Now is the time to rebuild alliances with the Democrats

Israel's former ambassador to the US Prof. Itamar Rabinovich dissects the prospects for Israel-US relations under the Biden administration.

Prof. Itamar Rabinovich is a noted historian and former presenter of Tel Aviv University (photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
Prof. Itamar Rabinovich is a noted historian and former presenter of Tel Aviv University
(photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, and when that happens, says Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, the relationship between Israel and the US will change.
Rabinovich, a noted historian, former president of Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Israeli ambassador to the US from 1993 to 1996 addressed the nature of the relationship between the two countries Thursday at a TAU research webinar, titled “The Aftermath of the 2020 US Presidential Elections: Politics, Cyber and Strategy,” sponsored by the Boris Mints Institute, the Center for the Study of the United States in partnership with the Fulbright Program, Tel Aviv University, and the Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology & Security.
Other participants in the webinar, in addition to Rabinovich, included Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency; Prof. Lee Epstein, Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor, Washington University, St. Louis; and Dr. Yael Sternhell, head of the TAU American Studies Program.
Rabinovich suggests that the switch from the Trump administration to the Biden administration will be more than a shift from a Republican presidency to a Democratic one.
“We will have a transition from an exceptional and unique presidency – that of Donald Trump – to a traditional one, of Joe Biden who is an old hand, a veteran of the Senate, and former vice president. We can see both by his inclination and also looking at his choice of the team so far, that it’s going to be a return to the traditional patterns of US politics and policy including foreign policy and that also includes the relationship with Israel.”

RABINOVICH SAYS that the Trump administration’s policy of normalizing relations between Israel and Arab countries – particularly at this time –  is unusual.
“Look at the normalization agreements with Morocco,” he says. “It is primarily an American-brokered deal with side effects on Israel. The US will recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, and probably combine it with some weapons systems and perhaps some economic aid.”
Why, asks Rabinovich, would a president of the US, in the waning weeks of his administration, invest so much and utilize American assets to obtain benefits for Israel? Rabinovich suggests that President Donald Trump is devoting extra effort in the Middle East in order to ensure and magnify the positive aspects of his legacy.
“If you look at his other foreign policy issues over the last four years – China, Russia, Western Europe, NATO and Korea – there’s not much to show for them.  The one breakthrough that he had was the normalization with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, then Sudan, which is somewhat questionable, and now Morocco. He will take great pride in it. We benefit from this, as long as we don’t forget the real proportion and real meaning of it.”

AFTER TRUMP leaves the White House, how will the Biden administration approach the various countries in the Middle East? Rabinovich speculates that while President Biden will not reverse any of the preexisting agreements that Israel has made with Arab countries, he may try to return to the more traditional patterns of US-Arab-Israeli diplomacy.
“I don’t think there will be an immediate rush to try to negotiate a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians,” says Rabinovich, “because Biden knows this is not realistic right now. I think that they will adopt policies that will seek to prevent a further drift towards one state that we have seen over the last four years.”
He expects that the US will once again voice its objections both to settlements and to continued construction in settlements, and may try to get Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree to smaller, interim solutions that will improve the overall atmosphere.
The Abraham Accords have led to normalization with numerous Arab countries, and Rabinovich says that Saudi Arabia and Oman are two other possible candidates in the future, though he is dubious that the Saudis will join anytime soon.
“The Saudis need to rebuild their relationship with the Democratic Party,” he notes. “There is also the larger issue of the left wing of the Democratic Party that has been very critical of some of Washington’s traditional allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, because of the authoritarianism in both countries.”
With that in mind, he says that the issue of normalization with Israel is not likely to be given priority status, but could possibly be thrown into the formula. “Any administration would like to orchestrate and receive credit for further normalization of Arab-Israeli relations without seeming to crack down on the Palestinians,” he says.
Rabinovich is considered an expert on Syria and served as Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria between 1993 and 1996. The US has 1,000 troops stationed there and has established an alliance with the Kurds in northeast Syria. The real issue there, he suggests, is with Turkey. “[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is a difficult customer. He will insist that a serious improvement in the relationship requires an end to the US partnership with the Syrian Kurds.”

TURKEY MAY be problematic for the new administration, but Iran will be Biden’s toughest issue in the Middle East, Rabinovich says. The Iranians are shrewd and tough negotiators, he points out, and will want to cancel sanctions, return to the existing agreement and only then negotiate amendments to the JCPOA – the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. “It will be a mistake if the administration does that, as they will be left without bargaining chips. The US will have to stand firm and negotiate amendments to the treaty before it makes concessions to the Iranians.”
Some supporters of Israel are concerned about the possible influence of the liberal, progressive wing of the Democratic Party on relations with Israel, as personified by US Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. The four representatives, known collectively as The Squad, have criticized Israel and have been accused of making antisemitic remarks. Rabinovich says that Biden will have to balance between his need to work with the Republicans and the left wing of his party. “These are contradictory forces, and he will have to maneuver. There will be domestic issues and other issues, and I think that Middle East policy will be one of those issues. The Squad is going to be vociferous,” he says.
Rabinovich says that Israel will have to invest significant efforts in mollifying the Democratic Party, after working closely with Trump for the past four years. “In the last few years, the old rule of both sides of the aisle was broken, and Israel under Netanyahu became very much identified with the Republicans.” A new government in Israel might have an easier time of it, he suggests, but if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains at the helm, it will be more difficult to rebuild bridges with the Democrats. Additionally, says Rabinovich, if Israel’s government pursues a more nationalist line in the West Bank, it may be problematic to resume alliances with the Democratic Party.
Regarding the relationship of the American Jewish community to Israel, Rabinovich compares it to the ties between Israel and the Democrats. “There is a lot of unease and unhappiness in the liberal part of the Jewish community that can be fixed relatively easily,” he says. “What will take much longer is the change in attitude among young liberal American Jews. I am quite familiar with what goes on in US campuses. Unfortunately, many of the BDS activists are actually Jewish. This is a constituency that needs to be addressed urgently.”
Finally, returning to the subject of Israel and the Palestinians, Rabinovich says that it is unlikely that the Biden administration will seek to broker a final status agreement. Instead, he suggests, other, more modest efforts to improve the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians are likely to come soon.

For more information about the Boris Mints Institute, visit www.bmiglobalsolutions.org/.
This article was written in cooperation with the Boris Mints Institute, the Center for the Study of the United States in partnership with the Fulbright Program, Tel Aviv University, and the Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology & Security.’ For more information on the Institute’s annual Boris Mints Prize visit www.borismintsprize.com