What’s at stake for Israel in US presidential election - analysis

The US-Israel relationship is one of Israel’s greatest assets, and a stronger US means a stronger Israel.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony signing new versions of three agreements on research cooperation, Ariel University, October 28, 2020 (photo credit: MATTY STERN/US EMBASSY JERUSALEM)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony signing new versions of three agreements on research cooperation, Ariel University, October 28, 2020
Some people’s stress levels over the US presidential election are so high that the most responsible thing to do may be to open by telling those who are deeply concerned about the implications for Israel to take a deep breath. It will be okay, regardless of the outcome.
These days, in Israel, the things that are not going great for us – our COVID-19 response and the related economic problems – have far more to do with our total domestic political disarray than whoever is sitting behind the Resolute desk.
Plus, US President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden are both friends of Israel with records of support for Israel, the former in his convention-breaking way and the latter in the more traditional vein for American politicians.
Some of the recent diplomatic achievements for Israel, the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, plus normalization with Sudan, may continue. The Biden campaign has expressed support for more Arab states establishing ties with Israel, though they are unlikely to see it as an urgent matter on their agenda like Trump did in the months before the election.
That being said, there is plenty at stake for Israel. Like on most things, Trump and Biden diverge on key policy issues related to Israel.
First, there’s Iran. When the Obama administration negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, there was a near-consensus in the Israeli defense establishment and political leadership that it was not a good deal. It conceded that Iran has a right to enrich uranium and drew a timeline to the mullahs’ regime eventually developing a nuclear weapon.
When Trump left the Iran deal, he was doing exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thought he should do, and what Netanyahu thought would be best for Israel’s and the world’s security. The prime minister is also an enthusiastic supporter of the American “maximum pressure” sanctions regime on Iran. Trump and Netanyahu believe that if the US continues to squeeze Iran economically, its leaders will come to the negotiating table ready to make compromises.
However, Iran deal critics in Israel and elsewhere are split on what Trump should have done after leaving the JCPOA. Some point to the fact that the Trump administration did not coordinate its departure with its allies in Europe that are party to the deal, thus weakening the outcome.
Last month, the first of the Iran deal’s “sunset clauses” came into effect, which meant the UN embargo on selling conventional arms to Iran expired, and no relevant countries respected American efforts to extend that embargo. Though America has effectively used its economic heft to make sure its sanctions regime made a major dent in the Iranian economy, the other parties to the JCPOA remain committed to the deal that, again, gives the mullahs a path to a bomb.
Biden’s statements on Iran come into that gray area of criticizing the JCPOA, while wanting to work with US allies against Iran. The issue, for Israel, with Biden’s Iran policies is that he wants to return to the JCPOA, warts and all, as long as Iran is willing to return to it. Then, after that, he wants to negotiate ways to strengthen it.
How does he plan to bolster the Iran deal? We don’t know. He doesn’t say. Asked point-blank, his campaign surrogates say something along the lines of, we’ll see what things are like in January. The idea of returning to the JCPOA without a clear plan of how to fix its dangerous elements raises concerns for those who care about Israel’s security.
Biden has said many times that he is committed to Israel’s security – and has backed it up with action, like when he got Congress to approve funding more Iron Dome batteries in 2014 – but what if, like former president Barack Obama, he has a different idea than Israel of what that means when it comes to Iran?
Another area where Biden has a very different idea than the current Israeli government is settlements. Israelis are divided on settlements, as well, but as long as the Right remains in power, it would be in a collision course with a Biden administration.
Biden been an opponent of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria for nearly 50 years, as a recently-revealed cable describing his meeting with then-prime minister Golda Meir in 1973 shows. Former premier Menachem Begin’s famous monologue about being “a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history” who will defend his country and his principles “with or without your aid” came in response to Biden threatening US aid to Israel over settlement construction. And perhaps Netanyahu’s worst confrontation with Biden – which admittedly was nowhere near as bad as his clashes with Obama – was over the announcement of construction in east Jerusalem while the vice president was visiting Israel.
For the past four years, Israel has gotten a reprieve from the constant outrage emerging from Washington at every stage, from planning to approval to breaking ground, of a few of buildings in Beit El or Ofra. No one in the White House put forward a policy that would stop a family in Efrat from closing its terrace, as though that was stopping the Palestinians from getting a state. Moreover, the Trump administration decided it doesn’t view settlements as illegal, per se, and its peace plan made clear they view those communities as part of Israel’s future permanent borders.
Under a Biden administration, any kind of extension of Israeli sovereignty without the Palestinians’ agreement, in exchange for land swaps, is out of the question. And settlements have a good chance of returning to the headlines as constantly sparking international incidents.
Both Iran and settlements are also areas where a President Biden would bring the US back in greater sync with the rest of the West, especially the more dominant countries in Europe. Biden has criticized Trump for alienating and working apart from many traditional US allies. Under Trump, the US “has gone from listened-to by our allies to mocked by our allies,” Biden surrogate and former congressman Steve Israel said last week.
The US-Israel relationship is one of Israel’s greatest assets, and a stronger US means a stronger Israel. If working within the traditional international system will keep America’s superpower status, then that would be better for Israel as well, in a broader sense.
Politically, a Biden win may bruise Netanyahu somewhat. Netanyahu has banked a lot of political prestige on his close connection with Trump, with the American president featuring prominently in the Likud campaigns for the Knesset this year and last. Biden will make things more difficult for Netanyahu, because they have more disagreements. But it’s hard to see it moving too many votes one way or another. After all, he formed coalitions in 2009, 2013 and 2015 without Trump in the Oval Office, but couldn’t build a government twice in 2019 with the supposed Trump boost.
It’s also worth remembering that Netanyahu and Israel are not one and the same, and the country can still thrive under Biden even if it’s more challenging for Netanyahu to navigate.
Either way, most Israelis have no reason to be very stressed about the US presidential election. Whether Trump is reelected or Biden wins, Israel will have a friend in the White House for the next four years.