Are Israeli worries about Biden justified?
Nov 25, 2020 | Amotz Asa-El
“I was elected President of the US with the help of your people; what can I do in return?” asked the recently elected John F. Kennedy at the end of his meeting with then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in New York in 1961.
Irritated by the insinuation that he controlled the Jewish Diaspora, Ben-Gurion replied: “Try to be a great president of the United States.”
Kennedy eventually began selling missiles to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), thus ending Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s de facto embargo on arms sales to the Jewish state. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party in the US, later bolstered by Lyndon Johnson, who sold Israel Patton tanks and Skyhawk fighter jets and thus laid the foundations for the US to eventually supplant France as Israel’s main arms supplier.
That was last century. This century the picture has appeared inverted. The last Democratic administration, Barack Obama’s, is recalled in Israel as less friendly and more inclined to confrontation with Jerusalem than either its Republican predecessor or successor.
Now, with President-elect Joe Biden preparing to succeed Donald Trump, some suspect a retreat from a presidency that was exceptionally beneficial for Israel on a number of fronts, into a version of the tensions of the Obama years.
The fears are likely unfounded.
Controversial though the Trump years were in so many other ways, in the Middle East they brought long-term impacts that most Israelis consider both beneficial and in fact historic.
The most important of these are the normalisation agreements that the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain signed with Israel in September in Washington, and the subsequent announcement by the White House of a similar deal between Israel and Sudan.
Though these relations were evolving for years before Trump’s arrival, their maturation during his term signals a new legitimisation of Israel in the broader Arab world. Moreover, the emerging trade relations with the Gulf states seem set to become diverse and warm. By contrast, relations with Israel’s previous peace partners, Egypt and Jordan, have been cold, formal, and economically limited.
Before these developments, Trump’s transfer of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was welcomed by most Israelis as a long-overdue correction of an injustice to the Jewish people and its heritage.
Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights was appreciated by most Israelis as a message to the Syrian regime that the war it has waged on its people deprived it of any chance to reclaim the area Syria lost by waging war on Israel.
Understandably then, many now wonder how much of this will be left intact, or how much reversed, by Joe Biden.
Yet in all likelihood, nothing of what Trump did will be reversed.
Speaking during an online fundraiser in April, Biden said he would not move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv. While Biden said nothing similar about the Golan Heights, there is no logic for him taking any initiative on this issue at a time when the Syrian regime is up to its neck in the rubble left from the civil war, and also kept at arm’s length by most of the Arab world.
Concerning Israel’s warming relations with the Gulf states, Biden will surely pick up where Trump left off, helping cultivate what has already been accomplished, and encouraging its expansion elsewhere.
The big question in this regard is what will happen with Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh was reportedly ready to sign a normalisation agreement with Israel, after having publicly backed – and before that green-lighted – its two Gulf neighbours in their deals with Jerusalem. Now the assessment in Jerusalem is that the desert kingdom will wait for Biden to settle in before making any move.
Riyadh’s major concern is what will happen between Washington and Teheran.
As vice president, Biden was there when Obama masterminded the controversial 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal that slowed Iran’s nuclear program in turn for partially-lifted sanctions. Riyadh’s fear of Teheran has only grown since then, especially after the Iranian drone and missile attack in September 2019 on oil installations east of the Saudi capital.
While campaigning, Biden would not disown the nuclear deal that Obama created and Trump undid. However, while claiming Trump’s militancy made Iran accelerate its nuclear activity, Biden added he would resume talks with Iran only after Teheran restores its compliance with the original deal’s provisions.
Riyadh, along with the rest of the Gulf states as well as Israel, will demand that, if talks with Iran indeed resume, Washington add other items to the agenda alongside nuclear enrichment – including Teheran’s ballistic missile program and its meddling in multiple conflicts throughout the Middle East.
In Israel, pundits doubt Biden will actually get around to focusing on these issues anytime soon.
Maj-Gen (res) Amos Yadlin, who now heads the Tel Aviv University Institute for National Security Studies and was previously head of IDF Military Intelligence, told Israeli radio that Biden will initially be bogged down with the pandemic and the economic crisis it has spawned. When Biden does turn to foreign affairs, China and North Korea will be much higher on his agenda than Israel, Yadlin added.
This of course does not mean the new administration will not be involved, sooner or later, in issues relating to Israel, nor that its attitude might not pose a challenge to Israel, especially as long as Binyamin Netanyahu is prime minister, given his past rocky relations with the Obama administration.
Biden represents the Democratic establishment that was committed to the Oslo Accords, and there is no indication that he has lost faith in the two-state solution. Chances are, therefore, that he will expect the restoration of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which the latter suspended in 2014.
Then again, the two-state principle was also espoused by Trump, and in fact was part of his “Vision for Peace”plan released in early 2020, which advocated territorial trade-offs between Israel and a prospective Palestinian state, even while offering that state less territory than proposed in previous plans.
Moreover, gaps on the personal side are also not as deep as some might assume. Yes, Netanyahu and Trump personally got along very well, and in this regard, the past four years were the inversion of the Obama years.
Back then, Netanyahu was in deep disagreement with the American president concerning the Middle East in general and Iran in particular. Netanyahu’s address to the US Congress in 2015, in which he challenged the American president’s policy in his own capital in front of his own legislature, was seen by some in Obama’s administration as particularly brazen.
But then again, Biden and Netanyahu have known each other since the latter’s days as ambassador to the UN. Their acquaintance is as warm as it is long-standing.
Biden is also not close to his party’s left-wing, where some are virulently anti-Israel. Biden is also not known to have been consulted before Obama’s famous Cairo Speech in June 2009, which Israelis from right to left found dangerously naïve, not only for Israel, but for the entire region.
In any case, whatever Biden thought of Obama’s speech at the time, subsequent events in the Middle East have rendered the vision Obama articulated obsolete. The popular uprisings, Islamist violence, and multiple civil wars that have unsettled the Middle East since 2011 have made every sensible American, including Biden, recognise that the Middle East’s transformation is less imminent and more complex than Obama presumed.
Beyond the past decade’s events and their lessons, Biden will enter the White House more experienced than any president before him.
With eight years as vice president and 36 as a senator, including eight years as chair of the Senate Judicial Committee and two as chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Biden has been around, and he knows how things work, both at home and abroad. This is a notable contrast with both his recent predecessors.
As such, he knows all too well, and recalls all too vividly, the evolution of Israel’s alliance with the US, and also with the Democratic Party. In all likelihood, he will uphold both.