Biden and Netanyahu: Some advice on how to get things on track

Bad personal relations between leaders are not always the cause of disputes between their countries, but they can play a role.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US vice president Joe Biden leave after a joint statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US vice president Joe Biden leave after a joint statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
It is arguably the case that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government kept a formal neutrality about the recent American presidential election. That said, the writer takes the inevitable risk that this piece will be thrown as quickly as possible to the garbage can, being considered either as a bad joke or as a demonstration of utmost ignorance.
So, let us be honest here! Netanyahu wanted US President Donald Trump and the Republicans to win, and surely wanted US President-elect Joe Biden and the Democrats to lose the election. Moreover, Netanyahu could hardly hide the blink in his eye when asked about that, but then his wish, which can now be safely considered as a wild gamble, did not pay off – though luckily for Israel and Netanyahu personally, not completely so.
Trump lost, but not the Republicans. Biden won, but not the Democrats. With that in mind, we can relate to the results of that  from a perspective which is not predicated on any of two possible scenarios. One is, that the Israel-US relations will develop  into an open enmity, continuing where they were at the end of the Obama presidency, with  the notorious UNSC Resolution 2334. The other is, that by some political abracadabra the relations can be kept as they have been in the last four years. Israelis like the politics of zero sum game, but in reality, there are variations, nuances, intended and unintended consequences.
The Israel-US relationship is a case in mind. Bad personal relations between leaders are not always the cause of disputes between their countries, but they can play a role. Netanyahu and former US president Barack Obama were not a match from heaven throughout their long simultaneous service, and it is not my intention here to start a blame game as to who is responsible.
Unlike many commentators, I tend to view this sad saga as a combination of many factors, and one of them surprisingly enough has to do with no other than Winston Spencer Churchill. Netanyahu is on record as a great admirer of Churchill; Obama was not. In fact, one of the first things he did upon assuming his post was to remove the statute of Churchill from the Oval Office. We talk here about what the great British leader symbolized. Probably anti-appeasement has continued until today to be his greatest political trademark.
Netanyahu has always, rhetorically at least, portrayed himself as the classic anti-appeaser. Obama, on the other hand, can be safely identified as the appeaser par excellence. He apologized for America, and in dealing with Iran – the rogue regime of the Middle East – he chose not to support the “Green Revolution” protesters in 2009, and rather to support their oppressors with the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.
It is clear, therefore, that Netanyahu and Obama represented two totally historic legacies – poles apart, both philosophically and politically. So disputes about settlements and personal snubs were the excuse, not the root cause for their deep rift. That said, their relationship reflected something else as well. It has to do with developments in both the US and Israel, mainly due to demographic and cultural changes leading to political ones.
A lot has been written about the Likud Party under Netanyahu not being anything like the initial Likud of Menachem Begin, and that is so true. But the Democratic Party under Obama was also nothing like the old party of Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, just to mention two prominent names – and in particular, not in dealing with foreign policy issues.
At the beginning of his presidency, Obama was the shining light of many in the Middle East. His speeches in Cairo and Istanbul, his pandering to the Islamic sense of deep-seated grievances against the West and the calculated steps designed to distance Israel seemed to suggest a comprehensive strategy aimed at undermining the American relationship with Israel and its centrality in US Middle East policy.
Seven years later, Obama was the most unappreciated American president in the eyes of many in the Middle East. He became a persona non grata in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, and obviously in Israel. In the case of Turkey, it had to do with the fallout from the failed July 2016 coup d’etat, and in the case of all the rest, it had to do with Iran. The nuclear deal proved to be the debacle of America’s policy in the region under Obama. The failure here was two-dimensional. It was ideological as well as strategic. The liberal concept of buying goodwill through economic assistance was put to the test.
Releasing frozen Iranian assets, estimated at $150 billion, was supposed to be the encouragement to the regime to invest in its own people rather than in fomenting troubles in the rest of the region. It was a delusional mistake, the product of the failed liberal approach.
Iran did exactly the opposite, showing that ideology cannot be sold out for financial bribes. But then was the strategic consequence – many Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia have come to realize that Iran, this time with American support, has become even a greater enemy than what was feared before.
This is the beginning of the great realignment of Middle East politics reflected recently with the wave of normalization and peace agreements with Israel, as we say in Hebrew (translated literally to English), “through doing something not for its own sake eventually one does it for its own sake.”
What rendered Obama’s policy so irrelevant is the fact that even the passage of the pro-Palestinian UN Security Council Resolution 2334 did nothing to change Arab opinions of him. With all that happening, then-vice president Biden was around. So is it not the case that we should expect nothing other than a repetition of the old Obama policies? It surely makes sense to assume that it is going to happen, but then it is not an inevitability, and this is where a creative Israeli approach is in place, and also it is where the final elections results if stay as they, are can be of help.
2021 is not 2009, mainly because the old expectation that belittling Israel is the key to the hearts and minds of most Arabs is not the case anymore. There is something else at play. Obama was an ideologue; Biden is not. The former considered himself a prophet of change, the latter seems himself as a healer. Obama had a Senate majority on his side, and the Senate is so significant in terms of foreign policy. Biden most likely will not have the Senate on his side. Here lies the opportunity for Israeli policymakers – first and foremost Netanyahu – until the next Israeli elections (I predict they will be held sometime in 2021).
Refrain from the arrogant “we told you so” comments regarding Obama and Biden. Despite the obvious  temptations, do not engage now in provocative steps coordinated with the Trump administration designed to sabotage the incoming Biden administration’s Middle East policy. Establish a task force to already now deal with the Biden team. Make use of the newest and greatest asset of Israeli foreign policy these days – the normalization with Arab countries – to form a joint strategy with these states, and do all this without breaking up with the Republicans.
The overall aim is to include bipartisan support for Israel as one of the key agreements between Biden and the Republicans. Biden may have no choice but to compromise with the Republicans, if indeed the Senate stays out of his grasp. All this falls within the category of easier said than done. The point is that the stakes are high, and when there is doom and gloom versus challenge and opportunity, let us give a chance to the latter!
The writer is a Middle East expert who has taught at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University, Cornell University, City College of New York and York University (Canada), and is currently at the University of South Carolina, where he was chosen as best professor for 2019 by the student newspaper