To paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes, in US-Israel ties under President Joe Biden there is a season and a time for everything: a time to fret and a time to refrain from fretting.
After an initial period of fretting, born of the long weeks it took before Biden picked up the phone and called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as by the appointment of Rob Malley as Biden’s point man on Iran, now we have entered the refrain from fretting stage… at least for the time being.
Several steps taken, and several others not taken over the last few weeks, have calmed fears that the Biden administration would take up with Israel exactly at the tense point where the Obama administration left off – enabling a UN Security Council resolution harshly condemning all Israeli settlement activity beyond the Green Line, including in east Jerusalem.
But those fears have not materialized, as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has not taken over Biden’s policies on Israel.
A good example of that came with the publication by Jewish Insider this week of a letter US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent to the president of the American Zionist Movement in late February saying that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, including its examples.”
These examples of antisemitism include holding Israel to a double standard or claiming that the existence of Israel is a “racist endeavor.”
Tellingly, a number of progressive Jewish groups in the US, including J Street, the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now, urged the administration not to adopt this definition with its examples. That the administration ignored their pleas should give solace to those concerned that the administration would be pushing the progressive agenda on Israel.
Another letter that should calm nerves a bit is one Biden himself wrote recently to Alfred H. Moses, a former US ambassador to Romania who sits on the board of the ANU Museum of the Jewish People (formerly Beit Hatfutsot), congratulating him on the reopening of the museum.
For Jews and Israelis always looking for reassurances of the affections of US leaders, this letter hit the right notes.
“The Jewish people and their history have always held a special place in my heart,” Biden wrote in his letter.
Regarding the US-Israel relationship, he wrote that the two countries are “great partners, and the bond between our two countries remains unbreakable today, as it has been since 11 minutes after Israel’s founding.”
That is all well and good, skeptics may say, but how about Biden’s pledge to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known informally as the Iran nuclear deal.
Not only has the administration said that it would not reenter the deal until the Iranians come into full compliance, and that it would then hope to negotiate a better deal, but on Wednesday in the Senate, Wendy Sherman – one of the main architects of the 2015 deal – had some interesting comments during her nomination hearings to become deputy secretary of state.
Challenged by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who was a fierce critic of the original deal, about reentering it without concrete actions to address Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, Sherman responded: “I would note that 2021 is not 2015, when the deal was agreed, nor 2016, when it was implemented. The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the way forward must similarly change.”
These words, from the chief negotiator and main cheerleader of the deal in 2015, should reassure some in Israel concerned that Jerusalem is on a collision course with the administration over Iran.
And on the Palestinian issue as well, the Biden administration – though it consistently reaffirms its commitment to a two-state solution and opposition to “unilateral actions,” a euphemism for settlement construction – has not come in, as previous administrations have, “swinging for the fences” and laying out a grand plan for peace in the Middle East.
As Blinken said last month in a CNN interview: “Look, the hard truth is we are a long way, I think, from seeing peace break out and seeing a final resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state. In the first instance now, it does no harm. We’re looking to make sure that neither side takes unilateral actions that make the prospects for moving toward peace and a resolution even more challenging than they already are. And then, hopefully, we’ll see both sides take steps that create a better environment in which actual negotiations can take place.”
That, too, is an attitude that many Israelis can live with – an attitude that reflects trying to manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more than magically trying to solve it, an effort that has failed with tragic results over the last 28 years (since the beginning of the Oslo Accords).
And to those who may say that all of the above are only words; how about actions? – it is worth looking at the recent US attack on facilities belonging to Iranian proxies along the Syria-Iraq border that came in response to a deadly rocket attack on a US-led coalition base in northern Iraq. This should ease concerns by some that the new administration was just going to lie down before Iran in the Middle East.
While that response sent a signal that the Biden administration was not withdrawing, and that it would not let the Iranians act with impunity, it will be equally telling to see how the Biden team now responds to the latest rocket attack Wednesday on an air base in western Iraq where US personnel is stationed.
Couple all of that with the hour-long conversation Netanyahu did finally have with the president, as well as the open line of communications between Blinken and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, National Security Council head Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austen and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and what emerges is a relationship that – despite the default mode of so many to think the worst – is actually getting off to not a bad start.