What a Biden presidency could mean for Israel

November 8, 2020 by Jonathan S. Tobin - JNS.org
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For some supporters of President Donald Trump in both Israel and the United States, the prospect of a President Joe Biden is a scenario they never wanted to contemplate.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in Israel on March 9, 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv.

Both the Israeli government and the pro-Israel community are going to have to adjust to a new reality.

The question now is not so much whether they can do so with good grace, but whether they avoid overreacting to any shifts in American policy unless or until it is necessary to do so.

Four years ago, most Israelis had little doubt that either of the two major-party presidential candidates would be an improvement on the outgoing Obama administration. It had been eight years of Obama’s desire for more “daylight” between the two democracies, constant spats, increasing pressure and American stands on both the Palestinian issue and threat of a nuclear Iran that seriously undermined the alliance.

And to accentuate just how much the trust between the two governments had broken down, in its last weeks the Obama administration chose not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that basically labelled the Jewish presence in Jerusalem as illegal.

All that changed once Trump took office. To the shock and amazement of even some of his supporters, U.S. Middle East policy underwent a dramatic shift. Trump embraced Israel and a year later began the process of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after recognizing the city as the capital of the Jewish state. Other moves, both symbolic and tangible, soon followed. Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, sought to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its support for terrorism and withdrew America from the disastrous 2015 Iran deal.

Just as important, although Trump’s ambition to broker the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians fell afoul of the latter’s refusal to make peace, the administration pivoted to a more productive endeavor. Unlike Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who effectively gave the Palestinians a veto over normalization between the Arab world and Israel, Trump helped broker three normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain and Sudan, with more perhaps to follow.

Under the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that most Israelis were rooting for Trump to be re-elected. But if, as it appears at the moment, they were backing the losing side in the election, hysteria about what will follow would be counterproductive.

True, some concern about a Biden administration is warranted.

It’s a certainty that those who would fill positions at the State Department and the National Security Council will be Obama administration alumni or share their opinions about the Middle East.

It’s equally certain that, at a minimum, his foreign-policy team would re-enter the Iran nuclear deal and likely seek to revive the moribund U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, which were downgraded due to its refusal to stop funding terror or to even discuss Trump’s ideas about Middle East peace.

But there is still the chance that, as Biden’s top campaign foreign-policy spokesperson Anthony Blinken (the current favourite to be his National Security Advisor) has hinted, the United States would maintain the sanctions put in place against Iran by Trump. That means the most important task for both Israel and Jewish groups in the upcoming months will not be to refight the political battles of 2015. Rather, it should be to seek to persuade Biden that he not be tempted into simply erasing the last four years of progress made towards pressuring Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal so as to strip it of the sunset clauses that put Tehran on a certain track towards achieving its nuclear ambitions.

Similarly, on the Palestinian issue, it would be wise for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pro-Israel Americans to assume, rightly or wrongly, that Biden doesn’t consider himself bound to take up the cudgels for Obama policies that he knows were abysmal failures.

Biden’s support for Israel has always been conditioned by his insistence that he knew better than the Jewish state’s leaders what was best for their country. As infuriating as that can be, it’s also true that he has a warmer feeling for the country than Obama ever did. It would be best to keep that in mind instead of assuming that Biden will rewind American Middle East policy to that awful moment when Obama stabbed Israel in the back at the United Nations on his way out of office.

Even if Biden was to be so foolish as to waste precious political capital on policies predicated on pointless demands that Israel surrender its rights and security as Obama did or on another round of appeasement of Iran, Israel doesn’t have to bow to U.S. pressure.

As Netanyahu proved during the eight rocky years of the Obama administration, Israel can always say “no” to the United States any time it believes that it must defend its interests against misguided American policymakers.

The alliances with the Arab states that have been forged with Trump’s help will become stronger, not weaker if Biden were to choose policies that would strengthen Iran. The Arab states that have embraced Israel have not done so as an act of charity or out of a sentimental attachment to Zionism; they did it in order to strengthen their security. And if Biden repeats Obama’s mistakes in the Mideast, they will need Israel as much if not more than ever.

Similarly, Israel is both economically and militarily stronger than it was in 2009, and while the friendship of its sole superpower ally is still necessary, it need not quail before Biden any more than it did before Obama. It still has many friends in U.S. politics, and it can and should point to the principles of Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan as the only solid foundation for a path to a possible resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

It’s only sensible to prepare for the worst, though that’s not the only possible outcome. A Biden administration would have more than it can handle dealing with problems relating to the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, infrastructure and other crucial issues. A stubborn refusal on the part of Obama veterans to admit that they were wrong about the Palestinians the last time they were in power would be an unforced error on Biden’s part that will do him no good.

Trump’s exit from office creates challenges for Israel. Still, it isn’t the end of the alliance or a harbinger of Israel’s destruction. And it’s vital that Israelis and those who care about the Jewish nation remember that as they prepare for the next chapter in this vital relationship.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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