Israel can sleep easy with Biden’s top foreign policy picks – analysis

Unclear what input Kerry will have outside his climate portfolio

US President Joe Biden gestures after disembarking from a plane upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
US President Joe Biden gestures after disembarking from a plane upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Of the 20 Democratic candidates who took part in the first round of primary debates in June 2019 in Florida, a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket was probably the best that Jerusalem could have hoped for.
Remember, this was a field that included Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke, who were openly blasting Israel’s leadership, and hinting at the possibility of withholding military assistance to Israel if it did not alter its policies. And all that played extremely well with the progressive wing of the party.
Once Biden won the nomination, and then the presidency earlier this month, the concerns among those who very carefully watch Israeli-US ties shifted.
Okay, Biden and Harris both come from the moderate wing of the party and share the party’s traditional support for Israel. Granted, the progressives were roundly defeated before the party convention in trying to introduce critical language of Israel in the party platform. But wouldn’t Biden be beholden to the progressives for his victory, and might he not need to pay them off by giving them a large say in his administration, first and foremost when it comes to drawing up foreign and national security policy?
Following Biden’s electoral victory, many ex-officials, pundits and experts qualified their answer to the question about how they thought Biden would be toward Israel, by saying much depended on whom he would surround himself with.
Well now, with Biden’s naming on Monday of Tony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, Israel knows some of those who will now be aiding the president on issues important to it, and the country’s worst nightmares have definitely not been realized.
This is not a team that will advance the progressives’ platform toward Israel. Rather, it is a team of centrists and moderates who, though they may want to re-enter the Iranian nuclear deal and are opposed to Israel’s settlements policies, still broadly view Israel as the “good guys” in the region.
Like Biden and Harris themselves, Blinken was probably – from Jerusalem’s perspective – the favored secretary of state candidate.
Blinken’s life story, according to a 2013 profile in The Washington Post, “reads like a Jewish high-society screenplay that the one-time aspiring film producer [Blinken] may have dreamed of making. There’s his father, a giant in venture capital; his mother, the arts patron; and his stepfather, who survived the Holocaust to become of one of the most influential lawyers on the global stage.”
Blinken’s stepfather, Samuel Pisar, survived Auschwitz and Dachau, and he told The Washington Post that he believes the stories he related to his stepson left an impact on him and “gave him another dimension, another look at the world and what can happen here.”
Blinken was trotted out frequently to Jewish audiences during the campaign to tout Biden’s pro-Israel credentials, saying Biden would not air disagreements between the US and Israel in public – in stark contrast to the situation under the Obama administration – and would never tie military aid to Israel to any specific Israeli policy.
Having served as Biden’s national security advisor when Biden became vice president, and later as a deputy national security advisor under president Barack Obama and deputy secretary of state from 2015-2017, Israeli officials know Blinken well and have worked constructively with him.
His candidacy was favored in Jerusalem over that of Susan Rice, with whom the Netanyahu administration had a rocky relationship, and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, viewed as the favored candidate of the progressives.
Sullivan is also someone Israelis know and have worked with extensively in the past. He is also considered friendly, even though he was instrumental in negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal and launching the secret talks with Iran in Oman in 2012 that paved the way for the nuclear deal. His selection for National Security Advisor is an indication that when Biden said on the campaign trail that he wants to re-enter the deal, he meant it, and Sullivan will surely be among those who will be leading those efforts.
Biden has still not appointed a secretary of defense. One leading candidate for that portfolio is Michèle Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense. She is someone with whom Israel has had a very good working relationship and her appointment has, apparently, ruffled feathers among progressives because of her ties with the defense industry.
If the progressives succeed in scuttling her appointment, that would be considered a loss in Jerusalem.
One appointment to the National Security Council that Jerusalem could have done without was that of former secretary of state John Kerry to the newly created post of special presidential envoy for climate.
Kerry was a dogged advocate of the Iranian nuclear deal and a staunch critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, placing the bulk of the onus for a lack of peace agreement on Israeli settlement polices, rather than Palestinian policies, or terror.
Kerry reappeared briefly on the radar in Israel in September, after the signing of the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, when a December 2016 video clip went viral of him telling the Saban Conference that no Arab state would ever make peace with Israel until an agreement was reached with the Palestinians.
“I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, well, the Arab world is in a different place now, we just have to reach out to them and we can work some things with the Arab world and we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No, no, no and no,” Kerry said.
“There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace,” he continued. “Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”
As climate “czar,” Kerry’s portfolio is unlikely to touch on many issues relating to Israel. Yet he will have a seat on the National Security Council, where many issues relating to Israel will be aired, and – as a member of the NSC – he will certainly have the ear of the president.