Joe Biden won’t swing Israeli voters Left – analysis

A change of direction in US politics is not moving the needle in Israel to the Left – if anything, the needle continues nudging steadily to the Right

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US vice president Joe Biden leave after a joint statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US vice president Joe Biden leave after a joint statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Many Israelis, who according to a recent poll would have overwhelmingly voted for US President Donald Trump over Joe Biden had they just had the chance, are often puzzled by the voting pattern of American Jews.
They are confounded that US Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic, even though polls show that the Republicans these days are much more supportive of Israel, and they are confused that Israel is not the top priority when American Jews decide for whom to vote.
Tell these Israeli Jews that their country is way down on the list of issues which determine how their co-religionists in the US vote – after the economy, the Supreme Court, racial equality, abortion and gun control – and they will give a quizzical “how-can-that-be?” look.
Yet, these same Israelis, who may soon be going to the polls for the fourth time in two years, will most likely not be factoring into their vote at all what candidate would best serve American Jewry’s issues, nor even which candidate will get along better with the new US president.
For if the latter would be taken into consideration to a large degree, if Israelis would vote for their prime minister based on whom they thought would be best able to work with the US administration, then it is doubtful the Likud and the right-wing bloc would be leading in the polls, as is currently the case.
According to a Channel 13 poll on Tuesday, were elections held today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud would eke out a four seat 27-23 lead over Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, and the right-wing partnership (Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism) would be able to form a coalition with 64 seats.
The same day, Channel 11 had the right-wing lead at 70 seats, and Netanyahu beating Bennett 31-21.
If what was foremost in the minds of the Israeli public was how relations will be with president-elect Biden, and if their main concern was wanting to avoid any friction with the White House, then those polls would probably have looked considerably different, and both Blue and White and Yesh Atid-Telem would fare much better.
This shows that as important as ties with the US may be – and Israelis well understand how important they are – people here either don’t vote according to whom they think will most advance those relations, or they don’t think that relations will suffer much regardless of who is in charge in Jerusalem.
Former president Barack Obama badly misread how Israelis view relations with the US government at the beginning of his term. One of the basic assumptions of his administration in its early days toward Israel was that the Israeli public would never tolerate a diplomatic confrontation with the US, especially over settlements.
As a result of this underlying assumption, the administration – already from Obama’s first meeting with Netanyahu in the White House – decided to push hard on the settlement issue, calling for a complete and total freeze, amid the belief that most Israelis deeply dislike the settlements anyhow (another misguided assumption), and that public pressure would force Netanyahu to fall into line with Obama on this issue to forestall a confrontation.
But most Israelis do not hate the settlements, and neither Peace Now, nor Haaretz speak for the country. The majority of Israelis might not have much sympathy for the hardcore ideological settlements or for illegal outposts, but they don’t oppose Gush Etzion, or Ma’aleh Adumim or the Jordan Valley settlements. And they definitely are not against the new neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, places like Ramat Shlomo which caused such a furor as new building was announced when then-vice president Biden visited in 2010.
There has been an Israeli consensus about these areas for years, so when Obama came to power and said that all settlement construction must be halted everywhere – including in Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Gilo or Pisgat Ze’ev – in the eyes of much of the Israeli public he appeared to be making unreasonable demands on Israel at a time when he was seen as giving the Palestinians and Arabs a free pass.
Pressing the subject hard did not bring the Israeli public to rally around Obama, as apparently he thought it would, nor did it trigger a call for a replacement of Netanyahu. On the contrary, Netanyahu won three elections during the Obama presidency, benefiting from an image of being someone willing and able to stand up to the US president.
Would that image help Netanyahu in an election now?
If the recent polls are any indication, it might. Or, at the very least, Biden’s victory is not hurting Netanyahu. One line that the Likud will surely repeat over and over in the next election campaign is that Israel now needs a leader who can stand up to American pressure.
Both the Channel 11 and 13 polls were taken after the Biden election victory, and it shows that a change of direction in US politics is not moving the needle in Israel to the Left – if anything, the needle continues nudging steadily to the Right. What this indicates is that a Biden presidency is not scaring Israelis into thinking that they should be voting for Blue and White or Yesh Atid-Telem as a way of ensuring smooth relations with Washington. The polls showi that the US election has not been a political factor in Israel at all.
Which is not to say that Biden will not be an issue in an upcoming campaign.
One of Netanyahu’s main campaign themes over the last three elections was that when it comes to dealing with the world and with world leaders, the prime minister is in “another league.”
As Exhibit A, the Likud rolled out his close relationship with Trump. There was a reason why the Likud draped pictures of Trump shaking hands with Netanyahu over buildings in Jerusalem and in Gush Dan during the last three campaigns: that relationship was viewed by the Likud as an election asset.
In the next election, however, that asset will be gone and Trump won’t be able to give Netanyahu pre-election gifts to boost his ratings, as he did in March 2019 when he recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights shortly before the April elections that year, and again in January 2020, when he unveiled the “Deal of the Century” just prior to the March election.
Yesh Atid and Blue and White will both surely run a campaign that will feature the argument that their leaders will have a much easier time with a Democratic US president than Netanyahu.
They might also be hoping for Biden to hint at his favorite candidate – give them some kind of pre-election gift – although this is unlikely, given that the polls show that neither of them has much of a chance of putting together a coalition, and that if Biden were to give them a public nod, this would get ties with Netanyahu, or possibly Bennett, off on the wrong foot from the outset – something the new administration will probably want to avoid.
And even if Biden did publicly indicate whom he would rather work with in Jerusalem, it is unlikely that it will carry overwhelming weight with Israeli voters. For just as American Jews don’t decide on who to vote for based on which candidate would be better for Israel, neither do Israelis vote with the thought at the top of their agenda of which prime minister would be better placed to work with the US president. They, like American Jews, also have a plethora of other interests and priorities.