Will Biden break the pattern of how US presidents approach Israel?

DIPLOMACY: Strongly supportive US presidents are generally followed by administrations that are less so. Might Biden break that mold?

US PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden announces Pete Buttigieg as his nominee for secretary of transportation in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden announces Pete Buttigieg as his nominee for secretary of transportation in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday.
 Patterns are everywhere: in nature, in art, in human behavior, in interpersonal relationships. They also exist in diplomacy.
And for students of diplomacy, or more specifically those who carefully watch the ebb and flow of US-Israel relations, there is one particular pattern that may appear somewhat disconcerting as US President-elect Joe Biden is poised to take office in just over three weeks.
Veteran US Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross identified this pattern in Doomed to Succeed, his 2015 book on the history of US-Israel relations from presidents Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
“When an administration is judged by its successors to be too close to Israel, we [the US] distance ourselves from the Jewish state,” he wrote.
And then Ross gave numerous examples.
“[Dwight D.] Eisenhower believed that Truman was too supportive of Israel, so he felt an imperative to demonstrate that we were not partial to Israel, that we were in fact willing to seek closer ties to our real friends in the region – the Arabs
“President [Richard] Nixon, likewise, felt that Lyndon Johnson was too pro-Israel. In his first two years, he, too, distanced us from Israel and showed sensitivity to Arab concerns. President George H.W. Bush believed his former boss, Ronald Reagan, suffered from the same impulse of being too close to Israel. He, too, saw virtue in fostering distance.”
And finally, Ross continued, “President Obama, at the outset of his administration, certainly saw George W. Bush as having cost us in the Arab and Muslim world at least in part because he was unwilling to allow any gap to emerge between the United States and Israel.”
Obama, wrote Ross – who served in his administration, as well as in those of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton – consciously wanted to distance the US from Israel because – like Eisenhower, Nixon, and the first president Bush – “believed that our relations with the Arabs, and Muslims more broadly, required it. The expectations of benefits drove the policy of distancing, just as it had in the past.”
This pattern, Ross maintained, flows from a “remarkable continuity” of arguments inside successive US administrations. Over and over again, he wrote, there are “recycled concerns that too close a relationship with Israel will harm our ties to the Arabs and damage our position in the region. Until the 1990s, the fear was that we would drive the Arabs into a Soviet embrace. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the concern was that it would damage our relationship with the Arabs and make us targets of jihadist terrorism.”
Ross wrote that despite the feeling that distancing from Israel would help the US in the Arab world, or that getting close to the Jewish state would harm US interests in the Middle East, in actuality that was never the case. The conservative Arab regimes wanted good ties with the US for their own survival, and America’s poor relations with the radical Arab regimes were never helped by distancing from Israel. 
“Arguments that we must distance ourselves from Israel are not discredited when the predicted positive outcomes [in the Arab world] do not occur,” he wrote. “Nor are these arguments discredited when the anticipated terrible consequences of drawing closer to Israel fail to materialize.”
According to Ross’ pattern, therefore, the incoming Biden administration should want to distance the US from Israel, coming as it does after US President Donald Trump, who is widely viewed as the president who has brought the US closer to Israel than any of his predecessors. If, historically, presidents who follow presidents who were close to Israel reverse course, shouldn’t it naturally follow that the incoming Biden administration will do so as well?
Not necessarily.
Behavioral patterns, according to accepted psychological theory, can change if the conditions and triggers leading to that pattern changes. For example, if a father, before dinner and when he is hungry, always yells at his child, then if the hunger is removed, perhaps the father won’t yell at his son or daughter.
Likewise, if presidents distance themselves from Israel because they feel that this relationship is a liability in the Arab and Muslim worlds, then if that perception is removed, perhaps those presidents will not feel the need to distance themselves from Israel.
And if there’s one thing that the recent forging of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco should have done, it is to put to rest the idea that American ties with Israel would harm its ties with those countries.
Arab countries who are themselves establishing ties with Israel are not going to distance themselves from Washington because of its ties with Jerusalem. The argument that Washington’s relationship with Israel poisons or restricts America’s ability to have good ties with the Arab world is one of the key casualties of the Abraham Accords. 
REMARKS MADE last week by Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer dovetailed well with changing perception of Israel as a strategic liability for the US. 
Dermer, in a Tikvah Fund podcast, said that during his seven years in Washington he tried to “anchor the foundations” of the US-Israel relationship into an understanding of the two countries’ common interests.
“People just focus on the value stuff, but the main argument against the relations between the US and Israel was always focused on the interests... which is to say that Israel is a liability to America,” he said.
Dermer maintained that up until the late 1960s, if one were to ask the governing class in the US whether Israel was a liability or an asset to America, the answer would be: “liability.”
Some of these people would then go on to say that the US should still support the Jewish state, but this was because of issues such as standing up for a sister democracy in the Middle East or because of the Holocaust. But even many of these supporters, he said, thought Israel was “a liability because of oil, and because of the Arab states.”
After the 1967 Six Day War, this began to change as Israel proved itself on the battlefield and some in Washington began viewing the country as an asset in the Cold War. Not coincidentally, this is when the US started to sell Israel weapons, having clamped an arms embargo on the country during both the 1948 War of Independence and the Six Day War. 
“Between about 1967 and let’s say 2010, if you would ask people if Israel was an asset or liability, the answer would [depend on] who you asked and when you asked.” Dermer said. “Some people would say Israel was an asset, I’m talking about senior officials – presidents, vice presidents, secretaries of state and defense – and sometimes they would say that it was a liability. So if you ask Nixon during the Cold War he’d say Israel was an asset, and if you ask [US secretary of state] James Baker during the [1991] first Gulf War, he would say it was a liability.”
But what has happened in the last decade, Dermer argued, is that “the whole liability argument has exploded.... because America has become energy independent with oil, and because the Arabs are moving towards Israel.”
At the same time, relations with Israel are increasingly becoming more important to US interests, if in terms of Israeli intelligence sharing, cyber capabilities, weapons development and technology that can be used to help the US in its competition with China. 
As a result, Dermer said, Israel’s detractors in the US are shifting their arguments from saying that Israel strategically hurts the US, to saying that Israel no longer shares America’s values – a much more comfortable position for Israel to be in. 
“Give me the values debate,” Dermer said. “I have no problem defending Israel in the values debate.”