Keeping inevitable differences with Biden in perspective - analysis

As differences between Washington and Jerusalem will emerge, there will be those who will fan the flames.

THEN-US vice president Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016. (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
THEN-US vice president Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016.
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
With US president-elect Joe Biden due to take office in another week, it is worth rehashing some basic truths in the US-Israeli relationship that may be forgotten amid the disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington that will inevitably arise during his term.
First, Israel and the US, while the strongest of allies whose interests and values align on a wide array of issues, do not see the world through an identical pair of glasses and do at times have different interests.
Second, these different interests will yield differences over policy.
Third, policy differences are legitimate, and having them does not mean that one side is challenging and or looking for a confrontation with the other. It just means that, well, two separate, sovereign states have policy differences.
Fourth, not every policy disagreement is a crisis, nor should it be presented or treated as such.
Why is it necessary to state the above? Because, as differences between Washington under Biden and Jerusalem under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or whoever may replace him will emerge, there will be those who will fan the flames.
There will be those who will want to turn every disagreement over Iran, the Palestinians or the settlements into a crisis, because – for various reasons – they want a crisis. Abroad, this could be by people who dislike Israel, dislike Netanyahu, or who dislike both and who want to drive a wedge between the US and the Jewish state.
And in Israel, those keen on a confrontation with the US may be interested for political reasons. Netanyahu’s opponents may have a political interest in showing that the prime minister is on track for a head-on collision with Biden. And Netanyahu’s supporters may also want to overstate a crisis with the US as a way of saying that only Netanyahu can stand tough against an inhospitable White House.
And it was not even necessary to wait until Biden’s inauguration on January 20 to see some of this playing out already.
On Monday, nine days before Biden takes office, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying that he was moving forward with plans to build 800 new housing units in existing settlements, some close to the Green line, some inside the security barrier, and some outside.
That announcement prompted this tweet from Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the US National Security Council under former president Barack Obama: “What a surprise, @netanyahu again welcomes @JoeBiden with a big F**k you in the form of new settlements.”
The anti-settlement, left-wing NGO Peace Now said the announcement sent a signal to the Biden administration that “Israel wants a confrontation.” And Netanyahu rival Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid said: “The Biden administration has not yet taken office, and the government is already leading us into an unnecessary confrontation.”
Really, that’s what this is about? Looking for a confrontation with Biden? It’s all about Biden and wanting to torpedo relations with the new administration even before that ship sets sail?
What neither Vietor – who co-hosts a podcast with anti-Netanyahu former Obama aide Ben Rhodes and whose own disdain for Netanyahu can be seen in disparaging tweets he has made in the past about Israel and Netanyahu – nor Peace Now or Lapid are even willing to entertain is that this announcement about the settlements is not about Biden, but rather about Israel. This announcement is the government of Israel, a sovereign country, saying that it is in the country’s interest to expand the settlements.
For the last four years the settlements were not an issue between Jerusalem and Washington, and not every building announcement became a source of friction, as was the case during the Obama years. Those framing Monday’s settlement announcement in terms of a slap in Biden’s face are apparently hankering for a return to those days.
The announcement of intent to advance plans for 800 new units and legalize an outpost reflects an Israeli policy that the Biden administration is expected to disagree with. That is their prerogative, just as it is Israel’s prerogative to further a policy it thinks is in its interest. This is a legitimate policy disagreement. Why does it need to be framed as a thumb in Biden’s eye or an intentional attempt to show him disrespect?
One could even make the argument that the fact this announcement came out now, rather than a week from now when Biden is president, is precisely because Israel did not want to embarrass Biden, and rather wanted to act now while the window of opportunity afforded by Trump administration policies was still open, even if just a crack.
But even if this or other settlement moves cause some friction, that, too, is not the end of the world. There will be friction with the Biden administration over settlements, the Palestinians and over Biden’s stated intention to re-enter the Iranian nuclear deal. There is also sure to be friction over other issues as well, such as China.
But friction is not a crisis, and all points of friction should not be blown up into an all-out crisis, as happened so often during the Obama administration. If the Obama years proved anything about Israeli-US ties, it is that the relationship serves both sides and is wide enough and deep enough to withstand even eight rocky years of often public disagreements.
Israel’s take on Iran, the Palestinians and the settlements – because of our geography, history and reality – is different than that of the US, sitting far away and with a myriad of other interests in the region to balance. Those differences are legitimate and should be seen as such. They need not be framed as Netanyahu or Israel deliberately trying to rain on Biden’s parade.