For Israelis to remember: Biden is not Trump, nor Obama - analysis

If beginnings are any indication, however, Israel already has something positive to lean on.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR/CARLOS BARRIA)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden
When David Friedman landed in Israel on May 15, 2017, to take up his role as US ambassador, his first stop was the Western Wall. With that first gesture he broke with all the US ambassadors before him who never formally visited the site.
On Wednesday afternoon, as his resignation as US ambassador went into effect, Friedman went back to the Western Wall. Those two visits can symbolically serve as bookends to the administration that Friedman served, whose unapologetic support for Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, with Jerusalem as its capital, had no peer.
Even before becoming vice president, Mike Pence – on a visit to Jerusalem in 2014 – said that America should not aspire to be an “honest broker” in the Middle East, but rather communicate to the world that while it wants an honest and fair solution to the conflict, “we are on the side of Israel.”
America, he said then, can “deal honestly with people on all sides of the equation” while making clear what side of the “table” it is on. And, over the last four years, it has done just that.
But a new day dawned in America on Wednesday, with a new conductor, a new symphony, and what will undeniably be a new tune. One thing most likely is that whoever is that symphony’s first violinist in Israel, he or she will not stop off at the Western Wall before stepping onto the ambassadorial stage. Those days, for now, are over.
Which does not mean that only stormy days are ahead. US officials can be supportive of Israel even if they do not demonstratively visit the Western Wall as their opening and final acts. It’s just that Israel over the last four years has gotten used to a degree of support – be it for Jerusalem, the settlements or the Golan, or at the UN – that will be hard to replicate.
The new administration will not place the Western Wall on the itinerary of senior officials visiting. The new ambassador will not say Judea and Samaria instead of the West Bank. The new secretary of state will not visit the Psagot winery across the Green Line. And the new president will probably not make Israel the second stop on his inaugural trip abroad.
But that does not mean all is lost; all it means is that America will be returning to the types of policies toward Israel and the settlements that were the norm in the pre-Trump days.
If beginnings are any indication, however, Israel already has something positive to lean on.
Testifying before the Senate Tuesday during his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State-designate Anthony Blinken presented a position on the Middle East that Jerusalem could definitely live with.
Is Jerusalem Israel’s capital, and do you plan on keeping the embassy there? he was asked. “Yes and yes” he replied. Is Israel a racist country? “No,” he answered.
He further said that both he and President Joe Biden oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and that while they support the idea of a two-state solution, “I think realistically it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that.”
Even on Iran, likely to be the biggest source of friction between Israel and the US in the months ahead, he said the US is “a long way” from rejoining the Iranian nuclear deal.
“I think we have an urgent responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent Iran from acquiring or creating a weapon or getting close to the capacity to breaking out on short notice,” he said.
So even for those in Jerusalem concerned that Biden has brought many of the top national security hands from the Obama administration for a revival tour in his administration – some of these hands who are deemed problematic in Jerusalem – Blinken’s words were a sign that the US policy on issues critical to Israel has not suddenly been hijacked by anti-Israel progressives.
With a new administration now in place, Jerusalem should not just sit back now and wait for the US to act on various Middle East issues, but it should be proactive, something that will be somewhat more complicated now that Israel is in the midst of its own election campaign.
But regardless of who will be Israel’s prime minister following the March elections, Israeli officials should aim to agree on certain ground rules with the Biden administration to govern the relationship going forward.
And the first of those ground rules should be, “No surprises – we don’t surprise you, you don’t surprise us.”
That rule did not apply during the Obama administration, to the detriment of both sides. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt downright ambushed on his first trip to the White House in May 2009 when then-president Barack Obama called, in public, for a complete settlement freeze and, in private, for an end to construction even in the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu and Israel felt completely ambushed when they discovered in 2012 that the Obama administration had been negotiating secretly with the Iranians.
Likewise, the US administration was surprised when new settlement announcements were made during then-vice president Biden’s visit to Israel in 2010, and by the announcement in 2015 that Netanyahu had bypassed the White House to arrange an address for a special joint session of Congress.
The Netanyahu and Obama years were marked by constant surprises from both sides, and it was damaging. There were far less surprises during the Trump years, and in conversations Israeli officials will be having in the coming days with their American counterparts, there is one principle that they should try to set in stone: “No surprises.”
Israel’s strategy with the new administration should also be to reach an agreement early ensuring that, as much as possible, the differences between the two countries – and there will be differences – will be settled in private, away from the cameras.
Obama famously said that he wanted to put public daylight between the US and Israel, hoping that would bring the US closer to the Arab countries. Too often the Obama years were marked by megaphone diplomacy, which had a tendency to get both sides to stiffen their own positions, as neither wanted to be seen as giving in to the pressure or demands of the other.
Blinken, during the campaign in May, said to a pro-Israel Democratic group that “Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences – to the greatest extent possible – between friends and behind doors.”
“You don’t want to put people in a corner when it comes to your friends and partners in public,” he said. “You’re much more effective, when you have differences in opinion, when you have disagreements on a policy matter, dealing with it in private.”
In the earliest days of the administration, Israeli officials should try to get that agreed upon across the board.
Thirdly, Israel should try to keep as low a profile as possible for the time being. It is obvious to all that with a pandemic to fight and a nation to heal, Biden’s focus will not be on Israel or the Middle East. And Israel, as much as it can, should not do anything to make it his focus.
This means not gratuitously announcing new housing construction in the settlements, and if there will be such occurrences, to give the new administration advanced warning. It means, as much as operationally possible, to keep the US informed of its plans regarding military action in the region. It means not going to battle with Washington if the Biden administration decides to reopen the Palestinian mission in Washington or renew financial support to the Palestinian Authority under the stipulations of the Taylor Force Act.
And, finally, when, it comes to Iran, Jerusalem should partner with the UAE, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia in voicing its concerns.
Blinken made clear that he is open to this, saying during the Senate hearing about Iran: “It’s also vitally important that we engage on the takeoff and not the landing with our allies and with our partners in the region to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries.”
Wednesday marked the changing of the guard in Washington, and Israel – as a result – will need to readjust. In doing so it is important for Jerusalem to keep in mind that Biden, while not Trump, is also not Obama.
If Israel believes that the new president is on the verge of taking actions that could endanger its security or severely harm its interests, then its prime minister, whomever that may be, will have a responsibility to speak up and take a stand, as Netanyahu did repeatedly with Obama.
But we are not there now, and Israel should be careful not to fall back into old confrontational positions and patterns that became the norm and the default setting during much of the Obama era.
At least not yet.•