There’s a near-consensus among veteran diplomats and pundits in both the United States and Israel that the two countries won’t find themselves having major policy differences at least in the first few months of President-elect Joe Biden’s term. His priorities are firmly domestic – battling the coronavirus pandemic and stabilizing the economy. And even when he has a few moments for foreign policy, the climate crisis and China will top his to-do list.
The two potential policy arguments with Jerusalem are over Iran and the Palestinians. But Biden has indicated that while he opposed President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, he doesn’t intend to automatically rejoin it. He will first seek changes to the agreement, which will take months at the very least as the Iranians don’t seem in a mood to negotiate.
On the Palestinian front, as an experienced hand, Biden will be under no illusion that he can succeed where every president before him failed. For now at least – since annexation is off the table anyway – he will make do with reestablishing U.S. ties with the Palestinian Authority.
As long as thousands of Americans are dying from COVID-19 weekly, no one need hold their breath for any major Middle East initiatives and, with them, disagreements with Israel. Biden’s team hasn’t got the time, and if the Democrats fail to win the two runoff races in Georgia necessary to gain control of the Senate, they won’t have the political capital to waste either.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is about to escape scot-free from four years in which he blatantly hitched his wagon to the Trump train, abandoning all notion of the bipartisanship that was always core to Israel’s relationship with its strategic ally.
If they so choose, the Democrats have a wide range of ways to punish Bibi that don’t have to involve actual policy changes. The question is whether they’ll want to.
The Biden administration would do well to make it clear that their relationship with Israel is not necessarily the same as their relationship with Netanyahu. Barack Obama said at the start of his presidency that not having “an unwavering pro-Likud approach” didn’t mean he was “anti-Israel” and “that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.” But he undermined that message when he pointedly left Israel off the itinerary during his first trip to the Middle East, visiting just Cairo and Riyadh, making it easier for Netanyahu to present him as hostile to Israel, not just to himself.
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If either Biden or Vice President-elect Kamala Harris travel to this part of the world early in their term, that’s a mistake they should be careful not to repeat. They can easily offset whatever Netanyahu hopes to gain from such a visit by making a point to meet his political opponents, as well as the Palestinian leadership.
There will be more than enough people in the new administration who have an understanding of Israeli politics, and the value Netanyahu attaches to his image as Israel’s number one expert on the United States and the only person who knows how to navigate its corridors of power. It will be easy to undermine him just on this – starting with Netanyahu’s place on the list of global leaders calling Biden to congratulate him personally once he’s in office. After that, making it clear that due to the coronavirus, the president will be meeting in person with only a select number of world leaders, effectively denying Netanyahu an excuse to come to Washington in 2021.
At the same time, there will be ample opportunity for the new administration to demonstrate that it has no problem with Israel, just with Netanyahu, by having the new defense secretary and secretary of state invite their Israeli counterparts to Washington early on. That these just happen to be two of Netanyahu’s internal coalition rivals, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, will be lost on no one. And once they’re in Washington, a meeting at the White House with the national security adviser will of course be called for, and no one should be surprised if the president just happens to walk in while they’re there.
Over the next 12 months, the main question in Israeli politics is whether Netanyahu will honor his coalition agreement with Kahol Lavan and “rotate” with Gantz. How can Netanyahu complain if the new administration begins treating Gantz as Israel’s prime minister-in-waiting? He probably will, but he won’t have a leg to stand on after all his years of playing party politics in Washington.
It goes back to motive. Biden himself is unlikely to be heavily involved in orchestrating an attrition campaign against Netanyahu. He really has much more important things to do. But he would likely give his blessing to such an endeavor if it were being organized by some of his underlings.
The appointments in the new administration are still a matter of speculation. However, there will clearly be a large proportion of alumni from the Obama White House, and therefore there’s a major motivation to taunt Netanyahu.
There is someone who knows all about these diplomatic snarks and snubs, and that’s Netanyahu himself. He certainly hasn’t forgotten all the humiliations he suffered during the 11 years in total he served as premier during the Clinton and Obama administrations, and he’s steeling himself for what’s in store for him from his third Democratic administration.
Netanyahu has three ways to try to counter whatever comes next from the new bosses on the Potomac. Two are aimed at mitigating the damage to his image at home with Israeli voters, the other at trying to push back in Washington.
At home, Netanyahu is already pushing two different narratives: One, directly from him, is that Biden is an old friend, they’ve been palling around together since the 1980s and, as always, his own unparalleled personal relations are the bedrock of Israel’s existence. The other narrative, which is being pushed by Netanyahu’s proxies, is that Biden is old, weak and being manipulated by the Israel-hating, antisemitic progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
He hopes that these narratives combined will convince Israelis that whatever spin and negative briefings come out of the new administration, they still need him to stand up for Israel’s interests.
Netanyahu’s third strategy is an old one: to push back through his Republican supporters in Congress. But while this has been used in the past for actual policy issues, it may not be that effective – even assuming the Republicans win at least one of the runoffs in Georgia and retain control of the Senate – when used on more minor personal and political matters. Unless, that is, there are GOP senators who are actually prepared to vote with the administration just so the president agrees to take a call from Netanyahu.