Effective foreign policy must not be dictated by domestic politics.
It is often said that America conducts foreign policy through the lens of its domestic politics. Recent examples include its Afghanistan and Russia-Ukraine policies, which appear to be based upon commitments to bring US soldiers home and rising gas prices rather than by national security concerns. As President Joe Biden is about to make his first trip to Israel as president of the United States, he would be wise to engage with Israel constructively to strengthen US-Israel interests while avoiding some of the pitfalls of his last trip, made back in 2010 while serving as vice president in president Barack Obama’s administration.
Partially to contrast with the preceding Bush administration, which was widely viewed as friendly to Israel and hostile to Arab-Americans (in the immediate aftermath of 9/11), the Obama-Biden administration assumed power with a clear desire to recalibrate the US relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the greater Arab world. What immediately followed was the huge disruption to become known as the Arab Spring.
At first, there was hope of unprecedented reform, but unfortunately the reality led to the toppling of US and Israeli ally Egypt president Hosni Mubarak, and later led to unimaginable catastrophes such as the rise of ISIS and the ongoing Syrian civil war. Just about the only element of peace that emerged during that time frame was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Obama.
Obama-Biden also wanted to reset its relations with both Israel and the Palestinians and chose to do so by staking out positions that were critical of Israel and by extension supposedly supportive of the Palestinians, namely pushing for building freezes in Judea, Samaria and parts of Jerusalem and taking to criticizing Israel publicly, instead of working through quieter, diplomatic channels. Israelis will remember that both came to a head when vice president Biden strongly criticized the actions of a Jerusalem zoning board that advanced plans to build 1600 apartment units in the northern part of the city, which coincided with his trip, absurdly claiming that its eventual construction would shatter any potential for peace.
The bureaucratic approval, one of many that were required for its still not-yet-construction also resulted in a dress-down phone call by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What was the real impetus for the brouhaha over the censure of Israel that would typically be seen as an insignificant bureaucratic process?
It was viewed as a great opportunity to present the US as critical of Israel while elevating the supposed Palestinian interest of opposing Israeli development in areas that Jordan had occupied before 1967. Viewed through a US domestic lens, they had accomplished their objective of pacifying a small, loud constituency.
However, the policy of building freezes, condemnation of residential construction in Jerusalem and, by extension, questioning Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Old City (including the Western Wall) only helped drive the Israeli public toward support of Israeli sovereignty over all of Judea & Samaria and helped to discredit talks of future building freezes and even territorial exchanges.
12 years later...
Fast forward 12 years later, and President Biden could be forgiven for not believing how much has changed. Nobody considers those couple of dozen apartment buildings in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood as an actual obstacle to peace.
When it comes to Judea & Samaria, the debate is more about the how and when to apply Israeli law, as its ambiguity partially led to the recent collapse of the Israeli government while the Israeli sovereignty movement has moved from the fringes of the political spectrum to a mainstream and accepted topic of the political discourse.
When we move to the greater Middle East, the “hope” of 2010 actually did not lead to the massive “change” of 2020. The transformational normalization agreements that were codified in the Abraham Accords were not the result of America trying to present themselves as more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but instead were the result of a US foreign policy that prioritized its national security interests over its domestic interests. The results speak for themselves and provide the road map for how Biden’s trip could be immensely productive to both Israel and America, and even earn him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Resisting the pressure to create daylight between the US and Israel will send the right messages to our mutual allies and foes throughout the Middle East. Meetings in Saudi Arabia must be more than just about the price of oil, but also about acknowledging and confronting the threat posed by Iran while encouraging the warming of ties with Israel.
While in Israel, Biden should refuse even symbolically to elevate the credibility of the PA until they do the basics of canceling “pay to slay,” reforming their educational system, which is rife with antisemitic tropes, and making genuine unambiguous actions that demonstrate a sincere desire for peace. This will only reinforce the message that time is not on the side of the Palestinian nationalists.
With Arab countries lining up to normalize their relations with Israel and Israeli-Arab political parties calculating how they can benefit from a more constructive role in the Israeli government, a message from Biden that is consistent with that momentum can result in the necessary motivation for the PA to come to terms with the reality that every day that goes by weakens their negotiating leverage with Israel.
This reminds me of the time back in 2014 when the US consul-general came to visit me in Efrat and explained to me that America had learned its lesson and would no longer try manipulating countries to achieve a certain outcome. I replied, “So why have you chosen to meet with me today?” He replied: “Well with Israel, it is different, because we are so closely connected, we really know what is best for you.”
President Biden, the road map to peace has been laid out in front of you. America has a constructive role to play in forging the new Middle East. But if it is going to be too politically difficult to ignore some of the extreme voices in the US that are clamoring for “daylight” between the US and Israel, I would humbly suggest that your administration follow the Obama-Biden mantra of “leading from behind.” Doing so may create the safe space to allow the momentum of peace to continue to thrive.
The writer is mayor of Efrat and has served as the chief foreign envoy for the Israeli municipalities in Judea and Samaria.