Biden, Netanyahu will be frenemies from the start on settlements

The Trump years were in some ways a diplomatic aberration for Israel-US ties. In reality, the US-Israel relationship has been fraught with tensions, particularly at the top.

US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: ANDREW HARNIK/YOAV DUDUKEVITCH/REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a way, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President-elect Joe Biden were frenemies from the very start.
Biden has long told the story of how early on in their relationship, one that has spanned almost four decades, he signed a photograph for Netanyahu that said, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”
It was almost as if he had coded discord into the DNA of the relationship, the tentacles of which have reached out to the present, proscribing the script of the Netanyahu and Biden relationship, now that the long-time senator and former vice president appears set to inhabit the White House for the next four years.
In the Knesset on Tuesday, Netanyahu reflected on their bond, recalling how Biden contacted him after his father’s death, and he, in turn, had been in touch with Biden in the aftermath of his son’s death.
“There are things that go beyond politics and diplomacy,” Netanyahu said.
But their personal ties cannot be taken out of the context of the larger diplomatic drama.
Netanyahu once told Biden their friendship was in a way analogous to the US-Israel relationship. “We have an enduring bond that represents the enduring bond between our people,” he said.
It was not an isolated comparison. The head of state’s ties with world leaders often marks the overall alliance of nations.
Netanyahu had a clear bromance with outgoing-US President Donald Trump. For four years, there was no public daylight between them, particularly on Iran and West Bank settlements.
Both these topics had generated intense friction between Israel and the US during the administration of former president Barack Obama, when the enmity between Netanyahu and the US president had been elevated to an almost serial soap-opera level.
The Netanyahu-Trump alliance, in contrast, provided the kind of visual symbolism of the much touted enduring partnership between the two countries. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which the US is Israel’s major ally globally, and the Jewish state in turn has been the one consistent American stronghold in the Middle East.
But the Trump years were in some ways a diplomatic aberration for Israel-US ties. In reality, the US-Israel relationship has been fraught with tensions, particularly at the top, rising at times to a crisis-like level.
One of the consistent drivers of that tension has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and West Bank settlement activity in particular.
Under the era of US president Jimmy Carter, more than half a dozen UN Security Council resolutions were passed against Israel with respect to its activities over the Green Line, including the well-known one condemning the Knesset vote to annex east Jerusalem in 1980.
Biden himself in 1982, during the tenure of president Ronald Reagan, had a well-known disagreement with prime minister Menachem Begin over settlement activity. Biden even went so far as to warn Begin that continued general US financial support for Israel could be compromised as a result.
Former president George Bush, who served one term from 1989-1993, threatened to cut off loan guarantees to Israel over the West Bank settlements. The standoff ended when a compromise was reached in which the sum of money Israel spent on settlement activity was deducted from the loan.
WHAT IS unusual with Biden is not his anti-settlement policy, but his particularly strong affinity for the Jewish state.
Trump and his administration looked at Israel in large part from a faith-based, Evangelical Christian lens.
But with Biden, who has spoken of Israel as being “part of my soul,” the connection is intensely personal.
His ties to Israel are symbolic of the older generations of Democrats who supported Israel because it was a strong ally in the Middle East, because the two countries share Judeo-Christian values and because of its importance to Jewish survival in the post-Holocaust era.
Biden has raised that emotional support to an unusual height for a US president.
“I am a Zionist; you don’t have to a Jew to be a Zionist,” he told Shalom TV in 2011. “Israel is the single greatest strength in the Middle East,” Biden said, adding that he could not imagine how many troops and battleships the US would have to place in the region if Israel did not exist.
Biden is Catholic, but like many US Jews, he grew up on stories of the Holocaust told to him by his father. He made his first trip to Israel already as a junior senator in 1973 and boasts that he has known every Israeli leader since Golda Meir.
Some of the presidential contenders in the Democratic Party, such as senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were willing to contemplate cutting Israeli military assistance to protest Israeli settlement activity.
But Biden has consistently been clear that he would take no action that would pose an existential threat to Israel. In this vein, he supports military aid to Israel and has no plans to make it conditional or use it as a lever to pressure the Jewish state on the settlements.
“Israel must be able to defend itself. It’s not just critical for Israeli security: I believe it is critical for America’s security,” Biden told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Conference in March.
A signatory to the 1995 Embassy Act, which mandated the embassy’s relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Biden has long held that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. While he clarified that he would not have chosen to open a Jerusalem embassy at this time, he clearly stated during the campaign that he has no intention of moving the embassy back to Tel Aviv.
LIKE HIS presidential predecessors before him, save for Trump, Biden has long opposed West Bank settlements.
But the exact contours of that opposition were somewhat vague. He has spoken of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, rejected annexation of the settlements and called for a halt to Israeli settlement activity.
For Netanyahu and the Israeli Right, a Biden administration is a dramatic reversal on settlement policy, coming as it does after Trump, who held that Israel could retain all the settlements.
The discord between Biden and Netanyahu here is therefore built in from the start, with regard to the settlements, irrespective of whether they were cold strangers or as they are: long-time diplomatic friends on a first-name basis.
“We’ve been friends, our families have been friends,” Biden once told Netanyahu.
But when it comes to choosing a diplomatic script for his relationship with Biden, Netanyahu has indicated that in some arenas, he will opt for frenemies, over the best-buddy routine of Trump, in spite of his Knesset speech espousing their tight relationship.
Netanyahu and Biden have been here before, of course.
There is the famed Biden vice presidential 2010 visit, during which Netanyahu allowed for the advancement of plans for 1,100 new housing units in the east Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. The move, seen as a slap in the face to Biden, did not derail the visit or even the planned dinner, although Biden did arrive 90 minutes late.
But how far can Netanyahu go in 2020 in bucking Biden – and how sharp the battle will be – depends in part on who Biden places in key positions and how he himself defines US policy with regard to the settlements.
Here the nuance matters and was never clarified so distinctly on the campaign trail. The Clinton era is often the starting point when marking relevant US policy on settlements, because Bill Clinton was the architect of the Oslo Accords, which set in motion a two-state solution.
But his vision, as set out in his parameters, allowed for Israel to retain the high-population centers, known as the settlement blocs.
When US president George Bush took over the White House from Clinton in 2001, he took a harsh stance on settlements, initially eliminating the concept of the blocs and introducing the idea of a complete settlement freeze. He also demanded that Israel dismantle the outposts. He did it all, however, with a handshake and a smile, so as to affirm the vision of an unshakable US-Israel bond.
Bush’s strong ties with prime minister Ariel Sharon seemed to dwarf the sharp policy divide and softened the impact of Bush’s belief that a two-state solution should be based on the pre-1967 lines; something Sharon was adamantly opposed to.
Sharon was able to soften that stance by unilaterally withdrawing from 21 settlements in Gaza and four in northern Samaria, in exchange for a written pledge from Bush that Israel could retain the blocs.
The Obama administration held the same no-tolerance attitude toward the settlements as Bush, but his relationship with Netanyahu allowed for enormous public discord on the topic.
Unlike Bush, he also pressured Netanyahu to freeze settler housing starts for 10 months and increased the level of anti-Israel rhetoric on the settlements.
That intolerance on settlements culminated in the US failure to veto UN Security Resolution 2334, which spoke of the international illegality of any Israeli action over the pre-1967 lines. It was a resolution that helped cement UN support for a boycott of settlements by stating that nations must distinguish in their dealings between sovereign Israel land under Israeli control that was over the pre-1967 lines. This included east Jerusalem and its Old City, with the Western Wall.
AS OBAMA’S former vice president, Biden almost automatically inherits the mantle of Obama administration policy on the settlements.
But as a senator, Biden signed onto a 2004 congressional resolution in support of the Sharon-Bush understanding that Israel could retain the settlement blocs, which the Obama administration later rejected.
When asked in February by The New York Times if he accepted a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines, Biden said yes. But he added: “Yes, except for longtime Israeli settlements or other land swaps and arrangements negotiated by the parties.” It was a statement that appears to lean in favor of the blocs.
The depth of the nuance will ultimately mark the depth of the battle on this issue between the two men.
Does Biden leave Netanyahu some wiggle room for limited settlement activity or will he demand a freeze?
Does Biden smile, touting his love for Bibi, or does he go the way of Obama and go public?
Some of the answers, of course, will depend on moves he has to do to reestablish relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Similarly, Netanyahu’s actions will also be determined by politics in Israel, including a potential reelection battle.
Either diplomatic battle between these two men will not be a return to the Obama era, but more of a family feud.
This drama will be played out between two diplomats who are too close and who know each other too well – and who from the start are already at the level of frenemies.