Biden and Netanyahu are no strangers to one another - analysis

What does Netanyahu’s response to Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” trap says about US-Israel ties under Biden?

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)
US President Donald Trump put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an awkward situation on Friday.
During their phone conference with the leaders of Sudan, which Trump had on speakerphone with reporters present in the Oval Office, Trump asked Netanyahu: “You think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi? Do you think he would have made this deal somehow? I don’t think so.”
“Sleepy Joe” is, of course, Trump’s nickname for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Netanyahu was caught off guard, letting out an uncharacteristic “um” before saying: “Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”
Asked at a press conference the following day if he was embarrassed by the question, Netanyahu responded: “It’s very hard to embarrass me, and I very much appreciated President Trump’s support.”
But the brief exchange between the two leaders only highlighted the situation Netanyahu has gotten into over the past eight years, and how he is preparing to get along with a possible President Biden.
It started with the Obama administration’s second term, in which, unlike the first term, Netanyahu stopped making moves like the settlement construction freeze or the Bar-Ilan speech accepting a two-state solution, meant to appease the US president, who had put pressure on Israel.
Netanyahu and Obama’s relationship went from less-than-stellar to downright bad, especially in light of Netanyahu’s open campaigning against the deal that would give Iran a path to a nuclear bomb, an existential threat to Israel, and billions of dollars to funnel to its terrorist proxies, many of which regularly attack Israel. Netanyahu has since characterized Obama as a “hostile” president.
Biden’s top foreign-policy advisers were part of the Obama administration, such as Jake Sullivan and Wendy Sherman, who played a key role in shaping the Iran Deal that Netanyahu fought so hard.
Former US national security adviser Susan Rice, thought to be a leading candidate for Biden’s secretary of state, was also a major proponent of the Iran deal. She considered Netanyahu’s speech to both houses of Congress against it as an act of racism against the first black president. Dennis Ross, Obama’s former adviser on the Middle East, wrote that Rice’s “combative mind-set” exacerbated the president’s already poor relationship with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump is the polar opposite of that. The two knew each other for decades and had a distant friendship; Netanyahu attended Donald and Melania Trump’s wedding, and Trump endorsed Netanyahu ahead of the 2013 Knesset election. And when it came to policy, Trump checked off many of the items on Netanyahu’s wish list: moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, saying settlements are not illegal and, most of all, leaving the Iran Deal. All that has led Netanyahu to repeatedly call Trump Israel’s “greatest friend.”
Considering the hostility between Netanyahu and the administration in which Biden was vice president, and the frequent superlatives he conferred upon the Trump administration, Netanyahu surely knows he will have to do some damage control if Biden wins the election, which is quite possible given the Democrat’s steady lead in the polls.
So Netanyahu made sure to say, “We appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America” in response to Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” comment, even though it made the president grimace.
Netanyahu won’t be starting the relationship with Biden from nothing; like Trump, Netanyahu and Biden have a long history.
Back in 2014, in his famously folksy manner, Biden directed a comment at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly to Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer: “You better damn well report to Bibi that we’re still buddies.”
“He’s been a friend for over 30 years,” he added. “I said, ‘Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.’”
More broadly, looking toward a possible Biden administration, the candidate’s top foreign-policy adviser, Antony Blinken, earlier this year told Democratic Majority for Israel there would not be public spats between the US and Israel – though Biden publicly opposed Israeli construction in east Jerusalem that was announced while he was in town in 2010.
“Joe Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences – to the greatest extent possible – between friends and behind doors,” he said. “You’re much more effective when you have differences in opinion, when you have disagreements on a policy matter, dealing with it in private.”
This is also consistent with what some former Obama staffers have said of Biden: that he often argued the administration was being too harsh on Israel.
The Foreign Ministry’s Department for Diplomatic Planning prepares reports on possible scenarios for Israel’s international relations, including the US election next week. While those reports remain secret, diplomatic sources have said Israel is not overly concerned about a Biden administration.
Biden may not check off everything on the Israeli government’s wish list like Trump, but he will likely revert to the kind of US-Israel relationship that has been the norm for most of the past four decades: overall supportive of Israel, openly touting that friendly relationship and providing military aid, while pushing for talks with the Palestinians and less settlement activity in Judea and Samaria. The Foreign Ministry knows how to handle that.
Netanyahu does too. But he will have to make sure to do a reset and try to repair the relationship with his “buddy” Biden after years of fighting with Obama and obsequiousness to Trump.