The era of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Joe Biden has thus far been a positive chapter in the story of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Both leaders have expressed a firm commitment to maintaining and strengthening bilateral ties and to keeping disagreements to a minimum when they inevitably come up. Security assistance has continued and support for the U.S.-Israel relationship remains a bipartisan priority in Congress.

But recently, rifts are emerging that threaten to challenge the resilience of U.S.-Israel ties. These points of tension are primarily centered around two issues: Russia and Iran. While the U.S. would like Israel to sacrifice its relations with Russia in order to take a more unequivocal pro-Ukraine stance, developments on the Iranian nuclear question could render that unlikely.  

Over the course of the nearly month-long war in Ukraine, Israel has faced criticism for its reluctance to oppose Putin’s invasion. The U.S. and its Western allies mobilized a coordinated response to the unprovoked Russian aggression in the form of stringent economic and personal sanctions and policies to isolate Russia economically and financially. Even Switzerland, famous (or infamous) for its neutrality in international conflicts, has fallen in line with this approach. Israel has not, lest Russia cut off the security coordination that Israel relies on in order to conduct operations against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria. 

This isn’t to say that Israel has done nothing positive in response to the conflict. It has provided humanitarian and medical aid, built a field hospital, and taken in thousands of Ukrainian refugees (including a capped number of non-Jews). Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has spoken out regularly to condemn the invasion, even as Prime Minister Bennett has avoided doing so. Lapid has also pledged that Israel will not be a route for bypassing sanctions. Bennett has sought to leverage Israel’s enduring relations with Russia by acting as a mediator between Putin and Zelensky. But as a country famous for its close relations with the United States, Israel’s independent approach to the conflict and efforts to maintain ties with Russia amid the invasion stand out. 

If the Biden administration is upset about Israel’s approach, it has largely kept quiet about it. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland did call on Israel to adopt sanctions against Russia, warning that it could “become the last haven for dirty money fueling Putin’s wars.” Nevertheless, it appears that Biden greenlit Bennett’s mediation efforts, and the premier has kept the White House well informed of his discussions with Zelensky and Putin. Whether this indicates genuine approval or mere acquiescence is another question, but in the meantime, Jerusalem’s Ukraine policy is not a point of contention with Washington. After all, Israel is an independent country that has every right to pursue its own foreign policy.

The long-term impact of this apparently cordial divergence is another question, and it largely depends on how the invasion of Ukraine and the West’s relations with Russia play out in the coming weeks and months. If Putin continues to alienate his country internationally through unprovoked attacks against Russia’s neighbors, leading to the U.S. and the West entering a period of prolonged geopolitical confrontation with Russia, Israel maintaining its current strategy vis-à-vis Ukraine would impact ties with the U.S. and the West. It would undermine Israel’s identity as a free, liberal, Western-oriented nation, and it would undermine popular and Congressional support for the U.S.-Israel relationship. Senator Lindsey Graham and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, both Republicans, have already called out Israel for not providing military aid to Russia, with the latter explicitly stating that “”Israel’s reaction to Ukraine will have bearing on future aid from the U.S. to Israel.”

However, despite these concerning outcomes of Israel’s soft-on-Russia policy, the U.S. signing onto a new JCPOA with Iran would make Israel shifting that policy a more distant possibility. 

With Washington and Tehran seemingly poised to strike a deal, Bennett has made it clear that he opposes the move, which would provide Iran relief from sanctions in return for restricting its nuclear program. Unlike his predecessor, Bennett has made it clear that he will not publicly fight with the U.S. administration over the deal. Much of Bennett’s messaging on the issue thus far has focused on the rumor that the U.S. would delist the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. But we will certainly not see anything along the lines of what took place in March 2015, when former Prime Minister Netanyahu railed against the JCPOA in Congress at the invitation of Republican leadership, undercutting President Obama. Regardless, it will doubtlessly be the biggest source of discord between Biden and Bennett to date. 

Bennett will inevitably come to terms with the U.S. inking a new JCPOA, even if it is far from his preferred outcome. But if negotiations in Vienna do succeed, the whole affair will persist as a major divergence between U.S. and Israeli policy and will strain bilateral ties. Israel will take the steps it deems necessary to prevent a nuclear Iran, even if that means unilateral action or working in coordination with regional partners independently of the U.S. Symbolically, it will also signal a U.S. retreat from the region and underscore that Jerusalem cannot only rely on Washington for existential security issues. Iran’s footprint has only grown since the U.S. first signed onto the JCPOA in 2015, while the U.S. has focused on shifting its attention elsewhere and pivoting away from the Middle East. 

This outcome would also bolster Israel’s need to rely on Russia. Even as Putin presses on with his invasion of Ukraine and carries out other malign activity, it is hard to imagine Israel adopting an anti-Russian stance and risking the end of Russia-Israel security coordination should the U.S. reenter the JCPOA. Once U.S. nuclear sanctions are lifted, Israel will doubtlessly be wary of a strengthened and emboldened Iran increasing its presence in Syria, underscoring the importance of ties with Russia in the eyes of Israel’s leaders. A non-existential disagreement with the U.S., Israel’s staunchest ally, may appear less risky than completely cutting off ties with Moscow.

As Michael Koplow pointed out, Israel’s burgeoning relations with its Sunni Arab neighbors will enable it to chart a more independent foreign policy that is not necessarily aligned with the United States. U.S. partners in the region, including those which have ties with Israel, are already diverging from the U.S. on Iran and Ukraine in a more dramatic way. U.S.-UAE relations, for instance, have reached a nadir partially as a result of perceived U.S. inaction following a missile strike on Abu Dhabi carried out by the Iran-backed Houthis. The UAE’s abstention to the U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia over Ukraine was largely viewed as a snub to the U.S. Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan is reportedly ignoring President Biden’s phone calls—at the same time as his country welcomed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a staunch Kremlin ally who has long been persona non grata in pro-Western Arab capitals. And yet Israel’s ties with the UAE are only deepening, as shown by this week’s trilateral meeting between Prime Minister Bennett, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and MBZ in Sharm el-Sheikh. As Israel and its regional partners draw closer together, they will find common ground in their gripes with the U.S.

The likely scenario of the U.S. signing a nuclear agreement with Iran in a world with an unhinged, actively expansionist Russia openly opposed to the West will pose significant challenges to the U.S.-Israel relationship. On the one hand, it makes sense for Israel to prioritize aligning itself with the United States and Western nations if the Ukraine crisis launches the world into another Cold War or World War. Yet simultaneously, it will see more reason than ever to cling onto ties with Russia to ensure its security amid an Iran no longer burdened by nuclear sanctions. Israel could decide that staying in the good graces of Russia is genuinely in its best interest. Just as Israeli policy on Russia will alienate the U.S., U.S. policy on Iran will alienate Israel. 

Ties between Jerusalem and Washington run deep and they have endured despite tough disputes in the past. But the Biden-Bennett honeymoon might very well come to an end, and we might wake up to a world in which it is more difficult for Israel to reconcile its pro-U.S. leanings with its perceived security needs on the ground.