How would a Joe Biden presidency be for Israel?

US-Israel Affairs: Sanders picked up the endorsement of IfNotNow, a fringe-left, anti-Israel Jewish group.

DEMOCRATIC US presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan, Monday. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
DEMOCRATIC US presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan, Monday.
On Wednesday, a day after the “Super Tuesday II” primaries in the United States, where Joe Biden increased his lead over Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden picked up more than a dozen new congressional endorsements.
Sanders picked up the endorsement of IfNotNow, a fringe-left, anti-Israel Jewish group.
IfNotNow is the group that throughout the campaign has planted provocative and leading questions at town hall meetings to pose to the Democratic candidates. For instance, in New Hampshire, just before the state’s primary last month, one of the group’s activists had this to ask Elizabeth Warren:
“I’m an American Jew, and I’m terrified by the unholy alliance that AIPAC is forming with Islamophobia and antisemites and white nationalists. And no Democrat should legitimize that kind of bigotry by attending their annual policy conference. I’m really grateful you skipped the AIPAC conference last year, so my question is if you’ll join me in committing to skip the AIPAC conference this March?”
Warren’s reply? “Yeh.”
Sanders, responding to the IfNotNow endorsement, called the group “an inspiring movement of young Jews working to promote peace in the Middle East.” Others would beg to differ, saying that it is actually the left-wing equivalent of the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta, and – in fact – both fringe groups can be seen protesting against Israel outside AIPAC conferences.
One could legitimately ask this of IfNotNow’s endorsement of Sanders: What difference does it make?
After winning Tuesday’s primary only in North Dakota, and losing in Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi and Idaho (Washington’s final tally is not yet in), Sanders is most likely not going to win the nomination. So, if Biden now looks like he will be the nominee, why does this fringe endorsement of Sanders matter?
It matters, from the point of view of US-Israel relations, because the positions on Israel articulated by IfNotNow are reflective of the thinking of many on the left wing of the Democratic Party – a wing peopled by folks like congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Linda Sarsour, and Phillip Agnew, the new “senior adviser” to Sanders, who views Israel as an illegitimate, racist, apartheid state, and only the “so-called” homeland of the Jews.
Even if Sanders loses the nomination, those voices are not going to disappear. And in trying to gauge what kind of president Biden might be toward Israel, it is necessary to consider what degree of influence those voices will have on his administration.
Biden, says Eran Lerman, a former deputy head of the National Security Council and today vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, “has personally been a friend of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. But the question is how much he will be beholden to the Sanders-ites, in order to first get elected, and then govern. That is the deeper question.”
In the October 2012 vice presidential debate with Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, Biden said, “Now, with regard to Bibi, he’s been my friend for 39 years.”
Two years later he went even further, saying during a speech at the Brookings Institutiton: “Send a message to Bibi: I love him. I love him. I signed a picture years ago to him. I said, ‘Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you had to say, but I love you.’”
Apparently, however, that “love” has been doused. During a candidates debate last December, Biden slammed Netanyahu for moving to the “extreme Right,” and recommended constant pressure “on the Israelis to move to a two-state solution.” He stopped short, however, of accepting what Sanders suggested: withholding aid.
While Biden was careful throughout the campaign not to join the “Bibi-bashing” of Sanders and other progressive candidates, the question now as he moves toward the nomination is what impact that wing of the party will have on his policies if he wins the election in November.
Bob Silverman, a former senior State Department official who served for two-and-a-half years as political counselor at the US Embassy during US president Barack Obama’s first term, and now teaches at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, said that in order to win the election in November, Biden will be beholden to the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. And, he said, “they are going to insist on a get-tough policy on Israel,” something that might be seen as early as at the Democratic National Convention this summer, when the party’s platform is drawn up.
Though one might think that Sanders’s supporters will have no choice in November other than to vote for Biden, since they are certainly not going to cast a ballot for US President Donald Trump, Silverman says this misses the issue.
“In order to beat Trump the Democrats will need the energy, enthusiasm and passion of the progressives, so they will be beholden to some extent to the progressives. And the progressives don’t really care who wins the Israeli election, they just want to get tough on Israel.”
In some ways, in fact, a continued Netanyahu premiership would be favored by some progressives, because he is so unpopular among many Democrats – Sanders called his government a “reactionary racist” one – that it would be easier for a future Democratic administration to pressure and withhold aid from Israel if Netanyahu remains at the helm.
If, as it now seems most likely, Biden does win the nomination, the progressives are going to insist on policy position commitments from Biden. And Biden will need to keep this wing happy, if only to ensure that it comes out to vote in November.
To this day, there are those in the mainstream of the party who blame Sanders for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Trump, saying that Sanders supporters did not come out to vote en masse, something that cost her the elections in states like Michigan, where Trump won by only some 10,704 votes, and Wisconsin, where his margin of victory was 22,748 votes.
Silverman cautioned that “if one’s paramount interest is the US-Israel relationship, then a Biden presidency has a lot of question marks because he will be beholden to the progressive wing.”
Silverman also cautioned Israelis against listening to American Jews when it comes to a possible Biden presidency, saying that for the most part US Jewry has “other issues than Israel” as its primary concerns.
“They may end up supporting Biden because they like his domestic policies, and while Israel is an issue for them, it is not the top one,” he said.
Because of the progressives’ influence on Biden, Silverman said that he imagines that under a Biden presidency the US-Israel relationship “will be more fraught than under Obama, and I don’t know if people remember, but I certainly do – the relationship with Obama was quite fraught.”
Another former diplomat who remembers that relationship well is Michael Oren, who served as ambassador to the US from 2009 to 2013 and wrote a book dealing with this period titled Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.
Oren, who spent a good amount of time with Biden, described him as a “good guy,” and “one of the generation that has Israel in its heart. He remembers the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and has been here multiple times.”
According to Oren, Biden – as Obama’s vice president – often tried to soften the difficult relationship between Netanyahu and Obama. For instance, he said “Biden ensured us that Obama was serious about using the military option against Iran” if need be. Oren said that although he doesn’t think this was ever really the case, Biden believed it.
Oren predicted that if Biden does become president, he would – as he has said – move toward reentering the Iranian nuclear deal.
“I honestly don’t see how a Democratic president maintains the same types of policies that Trump had,” Oren said. “My guess is that he would try to negotiate and try to get a better deal, and maybe include the ballistic missiles. My speculation is that he will come and say that he wants to reset this relationship, and relieve some sanctions if the Iranians come back to the table – and that is just where the Iranians want to be.”
“For us,” Oren said, “this is a matter of national security and national survival. This was an agreement that was a flagrant betrayal by America of its Middle Eastern allies, including Israel. It was a deeply flawed agreement that enabled Iran to conquer large swaths in the Middle East, kill tens of thousands of civilians, and that would ultimately have enabled it to have nuclear weapons.”
BEYOND MOVING back to Obama-era polices on Iran, Oren said, a Biden administration would likely reverse some, but not all, of Trump’s policies on the Israel-Palestinian issue.
For starters, as Biden himself made clear in a taped message to the AIPAC conference earlier this month, he thinks Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is a bad deal, and called on Jerusalem to end all talk of annexation and settlement building.
Oren said that Biden is likely to renew the US aid to UNRWA that Trump halted, and no longer condition assistance to the Palestinian Authority on abandoning its “pay for slay” policy.
Though Oren does not think that Biden would move the embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem – as Sanders said he would consider – the former ambassador said he would likely play down the embassy’s significance, conduct most official business out of the embassy annex in Tel Aviv, and reopen the consulate in Jerusalem to deal with the Palestinians.
Oren also does not see Biden reversing the decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, though he does imagine that a president Biden would not provide diplomatic support for Israel if the move were to be challenged in the International Criminal Court.
Oren said that a Biden administration would also be less likely to back Israeli military action in Gaza than is the case now.
During the Trump administration, there have been no calls from Washington for Israeli restraint and a proportionate response in dealing with the attacks from Gaza, something that was a staple under the Obama administration. That type of language, he suggested, could return under a Democratic administration.
“Biden has a warm place in his heart for us,” Oren said. “But he is a Democrat, and that carries with it certain policy ramifications – some of them which are quite substantial for us.”