What to expect at the Biden-Bennett meeting at the White House

Israel's PM Naftali Bennett and US President Joe Biden

For the first time since assuming their posts, Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US President Joe Biden will meet Friday for a face-to-face meeting at the White House. (Fun fact: Joe Biden was elected to the US Senate in 1972, the year Naftali Bennett was born.)

What's on the agenda — what likely isn't — and why does this meeting matter now?

Iran, obviously. Bennett may embrace a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor Bibi Netanyahu, but when it comes to Iran policy, he too thinks that a return to the nuclear deal would be catastrophic for Israel. For the Israelis, delivering that message feels all the more pressing given that their security establishment now warns that Tehran is only two months away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.


So, what's President Biden's view? Well, Biden is still adamant that a return to the JCPOA — the nuclear agreement agreed to in 2015 by Iran along with China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the US — is a foreign policy priority. Biden remained gung-ho as recently as June when relevant players met in Vienna to chart a path forward.

But that was before the fiasco in Afghanistan, which has thrown the Biden administration, and its foreign policy agenda more broadly, into disarray. Indeed, after the bungled withdrawal it's entirely possible that the US will want to stall on the Iran negotiations, which remain in limbo. After all, it would be a PR calamity for the stalemate with the Iranians to be back in the news while the debacle in Afghanistan — which seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon — continues.

However, even if Biden does suspend or slow roll talks, that's still unlikely to placate the Israelis, who are worried that the Iranians will further develop their nuclear program while the US and Europeans are distracted with Kabul.

While Bennett doesn't want a new nuclear deal, he might prefer the certainty of that to the limbo of a Biden White House that is stalling Iran talks in order to buy time to recover from the Afghanistan chaos. At least then Israel could prepare for what comes next.

Though details remain scarce, Bennett reportedly plans to present an alternative to the JCPOA that also addresses Iran's destabilizing activities in the region, and is also expected to ask Washington for more funds to bolster its military capabilities against Iran and its proxy forces.

The China equation. Few people think of China as a wedge issue in US-Israel relations. But in recent years, it's emerged as a point of friction.

Israel, for its part, has been trying to bolster economic ties with Beijing for years, seeking increased Chinese investment in Israeli infrastructure and technology. But as Washington increasingly sees Beijing as its main rival, it has put pressure on the Israelis to temper cooperation with the Chinese. For example, after Washington scolded the Israelis for signing a contract with a Chinese firm to operate a private shipping seaport off Haifa's port, Israel turned down a Hong Kong firm's bid to develop a water desalination plant worth a whopping $1.5 billion.

In a sign of how pressing the issue is for the Americans, CIA Director Bill Burns raised China concerns directly with PM Bennett on a recent visit to Israel, after a Chinese company won a tender for a massive transportation project in the Tel Aviv metro area.

What's not really on the agenda? The Palestinians. While the Biden administration may pay lip service to to the Palestinian cause, the moribund peace process is unlikely to occupy much time at all. This suits both Biden and Bennett just fine: the US president has made clear that he is focused on making domestic gains, particularly ahead of midterm elections next year. Meanwhile, Bennett, who heads to Washington amid a flareup of violence on the Gaza border, heads an ideologically-diverse coalition government that has all but agreed not to touch the Palestinian issue.

Give and take. Some analysts have suggested that Bennett could offer to take in a small number of Afghan refugees as a goodwill gesture to a beleaguered Biden — similar to when Menachem Begin accepted 370 Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s after the fall of Saigon. While that might boost mutual confidence in the short term, it's unlikely to significantly move the needle on these extremely thorny issues.

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Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

Change?

Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top five democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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43: Eight months into the job, US President Biden's approval rating has hit a new low of 43 percent, a six-point drop since August. Of all the US presidents elected since World War II, only Donald Trump had a lower approval rating at this stage of his presidency. It sure looks like Biden's honeymoon period is over.

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