How Joe Biden as president will change Israeli politics

Israelis might see a different kind of president in the White House, one who doesn’t attack the police, the courts, the A-G and the media.

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look at each other as they deliver joint statements during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016 (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
Then-US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look at each other as they deliver joint statements during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
When Donald Trump won the election in 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu became his favorite and best student. The Israeli prime minister had known Trump for years – he was at the president’s wedding to Melania in 2005 in Palm Beach – and paid close attention. When he started to see how Trump’s tactics were working in the US, he adopted some for himself.
Following his mentor’s lead, Netanyahu perfected the art of right-wing populism. He copied the president’s use of social media, launched a weekly Trump-like webcast to counter alleged fake news, and attacked the police, the attorney-general, the courts, the media and the elites. Everything became fair game, nothing off limits.
Like Trump on race, Netanyahu played up Israel’s ethnicity card, trying to drive a wedge between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. He surrounded himself with people who never hesitated to wander beyond his circle, and who did Netanyahu’s bidding in the media, the Knesset or the cabinet.
Before then, Netanyahu was often the first and most vocal defender of the Supreme Court. In 2012, for example, he spoke about how a “strong and independent justice system is what allows for the existence of all the other institutions in a democracy.” He also refrained from unilateral moves vis a vis the Palestinians. Annexation? That was never an option. Instead, he was always the one urging caution.
But all that changed in 2016, and Trump is partially to thank for it. Netanyahu saw the movement Trump created, and tried to fashion the same thing in Israel. There was one point in 2017 when he even started dying his hair different colors.
Yes, we have a different electoral system (which is far worse for determining the prime minister than what is happening in America), but when it comes to rhetoric and tactics, we have in recent years pretty much duplicated what happened across the Atlantic.
Which is why it will be interesting to see if a Joe Biden presidency (assuming he is the final winner) will impact Israel’s domestic political system.
The first person who will be directly impacted by a Biden presidency is Netanyahu, who is reportedly debating whether to cave to Blue and White’s demands and pass a 2021 budget, or refuse, and take Israel to a new election.
While Biden does not play a direct role in that consideration - another election is more about internal polling and Netanyahu’s bribery trial - a Democratic administration is something to think about.
The reelection of Trump could be used by Netanyahu to tell the public why he must remain prime minister: only this prime minister, he could say, can derive strategic benefits from this president’s second term. Now, with Biden, that argument is out.
What then could Netanyahu argue under a Biden presidency? For one thing, he could do to Biden what he did to Barack Obama: portray him as an adversary.
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.
That is what he did with Obama, and then used it as part of his election campaign in 2019 that showed Netanyahu flaunting the infamous “lecture” he gave Obama in the Oval Office during a visit there in 2012. The message was simple: only a strong leader like Netanyahu can stand up to a president like Obama.
Could he do that as well with Biden? It’s possible. Right-wing pundits and Netanyahu supporters are already mourning what appears to be the end of the Trump administration. Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud minister close to Netanyahu, went as far on Thursday as to warn of a possible Israeli war with Iran if Biden becomes president.
Is such a war possible? Who knows. But warning about it now serves one purpose: presenting Biden as a potential danger. And that, in a corrupt way, could be beneficial for Netanyahu’s political survival.
On the other side of all of this is Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who has issued a public ultimatum that he will not allow this government to continue without a 2021 budget.
Interestingly, a Biden win has the potential to help Gantz. The reason is because Biden, obviously, is the polar opposite of Trump. He is not a populist but a veteran politician whose message is one of unity, compassion and reconciliation, ideas that Gantz has tried to push since entering politics two years ago.
One of the problems was that until now, a significant number of Israelis found it hard to imagine an Israel without Netanyahu – an 18-year-old army recruit has never been conscious of any other prime minster – and all his shtick. It was as if the division that Netanyahu brought with him to the job was a necessary requirement.
Soon enough, Israelis might see a different kind of president in the White House, one who doesn’t attack the police, the courts, the attorney-general and the media. One who speaks about unity, positive change and coming together.
That might radiate back here and give Gantz a boost in a future election. While Gantz’s Blue and White currently polls at only nine seats, he is confident that the party will pull in double that figure in the next election, one that could happen as early as March.
The reason he might be right is because the defense minister rarely attacks Netanyahu right now as part of the coalition, and when he does it is usually with soft shots. A collapse of the government – especially one initiated by his party – would give the former IDF chief of staff the offensive once again.
It would also give him a chance to explain why he joined Netanyahu’s government in April, and why it took him until now to bring it to an end.
If articulated well, he has some good points to make. While it is true that Gantz had promised over three campaigns not to sit with Netanyahu, that was before COVID-19 entered our lives. Once it did and brought with it the economic crisis that has upended nations, Gantz’s calculus changed as well.
What he didn’t fully realize in April was that Netanyahu did not change with him. Gantz’s mistake was thinking that Netanyahu would rise to the occasion. Sadly, he did not, and instead Netanyahu continued to put politics before the pandemic, and to work consistently to undermine his coalition partner.
Privately, Gantz tells party members that he knows there is almost no chance Netanyahu will abide by the rotation agreement that is supposed to see the defense minister become prime minister next November. But he does feel that it is important to provide a chance for a 2021 state budget to pass, since ultimately that is what the Israeli people need: financial stability and a government that works for them.
Expect a decision on this in the coming two weeks, but also expect a Biden win to give Gantz a feeling that a politician like him can succeed. Israelis will see that someone who comes across as decent, moral and honest can be president of the largest superpower in the world. Hopefully, Gantz will think, they can believe the same about their own country.
All of the above refers to a scenario in which Biden wins the election, which on Thursday afternoon seemed the most likely outcome. In a year like 2020 though, we have learned that anything is possible, which means that this election is not over until they have concluded both the counting of votes and the upcoming court proceedings.
But one thing is for sure: Trump and his style of politics is not going away so quickly. If there were people who thought that Trump’s election in 2016 was a “mistake” or a “malfunction,” that was proven wrong on Tuesday when he collected close to five million more votes than in 2016.
America is split. It is split geographically – the coasts vs. the center – and it is split even within those battleground states – Michigan, Wisconsin and more – where one side beat the other by a percentage point or two.
Traditionally, a president does not speak out publicly about policy, politics or party when he steps down. That was the case with Bill Clinton, with George W. Bush, and until recently, also with Obama.
Do not expect the same from Trump. If he ends up leaving the White House in January, the movement he has built will not disappear. Just like he was not a conventional president, he will not be a conventional former president. He will continue to speak about policy and politics, and he will hold sway over a large base of voters that will, in turn, give him influence over senators and congressmen. And, perhaps, help position him for a run in 2024.
This could be tricky for Israel, which will need to navigate between making inroads with a Biden administration and the Democratic Party, but also at not upsetting an influential former president.
We will know soon enough.