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Biden and Israel: Friends or Foes?

by Seth Jacobson

After four years of “America First,” President-elect Joe Biden has pledged “to make America respected around the world again and to unite us here at home.” U.S. allies are breathing a sigh of relief at the expected return of international cooperation. But should we expect Israel to be among them?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed a close relationship with President Trump, forged on mutual interests and a similar leadership style. The election of Trump’s political rival has understandably caused some concern, but Biden will be focused on repairing any damages from the last four years, not on reversing any gains. And the Trump administration certainly had those: the historic Abraham Accords are here to stay, and Biden has already signaled a willingness to pursue further Israeli diplomatic normalizations, such as with Saudi Arabia.

We are already seeing pro-government media outlets in Israel framing U.S.-Israel relations under Biden as negative before they’ve even begun. This is likely done with an eye on galvanizing voters for the potential new elections in Israel.

The incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken has committed to restoring aid to the Palestinian authorities and reopening the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s offices in Washington, moves that Israel is not in favor of. But that doesn’t mean that U.S.-Israel relations will necessarily worsen. For one, Blinken has indicated that Biden is not one to air out disagreements in public, unlike the Obama administration’s overt denunciation of Israeli settlement expansion. And any political disagreements that do happen will have no bearing on the broader U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. Blinken has been particularly emphatic on that front, stressing that “[Biden] will not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions that it makes. Period. Full stop.”

Blinken, who was Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice-president and was deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017, is a career diplomat and strong believer in multilateralism. He is also not one to shy away from intervention, recently arguing in a Brookings blog that “[in] Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little. Without bringing appropriate power to bear, no peace could be negotiated, much less imposed.”

This balance of diplomacy and deterrence will serve Blinken well in pursuing one of the incoming administration’s main foreign policy priorities: a return to a nuclear deal with Iran. Blinken was involved in the original talks with Iran regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and told CBS News the deal as “working until President Trump tore it up.” This move will undoubtedly be met with resistance and reservations from the GOP, Israel and many Jewish Americans. But Blinken’s tough stance and reputation for interventionism should win over enough of the hardliners to make the renewed deal a reality, especially because Blinken has expressed a willingness to push back against the “sunset clause.” In fact, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has already indicated his willingness to sign onto a deal. Granted, reentering the Iran deal won’t be an easy task for the Biden administration: the GOP, capitalizing on the blue-wave-that-wasn’t, will be loath to allow a victory for any part of the new president’s agenda, particularly on such a polarizing issue as Iran.

Biden will also have to navigate another core issue in U.S.-Israel relations: Netanyahu’s tenure. With Israel on the verge of its fourth election in less than two years and Netanyahu facing a potential fourth indictment in the courts (on top of a corruption trial set for February 2021), there’s no guarantee he can hold on to power. What this could mean for Israeli leadership—another failed unity government, a new conservative premier from Likud or Yamina, the potential rise of another major party—remains to be seen, but the United States will certainly hold Netanyahu at arm’s length. Israel is an invaluable ally for defense and intelligence-gathering, and the Biden administration will prioritize the general relationship over supporting one specific leader, especially when said leader’s political future looks tenuous.

What’s more, Biden may be facing pressure from the changing Democratic party. “The Squad” of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) will be joined in the 117th Congress by newly-elected progressives such as Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Marie Newman (D-Ill.) — all of whom have criticized Israeli policies and supported Palestinian rights. But while Biden may be facing pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, he’s likely to play it safe by taking a centrist route until after the midterm elections in 2022, lest he lose the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Amidst all this uncertainty, it is safe to make one prediction for U.S.-Israel relations: business as usual, at least for the next two years. Foreign policy is rarely a priority for incoming administrations, and this is especially true for the Biden-Harris team, which will be focused on combating the COVID-19 pandemic and restarting the economy, along with domestic security issues such as police brutality, hate crimes and gun violence.

Foreign policy watchers can expect the United States to focus on regaining its role as a global leader: recovering the Iran deal, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and so on. That means support for a two-state solution based on the Oslo Accords. That means a continued bipartisan commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, or QME. That means the U.S. Embassy will remain in Jerusalem, but with the addition of an outreach office in East Jerusalem.

What can we expect to change? Now that Netanyahu doesn’t have the president’s ear, AIPAC lobbyists will be back in business, working to combat a decline in support for Israel among the small but growing faction of progressive Democrats. These same progressives will attempt to elevate their rhetoric into mainstream Democratic policies—but their concerns are largely domestic, and their successes will be limited by moderates. Where the action will most certainly be is in the House of Representatives, state capitals and college campuses. With the progressive wing of the Democratic party having a stronger role and with the Republican minority looking to make them a political boogeyman, there will undoubtedly be friction and fractionalization. Throw in the fact that the Democrats cannot afford to lose more congressional seats during midterm elections, and you get both more compromise and more discord.

Israel may look toward the Biden administration with some trepidation, but as the president-elect has already stated, his focus will be on unity, not on creating new conflicts. Facing an uphill battle on several domestic crises, the last thing he’ll want to do is antagonize a longtime U.S. ally and critical national security partner.

We are already seeing pro-government media outlets in Israel framing U.S.-Israel relations under Biden as negative before they’ve even begun. This is likely done with an eye on galvanizing voters for the potential new elections in Israel in spring 2021—an understandable, but unsettling tactic as the new administration attempts to restore U.S. influence in the Middle East. Look for signs from the president-elect that he will make one of his first trips overseas to Israel, or at the very least, invite a dialogue with the new government.

This post originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.


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