Biden Will Soon Choose a Secretary of State. The Impact on Israel Could Be Dramatic

President-elect Joe Biden has no shortage of contenders vying to be his secretary of state. Will he opt for a diplomatic or political appointee, and how will they be greeted in Jerusalem?

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Clockwise from left: Susan Rice, Tony Blinken, William Burns, Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Chris Coons and Nicholas Burns.
Clockwise from left: Susan Rice, Tony Blinken, William Burns, Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Chris Coons and Nicholas Burns. Credit: AP /AP, Jose Luis Magana / Reuters / Susan Walsh, AP/ J. Scott Applewhite, AP / Saul Loeb / AFP

With the 2020 elections in the rearview mirror and preparations for a Biden White House underway, the world is watching to see who the president-elect chooses for the top foreign policy post. Israel, like other countries, is anxious to find out who will be the next Secretary of State, and what record that person will have on Middle East policy.

The two names most frequently mentioned by insiders as being on Biden’s short list are former national security adviser and UN ambassador Susan Rice, and former deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken.

Rice has several factors working in her favor. She was one of the final choices to serve as Biden’s running mate for vice president and, after he ultimately chose Sen. Kamala Harris, it has been widely assumed that Rice would have her pick of senior posts in the new administration. Furthermore, Biden has pledged to appoint a diverse cabinet that “looks like America” and, as a woman of color, Rice checks two boxes. 

Her biggest disadvantage is possible opposition to her confirmation in the Senate. Republicans have long held Rice responsible for misinformation surrounding the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. Immediately following the incident, the hostility toward her was so great that she pulled her name out of contention when then-President Barack Obama was considering her as a candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. 

At the time, she wrote Obama a letter, stating: “If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly – to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities.” Ultimately, Obama named her national security adviser instead - a position that does not require Senate confirmation.  

Then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2014.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

Blinken, by contrast, would likely have an easier ride through the Senate. Although he, like Rice, held senior policy roles in the Obama White House, he’s much closer to the president-elect than Rice: The 58-year-old served as Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser in the Senate and was a top aide on his presidential campaign. He is considered a moderate Democrat in his world view, and Republicans could find it difficult to raise credible objections to his appointment. 

Bad blood?

“The current Israeli government would probably have a negative reaction to the choice of Rice,” said Nadav Tamir, a former Israeli diplomat and currently senior adviser for international and diplomatic affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. “They will take it as a sign that the Biden administration will continue Obama’s policies.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also reportedly not particularly fond of Rice. He has surely not forgotten the account by former peace negotiator Dennis Ross, where she implied that Netanyahu was a racist. In Ross’ 2015 book “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama,” he recounted that Rice, then national security adviser, “was so furious with Netanyahu’s angry reaction to news of an acceleration in Iran nuclear talks in November 2013 that she told Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s then-director, that Netanyahu did everything but “use the ‘N-word’ in describing the president.”

Ross wrote that Rice’s “combative mind-set” and concealment of the details regarding the U.S. negotiations with Iran “damaged our relationship with Israel far more than we needed to.”

While Tamir personally believes that Rice “would be great,” he said he thinks the Netanyahu government would surely prefer Blinken, who will hew more closely to Biden’s agenda when it comes to the Middle East. 

“Blinken will be Biden’s person, and because of that he will be received better in Israel than Rice” – who will always be identified with Obama – Tamir said.

But it’s precisely because of Blinken’s close relationship with Biden that he’s expected to be offered the job of national security adviser – a White House role that would put him by Biden’s side.

Tony Blinken meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

Blinken is Jewish, with a stepfather who’s a Holocaust survivor. His message to Jewish voters during the campaign was that Trump wasn’t good for Israel, because the damage he’s done to the international standing of the United States ultimately hurts the Jewish state as well.  

He played a leading role in getting the 2015 Obama nuclear deal passed by Congress, and has said throughout the Biden campaign that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal in 2018 placed Israel in more, not less, peril from Iran. 

In an interview with Jewish Insider last month, Blinken said that even if the deal is renewed in some form and nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were suspended, “we will continue non-nuclear sanctions as a strong hedge against Iranian misbehavior in other areas.”

Diplomatic sphere

Other names reportedly under consideration are two veteran State Department hands, who happen to share the same last name.

William Burns, 64, is a former Obama administration deputy secretary of state who served for 33 years as a foreign service officer under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and is now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

William Burns, then-assistant secretary of state meeting with Palestinian then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, May 5, 2003. Credit: AP

Nicholas Burns, also 64, has an equally long State Department résumé, filling senior positions, including U.S. ambassador to Greece and undersecretary of state for political affairs, in the Clinton and both Bush administrations. He also advised Biden during the presidential campaign.

Tamir believes Israeli officials would be pleased with either of these choices, since “people who worked with several administrations like Nick Burns are more likely to be bipartisan in their approach.” Furthermore, as career diplomats who were not highly invested in Democratic Party politics, they “will be more easily accepted.”

Nicholas Burns, then-under-secretary of state for political affairs, meeting with Israel's then-Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2008. Credit: ARIEL SCHALIT / AP

Old diplomatic hands will also be more capable of taking charge of the rebuilding of the State Department infrastructure after it was decimated under the Trump administration

But there’s also the possibility of a candidate from the political realm. Two sitting Democratic senators, one a centrist and the other more progressive, appear to be seriously interested in the job: Sen. Chris Coons (Delaware) and Sen. Chris Murphy (Connecticut). Coons is said to be the figure most visibly lobbying for the job, according to Politico

Last May, an article appeared in Jewish Insider claiming that Coons had “the inside track” for the job. It quoted a long list of Jewish leaders and politicians singing Coons’ praises, saying he would be “wonderful” for Israel, “understands the special relationship” between the two countries and would be “an excellent choice for … the pro-Israel community.”

Sen. Chris Coons speaking during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, October 22, 2020, as other Democratic senators look on. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Dore Gold, former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and currently president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, declined to discuss any candidates by name. 

But Gold, a Netanyahu ally who has described Biden as being “fundamentally friendly to Israel,” urged the incoming administration to choose a secretary of state with hands-on experience of previous Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. An outside candidate unfamiliar with the details of why those efforts hit a brick wall, Gold said, would come in with incorrect assumptions. 

“It must be recalled that the last round of negotiations in 2014 ended with [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas telling President Obama, ‘I’ll get back to you,’ and he never did. There are those who want to put the entire blame for the stalled peace process on Israel, even though it’s factually wrong,” Gold said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., left, has his temperature checked as he enters a watch party for the Democratic National Convention at Dunkin' Donuts Park, home of the Hartford Yard Goats minor league basCredit: Jessica Hill/AP

The incoming U.S. diplomat must have firsthand knowledge of the difficulties with the Palestinian Authority and Abbas, Gold said, so as not to mistakenly attribute the current situation to the fact that “Israel got lucky with Trump.”

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