After Biden's victory, Netanyahu must play the hand he’s been dealt

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: What can Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do to get into President-elect Joe Biden’s good graces?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Jerusalem in 2016. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Jerusalem in 2016.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a long portion of his speech to the Knesset on the occasion of its authorizing peace between Israel and Bahrain to address an entirely different topic: bipartisan support for Israel in the US.
“I don’t stand for Republicans or Democrats. I stand only for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said, and presented a list of all the members of Congress from both parties whom he met in the past four years.
The speech marked a change in how Netanyahu has spoken about America in recent years. He could have ignored criticisms that he is too close to Republicans and US President Donald Trump, as he mostly has done since 2017, but instead he directly responded to the claim leveled this time by opposition leader Yair Lapid that he destroyed the relationship with the Democrats.
Netanyahu didn’t acknowledge that he has a problem with the Democrats in his remarks, but the fact that he dedicated so much time to denying that there is a problem and touting his closeness with President-elect Joe Biden and meetings with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and others, shows that he, at the very least, is aware that he has an image problem.
That doesn’t mean, as Lapid claimed, that all is lost and only a new government can repair the relationship. It is, of course, Lapid’s job as opposition leader to come up with reasons Netanyahu must go. But the biggest divide between Israel and the Biden administration is expected to be on Iran, and even if Lapid or some other major party leader were prime minister, it would be unlikely that his position would drastically differ from the one Netanyahu shares with much of the defense establishment.
And, at least for now, Netanyahu is prime minister. Luckily, whatever faults he may have, Netanyahu is generally good at finding ways to play the hand that he has. As of January – as in most of his years as prime minister – that hand will be a Democrat in the White House, plus Obama administration alumni in influential positions.
As Biden prepares to enter the White House, Netanyahu and Israeli diplomats and others can already start working on getting back into the good graces of Biden and the Democrats.
Several experts involved on the ground in these issues, spoke to The Jerusalem Post this week, most on condition of anonymity, about what efforts Israel can make.
NETANYAHU’S ATTEMPT to rebrand himself as a friend of the Democrats in Tuesday’s Knesset speech is a good start.
Given the Trump administration’s friendliness to Israel, including an almost total lack of criticism of the government and an alignment on key issues involving Israel’s security, any conceivable Israeli prime minister would have gotten close with Trump. And if working overtime to stroke Trump’s ego helps, so be it. It wouldn’t make sense to draw an imaginary line that could push such a strong ally away, to Israel’s detriment.
But in a polarized America, Netanyahu’s close association with Trump lost him many points with the more liberal side of the political map. Putting Trump on Likud posters helped Netanyahu domestically, but as we get closer to January, it would probably be a good idea for Netanyahu to change his Twitter banner, which is currently a photo with Trump, for the sake of rebranding.
And once Trump is out of office, Netanyahu can and should frame his relationship with the former president in broad national terms, as he did on Tuesday, saying that he was doing what was best for Israel.
Another important point is that there is a process going on within the Democratic Party of which Israel is only a small part. The battle between progressives and moderates is about many, many subjects, and Israel is only one of them. This dynamic has been playing out in Congress in recent years, and will likely be present in a Biden White House, as it was, to some extent, in the Obama White House.
Still, Gideon Israel, president of the Jerusalem Washington Center and author of Broken Values, a book analyzing changes in the Democratic platform, said that the issue is not just the “squad” of ultraprogressive lawmakers and their orbit, but that the mainstream of the Democratic Party, including Biden, moved to the Left.
“It’s not Netanyahu that caused the rift with the Democratic Party,” he said. “I think the Democratic Party has moved significantly leftward over the past 10 years, and it was inevitable that there would be some type of rift.”
For example, he said that 2012 was the first time since the 1970s that the Democratic platform did not say that the State of Israel is an ally with a special relationship with the US.
On the whole, the moderates sympathize with Israel, as do some to their left, but a prominent group of progressives does not. The moderates, together with the Republicans, are enough for Israel to maintain majority support in Congress, but Gideon Israel said support was once broad enough that Jewish state did not have to make these calculations. In addition, the State of Israel will likely face challenges in dealing with some of the Obama alumni who are on the short list for Biden cabinet appointments.
As the Democratic Party works out its broader divisions, Israel needs to make sure not to get in its allies’ way in that fight, and to not provide fodder for the other side to claim the high ground by criticizing Israel – and that’s where policy issues come into play.
AMERICAN JEWISH Committee CEO David Harris said “Netanyahu knows, as a starting point, that Biden does have Israel in his kishkes, and has for decades. That’s a critically important beginning.
“On a personal level, I think the prime minister can easily reestablish a warm and constructive relationship with Joe Biden. And, in that spirit, I don’t doubt they can work out some of the inevitable differences that arise between even the closest of friends,” Harris added. “That said, the big question will be to what degree the Biden administration sticks with, or moves away from, the operative assumptions of four years ago regarding especially Iran and the Palestinians.”
Many have questioned whether Biden will foster more normalizations between Israel and Arab states. But the broader picture here is of a Middle East that has been transformed over the past four years.
Biden has said he seeks to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iran deal is called, with some changes to strengthen it – without specifying what those changes may be. Regardless of the fact that Iran has already rejected that approach, this could reflect stasis in his and his advisers’ thinking on the subject since the agreement went into effect.
At the time, the Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president, thought it would balance the power in the Middle East by working with Iran. Tony Blinken – Biden’s top foreign policy adviser and likely national security adviser appointee – Wendy Sherman – Obama’s top Iran negotiator, who has been cited as a likely UN ambassador under Biden – and others said the Iran deal would be transformational and turn the regime in Tehran into a more responsible one.
None of that actually happened, and instead the Iran deal threw Israel and Sunni states together to protect themselves from an aggressive and ambitious Iran. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain went so far as to make their relations with Israel open and official, regardless of the Palestinians’ fury over it happening before a two-state solution came to fruition.
Harris said that “Netanyahu’s opportunity and his challenge, together with his regional and US allies, are to help the Biden administration understand the profound changes and shifts of the past four years. The Middle East they will ‘inherit’ in January is not the one they left behind at the beginning of 2017.”
When Netanyahu – who happens to be a prolific doodler – tries to paint a picture for Biden of the Middle East as it now stands, he’ll probably be joined by his counterparts in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and other capitals in the region, Harris posited, because, “in a very real way, their fates are more intertwined today than ever before. Thus, how the US conducts itself in the Middle East has life-and-death consequences for all of them.”
If Netanyahu is successful in relaying his message, Harris said, “it augurs very well for the relationship. If not, there will likely be some differences requiring, shall we say, careful management.”
That careful management means balancing Israel’s security needs with maintaining the support of its top strategic ally, the US.
When it comes to Iran, one form of that management is to try to set realistic goals while setting redlines for Israel’s security, rather than totally reject Biden’s policy position. The pressure on the Obama administration may have brought the Saudis and Emiratis closer to Israel – which is no small feat – but it did not impact the outcome of the US negotiations with Iran. Netanyahu can learn the lessons of 2013-2015; if he dismisses the Biden administration’s Iran policies outright and his attitude is that they have betrayed Israel, he will likely be seen in the White House as unreasonable and be ignored on the subject.
One reasonable demand for Netanyahu to make is that the Biden administration build on the leverage America has from Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Iran’s economy is suffering, and it wants sanctions relief.
The US can keep the sanctions going in order to use them to make more demands on Iran. Biden wants to return to the JCPOA, but even he acknowledges that it has weaknesses. American leverage over Iran can be used to try to close up the loopholes, get better supervision of Iranian nuclear facilities and sharply reduce – or even eliminate – its uranium enrichment.
LEVERAGE IS also key to how Israel can talk to the Biden administration about the Palestinians. The Trump administration suspended aid to UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority and closed down the PLO office in Washington. The Biden administration said it would bring back aid – within the bounds of the Taylor Force Act which stops funding to the PA as long as it pays terrorists – and reopen the PLO office. Netanyahu or other Israeli representatives can ask the Biden administration to make that contingent on the Palestinians taking conciliatory steps.
But what is probably most important for maintaining good ties with the Biden administration, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, is to cool off settlement activity. With every new project, there are multiple announcements – opening the tender, closing the tender, starting construction, etc. – with each a potential point of tension between Israel and the Biden administration.
Biden has opposed Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria since the 1970s, when he told then-prime minister Golda Meir so, through the 1980s, in a heated exchange with then-prime minister Menachem Begin, and through his tenure as vice president.
Israel took advantage of the Trump administration not really caring about the issue, but one expert suggested that the government not approve any new projects for the first six months to a year of the Biden administration in order to start the relationship strong.
It would also help the relationship if Netanyahu dropped talk of applying Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, since there is not one Democrat in Congress who would back that move, even those who are most supportive of Israel. This should not be too difficult, since he has mostly done this anyway, as one of the conditions of the peace deal with the UAE was to suspend annexation plans.
Of course, like Iran, there are other considerations than the US-Israel relationship when it comes to this issue. With Iran, it’s a matter of life and death. While settlements have a broader security impact, politics heavily influence decisions made on this matter, and Netanyahu will have to decide where his priorities lie.