Where does Israel fit into the world of Joe Biden? – opinion

Biden is a friend of both Israel and Netanyahu, though friendship in politics is not always the same as in normal life.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Jerusalem in 2016. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Jerusalem in 2016.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
For Israel, the two-and-a-half month interim between the US presidential elections and Joe Biden’s inauguration may be particularly critical and sensitive. Israel will have to walk a narrow path so as not to appear unbecomingly hasty in distancing itself from Trump – and more importantly, from the Republican Party – but also to establish a dialogue with the new administration.
Biden’s victory, for Israel, also means reverting from a world of unprecedented friendly relations to a new-old world of relations which, though close and friendly, were not devoid of occasional disagreements. The fault line in this respect was former president Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which Israel regarded as an existential threat and about which US public opinion and the position of Congress were, and remain, divided. The Iranian issue may prove to be a stumbling block in US-Israel relations should the new administration want to return to the agreement in full, as Tehran hopes and most Arab countries and Israel fear.
The Biden administration’s actual approach is not clear, ranging from a return to the agreement to extending the agreement’s so-called “sunset clause” and adding restrictions on Iran’s long-range missile program and terrorist and hegemonic activities in the Middle East. Israel has a narrow window of opportunity in which to influence US positions in its negotiations with Iran, and as shown by his recent Knesset speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fully aware of this and one may assume that he has already taken, both directly and through emissaries, necessary steps.
Israel will also have to weigh its overall security policy on Iran, not just in Syria and Lebanon, but also with regard to previously abandoned options. On several issues, and especially on the Iran deal, much will depend on who will actually control the Senate, though Israel will be able to count on the support also of more than a few Democrat senators, such as Sen. Menendez who opposed the Iran deal and is projected to take over the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee should the Democrats obtain a majority.
Biden is a friend of both Israel and Netanyahu, though friendship in politics is not always the same as in normal life, and American policy-makers have learned from experience that in furthering US goals it is preferable to act in concert with Israel’s leader, rather than against him. Bipartisan support for Israel in Congress has not disappeared, but has weakened during the Obama and Trump administrations, hence an important objective must be to revamp it. In this endeavor American Jewry, about 70% of whom, as usual, cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate and some of whom have important positions in the Democratic Party, but also the Israeli government, will have to play an important role.
Trump’s foreign policy was more successful than his critics in the Washington establishment are willing to admit. As the Financial Times put it: “He has not started new wars. He has drawn down US troops from Afghanistan and the Middle East, ISIS has lost its territory; America’s allies have been forced to think about a world in which the US no longer underwrites their security. Most significantly, Mr. Trump has identified China as the chief threat to the US in a world of great power rivalry.”
To this should be added, of course, the US withdrawal from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s contribution to changing the face of the Middle East – an achievement that the new administration will be well-advised to pursue and expand. Most of the above drew, and will continue to draw, criticism from Trump’s opponents, however, it is reasonable to assume that the Biden administration, at least regarding some of these items, will choose to continue rather than to reverse or cancel.
The reasons for this are not only pragmatic and empirical, but also because more than Trump influenced reality and the atmosphere in America, it was reality and the atmosphere in America that influenced Trump’s policy. In most likelihood, therefore, key aspects of US foreign and defense policy will not greatly differ from that of Trump’s. Prof. Michael Beckley, a prominent US foreign policy expert, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that Trump’s transactional give-and-take approach to policy actually characterizes the US’s traditional stance.
THOSE “WHO hope that the US will resume its role as a leader of a liberalizing world ignore that a nationalist mood has taken hold in the United States.” As Obama’s vice president, Biden did not always agree with the president’s foreign policy. For example, he opposed the abandonment of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and was uneasy about his boss’s unsuccessful actions in the Libyan imbroglio. In order to better assess the directions of his foreign policy in the coming years, however, observers are concentrating on future appointments to the important foreign policy positions of secretary of state, national security advisor and their teams.
The names mentioned so far in the media and by the Washington grapevine indicate that Biden is planning to revert to more traditional US foreign policy approaches, even though not ignoring the changes that have taken place. This said, the Left wing of the Democratic Party, which increased its relative strength in the House of Representatives while the overall position of the Democrats has weakened, has warned Biden against ignoring its positions, including on foreign and defense policy.
The chief programmatic outside spokesperson of the Left is Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor under president Obama, who strongly opposes Biden’s emerging foreign policy positions. In his opinion, the Biden administration should build on what Rhodes calls “the remarkable popular uprising following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May as a source of democratic inspiration for other peoples around the world.” He called for an end to the “destructive” relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for giving a cold shoulder to the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, and on the issue of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, to “dictate the solution to both sides.”
The Left calls for reducing the US defense budget, lifting the sanctions against Iran and Venezuela, and demands that military aid to Israel will to be contingent on “a change in attitude toward the Palestinians.” American friends tell me that Biden will stand firm as a rock against these trends, but only the future will tell whether his statement that “I am the Democratic Party” holds true.
Even if he manages to repel the Left flank’s attempts now, it will continue its efforts to bring about change over the next four years. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent leaders of the so-called “progressives,” said, “We can likely push Biden in a more progressive direction [i.e. more to the Left] and that “foreign policy is an enormous area where we can improve.” In the debate over the Democratic Party platform, the anti-Israel “progressive,” anti-Israel and partly antisemitic “squad,” aided by “Arab American Institute” founder and president James Zogby, tried to insert negative positions concerning Israel.
These were removed by the majority, but for the first time it did succeed in including a plank opposing “settlement expansion.” On the other hand, the platform also condemned the actions of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Biden declared several times that his commitment to Israel’s security was “ironclad,” and indeed signs indicate that defense-related cooperation between the US and Israel will continue, both with regard to direct aid and to ongoing coordination on certain specific and sensitive matters.
On the other hand, there may be some changes in respect to Israeli-Palestinian issues. Though the American Embassy will remain in Israel’s capital, the US could reopen its consulate in east Jerusalem, which would have negative political implications. Steps will probably be taken to restore relations between Washington and the Palestinian Authority, albeit on a limited scale.
The mood concerning Israeli activity beyond the Green Line, however, may be more uncomfortable. The only time that Biden, then head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, used harsh language when talking to me was when he learned about a new Jewish settlement. Evidently, the matter of Israeli sovereignty in the “territories” will be put on hold for the next four years.
At the same time, other parts of Trump’s Middle East peace plan may also guide Biden’s policy, given that the widening and deepening relations between Israel and the Arab world are clearly also in America’s interest. While the Biden administration will plausibly make the two-state formula a formal part of its approach on the Israeli-Palestinian equation, acting on it will probably not be its most urgent concern. We can be hopeful that is chooses to build upon the achievements of the successful Netanyahu-Trump peace strategy, rather than on the failed “Oslo peace process” and other defunct projects, realizing that 2020 was the seminal year for peace, not 1993.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to the US.