeable, very shrewd, and very behind the scenes. I suspect that we're seeing his handling of the matter here.
Tanzina Vega: We also know that the byte administration announced last week, that it will reinstate $200 million in aid to Palestinians that was cut by former president Donald Trump. What does that signal about the US approach to Israel and Palestine compared to what it was like under the Trump administration?
Noga Tarnopolsky: Paradoxically I think we have to see this as a parallel to the Austin visit, meaning the Biden administration is trying to reset relations with Israel to what should be from the US point of view and acceptable norm. What that means, on the one hand, is that the defense secretary comes to Israel when he's going also to Germany to visit NATO and to the UK, basically the most powerful, putting Israel in the cadre of the United States is most important allies.
On the one hand, reinforcing that, and on the other hand, telling Israel, "We are going to act vis-a-vis the Palestinians and also vis-a-vis the Iran deal as we see fit for US interests." The Biden administration made it very clear that Israel is more than invited to sit at the table, more than invited to give it's opinion. In fact, the national security advisor, Jake Sullivan personally invited the Israeli national security advisor to come specifically to bring the Israeli point of view to the Iran situation. Yet that also mussels Netanyahu in because he's not in a position to attack Biden, supposedly for being another Obama, when the secretary of defense is here or the secretary of state.
Tanzina Vega: Not only that, but Netanyahu's own political future is in question. He is in a trial right now and there are still questions about his own political future. How would that play out with Biden?
Noga Tarnopolsky: How that plays out is actually that we should pay attention to how Biden is managing, I would have to say, Netanyahu. Netanyahu is in a desperate situation. He's on trial for severe crimes. He has failed to win an election four times in a row, and in any other parliamentary democracy, his party would have kicked him out after four failures and elected a new leader. The Likud, Netanyahu's party, has shrunk and has become almost a personality cult and so that's not happening, and Israel's trapped in that situation right now.
Tanzina Vega: Noga Tarnopolsky is a freelance reporter based in Israel who writes for the LA Times and the Daily Bees. Noga, thanks so much.
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