Biden and Israel - How will the new administration treat the Jewish state?

In 2014, then vice president Joe Biden famously told Netanyahu: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say, but I love you.”

Then-vice president Joe Biden and his wife Jill pose for a photograph with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016 (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
Then-vice president Joe Biden and his wife Jill pose for a photograph with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
Excitement. Relief. Nervousness. Fatigue. Just some of the feelings I could sense among fellow Israelis since waking up early November 4 to hear the results from the US presidential election. Since then, Israelis were glued to the news, trying to keep track of the unfolding drama.
It was indeed confirmed the following Saturday night that Democratic candidate Joe Biden won the tight contest against incumbent Republican Donald Trump, who according to Israeli polls, was the preferred choice of Israelis.
President Reuven Rivlin congratulated Biden and Harris on behalf of all Israelis. “I send the blessings of the Israeli people and of the State of Israel, to our friend Joe Biden on your election as the 46th President of the United States of America,” wrote Rivlin. “I also send congratulations and best wishes for your success, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted, “Congratulations @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris. Joe, we’ve had a long & warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years, and I know you as a great friend of Israel. I look forward to working with both of you to further strengthen the special alliance between the US and Israel.”
In the cabinet meeting on November 8, Netanyahu made a point of also thanking Trump “for the great friendship he showed the State of Israel and me personally. I congratulate him on recognizing Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, for his stand on Iran, for the historic peace accords and for bringing the alliance between Israel and the US to unprecedented heights.”
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz wrote: “As the election results become final, I extend my heartfelt congratulations to Joe Biden, a long-time supporter and friend of Israel, and to his running mate, Kamala Harris, who has made history as the first woman elected VP. I look forward to continuing to deepen the steadfast bond and strong defense ties between our peoples, as allies in the effort to strengthen democracy, stability, and peace worldwide.”
In 2014, then vice president Joe Biden famously told Netanyahu: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say, but I love you.” A crucial question many are now asking is what we can expect from the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu.
Prof. Jonathan Rynhold of the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University tells The Jerusalem Report, “In terms of policy, Netanyahu would have been concerned had Trump won. He may have pushed for an isolationist agenda and whatever would have filled the vacuum would have been far worse for Israel.” Secondly, Rynhold questions how Trump would have dealt with Iran. “Would he offer things Israel wouldn’t want, like he did with North Korea? Could Netanyahu really have relied on Trump to defend Israel if attacked? After all, Trump didn’t help the Saudis when they were attacked. Had Trump won, Netanyahu would have been concerned that in his second term, Trump would no longer need the backing of the Evangelicals and Jewish lobby – thus possibly making him less supportive of Israel in crucial matters like Iran.” However, Rynhold says that with Biden as president, Netanyahu should be politically concerned as he has put his eggs in the Republican basket for the past five years. “He personally alienated the Democrats: he opposed the Iran deal and built up a close, personal relationship with Trump.”
Rynhold believes that Netanyahu could be in a complex situation with a Biden administration. “Despite what many think, Biden is very pro-Israel. If Netanyahu has a bad relationship with Biden, that would be politically bad for him, as if he needed to consolidate the right-wing base and take votes from [Yamina leader] Naftali Bennett – that could aggravate Biden – which could rebound, as the Center would ask: why is he jeopardizing the US relationship over adopting right-wing policies?”
Abe Katsman, a top American Israeli political commentator, tells The Jerusalem Report, “Assuming a Biden administration will go back to the Obama-Biden policy of keeping ‘daylight’ between the US and Israel, the newly-public friction will, on the one hand, put Netanyahu back in a position of defender of Israel, a role in which he thrives, and in which he rallies support.”
On the other hand, he says, “Netanyahu’s many critics may blame any friction on Netanyahu having burned too many bridges with the Democrats. It’s not a particularly fair criticism: Netanyahu is pretty much the same Netanyahu as he was in 2009; but the Democratic Party isn’t the same Party. It is today markedly more left-wing and less sympathetic to Israel than we are used to. A Netanyahu-led Israel hasn’t left the Democrats so much as the younger Democrats have left Israel.
“With a Biden administration, Netanyahu and Israel will have a weaker hand to play in terms of Congressional support than they did in the Obama era. Keep in mind that when Netanyahu became prime minister, J Street was on the Democrats’ Left fringe; today, more than 50% of Senate and House Democrats are J Street endorsees, plus there are now eight left-wing ‘squad’ members too hostile to Zionism even for J Street. Congress will not be the reliable firewall against policies considered unfavorable to Israel as it was even five years ago.”
Herb Keinon, senior contributing editor at The Jerusalem Post, says, “Benny Gantz is waiting to see what happens in the US – if Biden does indeed win, Gantz would be more keen and attuned to bring down the government – as Netanyahu would use his relationship with Trump as a great asset in an election campaign.”
Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of the Post, writes, “While Biden is a known political commodity and has a strong record among Democrats when it comes to Israel, there will almost definitely be disagreements over issues like the Iran deal, the settlements and the Palestinians, and any one of those could be used to ignite a crisis with a clear political benefit.”
Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for the Post, believes that Netanyahu has been preparing for a Biden presidency for a while. Hoffman says that just two weeks ago, when Trump asked Netanyahu while the press were still focused on the normalization deal with Sudan: “Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi, Sleepy Joe?” Instead of helping Trump in his campaign – as Trump had helped Netanyahu in the past – the prime minister answered plainly: “Uh... well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”
Other questions being asked in Israel now are: how will the Israeli public react to a post-Trump era and how will regional peace and the Palestinian question be affected by a Biden presidency?
With regard to the reaction of the Israeli public, Rynhold believes, “certainly Israelis would have been pleased if Trump would remain president; Biden brings with him a degree of uncertainty. Despite his pro-Israel record going back to the Yom Kippur War, his close association with Obama leads to distrust here.” Katsman says, “By and large, Israelis feel heartfelt gratitude for what the Trump administration has done in the entire Middle East region. But from what I can tell, they do not appreciate the sea change that may take effect if and when Biden takes power.”
Keinon points out that the uncertainly and “mess” of the US elections may reassure Israelis that their political system is not in such a mess after all. Keinon points out that “historically, Israel had an over-romanticization of America and how the system works. Israel modeled their democracy on the US and looked to the US as a “normal country.” “For a president to declare an election a fraud, is something you may expect to hear in Venezuela or Belarus, not the US,” says Keinon. Therefore, Biden winning may actually be crucially important for Israeli and world democracy – as Trump, a destabilizing factor in international diplomacy, will be removed from office.
With regard to the impact of a Biden win on the Middle East and regional peace, Rynhold says, “the improvement in Gulf relations has been going on since 2011 – Israel was very close to breakthrough in 2014 and 2016, which predates Trump. It didn’t happen then because of Israel – not the US or Gulf. Furthermore, Biden would probably be more reliable than Trump, over Syria and Turkey.” He adds, “I actually think, one could argue with Trump or Biden, peace with the Gulf states won’t be such a priority. Remember, Trump used the Gulf normalization deals before the elections to be perceived as a peace-breaker – now post-election that would be less important.”
“The Gulf countries may want to move ahead themselves - a way of tying Israel in to cooperation against Iran and keeping the US engaged with the Middle East.”
When it comes to the Palestinian question, Rynhold believes that it is not a priority for the Democrats. “The US has domestic issues to worry about - the economy, health care, racism, corona - unless Biden has a real chance of breakthrough with Palestinians, he won’t change the status quo, unless the Israeli-right escalate the situation.” “It will be the usual ping-pong that’s been going on since the 1980s – the US can’t want peace more than parties themselves – Biden would have the same approach as Bush, Clinton, Obama and Trump. With Biden, it may be different if Israel would attack Iran. Then the US may push the Palestinian issue.”
Rynhold points out that, unlike Obama, Biden is from the moderate – not liberal – wing of the Democratic Party – and he is emotionally attached to Israel, unlike Obama. “He believes that America needs to lead the world – that’s good for Israel.” He says that the Israeli Right should be concerned, as with regard to settlements and annexation, Biden may well take a tougher line. However, Rynhold added, “Biden believes, unlike the liberals, that aid to Israel should be unconditional and that’s another reason why Israel can relax.” On analyzing how the results may have an impact on the Middle East, Keinon says, “Regionally, had Trump won, then peace deals with Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Uman may have gone the way of UAE. Now this may take longer.”
In contrast to the perspective of Rynhold, Katsman believes that the Democrats are in a particularly vindictive place right now in terms of how they will change any policy enacted by Trump.
For instance, he says, “there could be an effort to roll back US recognition of Israeli legal rights to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Golan Heights, to revive the Palestinian Authority, to again expose Israel to hostilities at the UN, and to pivot towards appeasing Iran.” While Israel’s leaders have warmly congratulated Biden, Israelis have been expressing different perspectives as to what a Biden administration will mean for Netanyahu, Israel and the Middle East. Israel will now face a new, uncertain reality – both politically and diplomatically.
In his victory speech in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, Biden spoke about getting COVID-19 under control, promoting national healthcare and racial justice and vowing “to root out systemic racism in this country.” Only time will tell what is in store for Netanyahu and Israel – although things are not likely to be dramatically different. Although he was a strong friend, the Middle East may well be a calmer arena without Trump.