Looking forward to Joe Biden

Despite his extensive experience in foreign policy, many experts believe that Biden will focus on domestic issues over the next two years.

US PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden delivers an address ahead of Thanksgiving at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, November 25, 2020 (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden delivers an address ahead of Thanksgiving at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, November 25, 2020
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden tends to quote his favorite poet, Seamus Heaney, who wrote in 1994 “hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.” Indeed, Biden’s upcoming term reestablishes hope that there will be fruit to our labor, but it requires the liberal-democratic camps in the US and Israel to work together much more effectively, and the responsibility to do so falls on both sides.
Despite his extensive experience in foreign policy, many experts believe that Biden will focus on domestic issues over the next two years, most notably the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying economic recovery. Unlike US President Donald Trump, Biden will surely lead multilateral efforts to defeat the pandemic. He will also rejoin international agreements and strengthen old allegiances. Israelis should welcome that. A healthy, responsible US, respected around the world and able to leverage strong, inclusive allies is in Israel’s best interest.
However, even if the president-elect pays less attention to the Middle East, he will have to deal with Iran, China and Russia, whose arms spread across the scope and depth of our region. Biden knows our neighborhood is different than the one he left four years ago, for better or worse, despite the fact that the prime minister of Israel and president of the Palestinian Authority remain the same. Therefore, the Biden administration will want to update plans, correct mistakes and approach things differently from former US president Barack Obama’s administration. Any course correction must prioritize, front and center, a stronger connection to the broad liberal-democratic camp in Israel.
Biden has already announced that he will rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran and work to improve it, regarding both the nuclear issue and curbing Iran’s regional aggression. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely continue to oppose the agreement, precariously holding out for unrealistic goals and failing to secure an agreement that would be good for Israel and the world. In his recently published book, Obama shares that the Netanyahu was the only leader in the world who would turn disputes between them into internal American political disputes. If Netanyahu continues to pull such stunts again, he will not only undermine Israeli’s security vis-à-vis Iran, but he’ll compromise Israel’s security by harming our strategic relations with the US.
In order to promote Israeli security, the Biden administration will need Israeli partners inside and outside the coalition. This will require preparation by both sides today. The US needs to invest in its potential partners in Israel and look beyond the noise to really understand the needs of the State of Israel today. And responsible leaders in Israel need to rebuild relations with Democrats, prepare the Israeli public to support the general policy positions of the Biden administration and avoid repeating past mistakes like the one Israeli opposition leaders made in the summer of 2015.
On the eve of the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, opposition leaders aligned themselves with Netanyahu and even announced that they would join him in his efforts to lobby the US Congress to oppose the deal. This was in contrast to the professional position of senior defense officials, who saw the agreement as a the lesser of two evils and preferred Israel be part of the process rather than against it. The opposition’s support helped Netanyahu greatly. In the prime minister’s speech to American Jewry in an effort to mobilize the community to campaign with him against the agreement (and against the policy of their president) he said, “Here in Israel, Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Labor opposition, the man who ran against me in this year’s election and who works every day in the Knesset to bring down my government, said that there is no daylight between us when it comes to the deal with Iran.” It took Herzog and Yair Lapid a few weeks to reset and call on Netanyahu not to speak to the Congress, but the damage had already been done.
Unlike his rivals, for three decades Netanyahu has not hesitated to bring controversy in Israel to the halls of US Congress. In the early 1990s as chairman of the Likud, he harnessed the Republican majority in Congress to thwart the Oslo Accords, to act against the policies of a sitting American president and Israeli prime minister. Over the last four years, Netanyahu has enjoyed the fruits of what he sowed back then.
THE BIDEN administration will have allies in Israel who share its guiding values: fairness, integrity and human rights. Partners who share the priority of American and Israeli security interests and the preservation of a Jewish and democratic Israel being coupled with the establishment of Palestinian state. Biden will find that over the past four years, there are people here who have held the front lines in a containment battle, together with international partners, to keep the two-state solution alive while preventing the promotion of catastrophic unilateral annexation. The Palestinians also proved their resilience even when it seemed as if everything was working against them.
The new administration would do well not to lay down plans for a final-status agreement or to try to push the parties into the negotiating room. But it must be active and firm in helping both sides to act in parallel and in coordination in order to move toward the common goal – two states for two peoples. It must give impetus to the forces among the two peoples that share this goal.
At the same time, we Israelis must provide backing to the US president when he promotes policies in line with the Israeli interest as we see it, even if contrary to the position of our prime minister. We must work to bridge the rifts between Israel and the Democratic Party and the liberal majority of American Jewry. To support American Jewry in the fight against antisemitism in the US, and to take part in the struggles for Jewish pluralism in Israel.
The past four years made us more resilient. Now is the opportunity for progress.
The writer is the former director of J Street in Israel and member of its Israeli board. She was born and raised in Tel Aviv and holds a master’s degree in public policy and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, anthropology, and political science from Tel Aviv University. She is a research fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional and Foreign Policy, as well as a fellow at The Alliance Fellowship program.