Where do Joe Biden's potential cabinet members stand on Israel?

In the next 65 days, Biden is expected to announce his cabinet nominees for his forthcoming government.

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks about the US economy as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris stands by, Wilmington, Delaware, US, November 16, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
US President-elect Joe Biden speaks about the US economy as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris stands by, Wilmington, Delaware, US, November 16, 2020.
WASHINGTON – Last week, President-elect Joe Biden tapped Ron Klain to serve as his chief of staff. It was the first official appointment for the future administration.
In the next 65 days, Biden is expected to announce his cabinet nominees. Some of the nominees are current US senators, others are longtime aides of the former vice president, and a few played a role in the Obama-Biden administration.
So, who are these top candidates and where do they stand on Israel?
Tony Blinken
Blinken is one of Biden’s closest advisers. In 2009, when Biden was vice president, he served as his national security advisor. Later, he became deputy national security advisor from 2013-2015 under president Barack Obama and then deputy secretary of state from 2015-2017.
Blinken, 58, was born in New York to Jewish parents.
Early in Biden’s primary campaign, Blinken was tapped to lead his foreign-policy team as top adviser. In the past year, he represented the Biden campaign in numerous events and panels, communicating the nominee’s positions on foreign policy, from China to Russia to the Middle East. Experts in Washington assume that Blinken would probably hold one of the administration’s senior positions, either as national security advisor or secretary of state.
In August, he addressed the virtually held Aspen Security Forum and defended the Obama administration’s record on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Asked what Biden would do if he was elected as president, Blinken said he would “seek to build on the nuclear deal and to make it longer and stronger if Iran returns to strict compliance.”
Blinken also addressed the US-Israeli relationship and said Biden has “an ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security.
“Israel has never been until now – unfortunately – a partisan political issue,” he said. “And I think it’s very bad for the United States and for Israel that someone tries to turn it into one.”
In May, Blinken addressed a webinar organized by a pro-Israel Democratic group, Democratic Majority for Israel. He said Biden, as US president, would keep disputes with Israel out of public view.
“Joe Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences as far as possible between friends, behind doors, maintaining as little distance in public as possible,” he said.
Blinken reiterated Biden’s commitment to resuming assistance to the Palestinians, adding that he would abide by congressional restrictions conditioning much of the aid on the Palestinian Authority ending payments to Palestinians who have killed or wounded Americans and Israelis. He reiterated Biden’s position that he would not condition aid to Israel.
“He is resolutely opposed to it,” Blinken said. “He would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions it makes, full stop.”
Chris Coons
The Delaware senator currently holds the seat Biden had for 36 years. The two have a close relationship, and Biden is considered his mentor.
Five months ago, Politico featured Coons in an interview titled “the Biden whisperer in the Senate,” noting that if elected, Biden’s agenda in the Senate would hinge on Coons, a centrist that could work with both sides of the aisle. But now, he is considered as one of the leading candidates to become secretary of state.
Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, who served for four years as Coons’s foreign-policy adviser, told The Jerusalem Post the senator is “incredibly thoughtful” on foreign policy.
“He understands and values the US-Israel relationship, and is strongly supportive of Israel’s security,” she said. “He did support the JCPOA, but took that position after a lot of deliberation and careful consideration in terms of the US national security interest and that of Israel.”
“I think he would be a phenomenal secretary of state because he really is a practitioner of foreign policy,” Soifer said. “He understands diplomacy. He has furthered relationships with many countries, including as chairman of the Africa subcommittee for four years.”
In April 2019, Coons was among a group of six Democratic senators who introduced a resolution to restore US humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
In 2016, following the nuclear agreement with Iran, Foreign Policy reported that Coons, in a letter co-authored with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) urged the Obama administration to give Israel the most expensive military aid package in history. According to the report, Coons angered several fellow Democrats after he rebuffed their requests to modify the letter’s language.
“It’s no secret that Sen. Coons is among Israel’s strongest allies in the Senate,” Sean Coit, a Coons spokesman, told Foreign Policy at the time.
Susan Rice
Rice was part of Biden’s shortlist to be vice president. Now, her name has been mentioned in multiple media reports as possible secretary of state.
The former ambassador to the UN and former national security advisor during the Obama administration, she has a complicated relationship with Israel, mostly around her prominent role in the formation of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.
Rice’s first visit to the Holy Land was in 1979 when she was only 14. She boarded the first-ever direct flight from Cairo to Tel Aviv, shortly after the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed.
“We bowed our heads in sorrow at Yad Vashem,” she recalled in her speech at AIPAC in 2015. “We walked the lanes of the Old City, climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea and picked fruit in a kibbutz. My first memories of Israel remain etched in my soul.”
In 2009, she was appointed as ambassador to the UN.
In her book Tough Love, Rice recalled that Israel is the focus of outsized attention in the UN, “most of it unfair, and excessively negative.”
She added that her responsibility “was to stand up and protect Israel against attacks on its legitimacy and security… too much of the anti-Israel vitriol at the UN stems from crass prejudice.”
Rice noted that she also opposed the Palestinians’ efforts to be admitted as a member state at the UN. However, during her speech explaining the US decision to veto the draft resolution, Rice rebuked Israeli settlements in harsh words.
“We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” she said. “For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region.”
In 2015, ambassador Dennis Ross said in an interview to CNN that Rice is part of a wing of the White House that considers Israel “more of a problem” than a partner.
When the Iranian deal was first announced, Rice’s handling of Israel’s concerns was antagonistic, Ross asserted then.
Ultimately, the Iran deal proved to be her biggest clash with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It came to a head in March 2015 when he accepted the invitation of Republican House speaker John Boehner to address Congress and speak against the JCPOA. He told the House the deal was “so bad” and that it “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
In her book, Rice wrote that the speech “marked a new low in the already strained US-Israel bilateral relationship.”
Most recently, in June 2020, Rice raised public criticism against possible Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.
“It would make this traditionally bipartisan strong support for Israel that much harder to sustain,” Rice told an online forum convened by the Israel Policy Forum.
Michele Flournoy
Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, is also close with Biden circles. Washington think tanks mention her name as the leading candidate to serve as defense secretary.
Former co-founder and CEO of the Center for New American Security, she was presumed to be Hillary Clinton’s defense-secretary-in-waiting in 2016. She was also offered the No. 2 position by US President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, but she declined the offer.
In June, Flournoy addressed the prospects of unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.
“Any annexation or a unilateral Israeli move that undermines the prospects of a two-state solution is going to have a number of effects, all of which are negative for Israeli security,” she said in a webinar hosted by the Israel Policy Forum. “It’s going to undermine bipartisan support for Israel here in the United States and make it a much more partisan political issue, which is very much not inIsrael's long-term interests, nor ours.”
Flournoy went on to say that she is worried that if Israel pursues a unilateral course of annexation, it could lead to “a fracturing of bipartisan support on the Hill for critical pillars of our relationship like the implementation of that defense MOU [Memorandum of Understanding].
“I would hate to see some in Congress decide they’re going to hold [the assistance] hostage as a way of protesting their policies in the West bank,” she concluded.
In 2018, in an interview with the Post, she backed the Iran deal and said that after all of the criticism of the deal, it “did succeed in putting time on the clock [in terms of] pushing back against Iran’s nuclear program: in terms of taking more time from today [for Iran] to get to an actual nuclear weapon.”
Pete Buttigieg
The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg is being considered for multiple positions, including ambassador to the United Nations, according to media reports.
Last year, when he ran in the Democratic primaries, he said he was committed to Israel’s security and the US-Israel alliance, but that it doesn’t mean he “has to be on board with the political agenda of the Israeli government.”
In a closed conversation in May 2019 with key figures in the Jewish community in Washington, organized by Steve Rabinowitz and Aaron Keyak at their Bluelight Strategies consulting group office, Buttigieg said: “I do not believe that the right approach is to endorse wholesale the agenda of the current government. The right approach comes about when you have an ally or a friend that is taking steps that you think are harmful and you put your arm around your friend and try to guide them somewhere else. That’s part of how our alliance works.”
He spoke about the relationship between Netanyahu and Trump and took exception to the president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
“I mean, at the very least if we’re going to talk about things like Jerusalem or the recognition of Golan, having an actual deal around that” is important, he said, adding: “You don’t do something specifically for the purpose of reinforcing him politically and domestically – even if those gifts are endorsed.”
Buttigieg suggested that those decisions didn’t mark a shift in American policy, but rather “a decision to intervene in Israeli domestic politics through American policy.”
In October 2019, at the J Street annual conference, he said the US has mechanisms to ensure that taxpayer support to Israel “does not get turned into US taxpayer support for a move like annexation.”
The US should verify that aid money does not support settlements, he added. Buttigieg said that he sees America’s relationship with Israel as one with a friend who needs to be guided “toward a better place.”
Tammy Duckworth
Sen. Duckworth, the Iraq War veteran and the Purple Heart recipient, was among the first Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In 2004, her helicopter was hit by an RPG and she lost her legs and partial use of her right arm. According to media reports, she is considered for cabinet positions, either as secretary of defense or secretary of the Veteran’s Administration.
In May, the Illinois senator was a part of a group of 18 Senate Democrats who sent a letter to Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, urging them not to move forward with annexing settlements.
“A deep commitment to Israel’s security and a shared set of democratic values are foundational elements of the close relationship between our countries,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are therefore concerned that unilateral annexation puts both Israel’s security and democracy at risk.”
In 2019, she was one of 69 senators who supported a resolution “opposing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.”