The United States and Israel choose leaders through completely different electoral systems, but the two countries’ political calendars still occasionally come into alignment. Naftali Bennett is the third Israeli prime minister in the past twenty years to be elected within months of an American president, and like his predecessors Ariel Sharon in 2001 and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009, he is working with a U.S. commander-in-chief who has had less than a year on the job. The circumstances in those previous instances differ somewhat from the current context, but a look back can still be helpful in setting expectations coming out of today’s inaugural Biden-Bennett face-to-face.

What is notable about the state of play leading into this week’s U.S.-Israel summit is that many of the defining features of the inaugural Bush-Sharon and Obama-Netanyahu meetings are absent. When George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon met in March of 2001, the Second Intifada was already in full swing. Eight years later, Obama came into office with an eye toward a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. 

Today, there is thankfully no major Israeli-Palestinian security crisis approaching the severity of the Second Intifada, though the kindling is still dry in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. There is also no peace process, nor aspirations to launch a new one. Speaking to the New York Times earlier this week, Bennett said there will be no independent Palestine and no formal West Bank annexation on his watch. Although Biden differs with Bennett on two-state terminology (Biden supports, Bennett is opposed), this position is something the president is unlikely to quibble with. Quiet understandings like a de facto freeze in new settlement approvals and a possible commitment not to evict Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah will be more important, provided the Israeli government maintains them. The Biden administration also seems interested in determining whether Bennett’s talk of “shrinking the conflict” goes beyond sloganeering. If there is something to it, the U.S. may judge that incrementalism is more valuable than musing about negotiations that are purely theoretical at this point.

Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama’s first meeting with Netanyahu also foreshadowed their divergent approaches to Iran’s nuclear program, an issue that would come to define the two leaders’ relationship over the next eight years. The Iran issue remains, as do Israeli misgivings about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. But Bennett looks keen to avoid the political theatrics his predecessor deployed against Obama, which culminated in a speech to Congress that many Democratic lawmakers skipped. It is possible that Bennett could chart a course more akin to that of Gulf Arab states, who communicated their unease to the United States but kept their disagreements about the nuclear accord mostly out of public view. Biden and Bennett devoted much of their public post-meeting remarks to Iran, but the atmosphere was cordial.

There is also the issue of the pandemic, which, for good or ill, both Biden and Bennett would prefer to address over the Palestinian conflict. Other issues that undoubtedly came up in Bennett’s meetings with the president and senior American officials but were less likely to grab headlines include bilateral cooperation on climate change and the Israel-China technology trade.

The political posturing that comes with the formative months of a public official’s term also played a role here. Bush used his first meeting with Sharon as president to signal that his administration would hew closer to Israeli positions than his predecessors, including his own father—Bush apparently told the prime minister that he would “use force to protect Israel.” Obama was clearly eager to play the role of peacemaker.

For Biden and Bennnett, the political themes are bound to be more modest and narrowly targeted. The president will be happy to see a quieter U.S.-Israel relationship after the acrimony that colored Obama and Netanyahu’s personal ties and the way in which Bibi ultimately continued to function as a partisan operator in American politics during the Trump years. 

Yesterday’s devastating bombing at the Kabul Airport killed nearly 200 people, including 13 American servicemembers. The terror attack delayed the Biden-Bennett summit, reinforcing the fact that Afghanistan continues to command the most American public attention overseas. In this environment, the president will welcome anything that provides a break from what has been—rightly or wrongly—a generally negative press angle on the U.S. withdrawal. 

Bennett has his own political objectives. The new prime minister is a relative unknown in Washington; he has never actually met Biden, unlike Bush and Sharon and Obama and Netanyahu, who had gotten together before their respective elections. Biden has known Netanyahu for many years, and Bibi has made his diplomatic bona fides a key part of his appeal. Bennett will want to show that he too is a capable steward of Israel’s most important external relationship. 

Finally, we need to take a step back in evaluating the Biden-Bennett meeting. About six months after Ariel Sharon first visited President Bush at the White House, al Qaeda terrorists slammed civilian airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. September 11 defined the balance of Bush’s time in office and American foreign policy over subsequent administrations; the March 2001 meeting may as well have taken place under a different president with different foreign policy priorities. My point is not to suggest that a catastrophic event on the same scale as 9/11 is around the corner; rather, it is to emphasize that the Bush-Sharon, Obama-Netanyahu, and Biden-Bennett meetings are especially noteworthy because they each came at the beginning of their participants’ terms. While such a high-level get-together is bound to be significant by dint of who is involved, its timing in the early days of both the Bennett-Lapid government and the Biden administration should give us pause to eschew sweeping judgments.