From Gaza to Ohio, the Stories That Defined U.S.-Israel Ties in 2021

Joe Biden’s first year in the White House saw a war between Israel and Hamas, a political fight over Iron Dome funding, and a dispute about America's consulate in Jerusalem. A look back at the year's top stories

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Biden and Bennett had a good meeting over the summer, right before the iron dome controversy blew up in Congress
Biden and Bennett had a good meeting over the summer, right before the iron dome controversy blew up in CongressCredit: Jose Luis Magana/AP, Anas Baba /AFP, Joshua Roberts/Reuters, J. Scott Applewhite/AP, Nicholas Kamm/AFP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

When Joe Biden took office at the beginning of 2021, many Israelis wondered how his presidency would shift the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following the upheaval of Donald Trump’s stint in the White House. Almost one year later, it’s clear that America’s views on Israel, particularly within the Democratic Party, are constantly evolving.

Over these 11 months, Haaretz covered Biden’s policies and the reactions to them in Washington, Israel and the Middle East. Here are some of the key stories.

“Joe Biden Will Enjoy One Advantage No President Ever Had on Israel-Palestine”

During the presidential transition, some supporters of the two-state solution were optimistic that the Biden administration would be more active in empowering Israeli-Palestinian peace-building efforts. These hopes largely rested on a new law called the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which granted a whopping $250 million over five years to expand “people-to-people” Israeli and Palestinian grassroots programs. It will also boost joint economic ventures that could help shore up the Palestinian economy.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump speaking at the Ellipse the near the White House on January 6. Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP

“Frustration Grows in D.C. Over Biden’s Hands-off Approach on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”

Whatever hopes rested with a Biden course correction dissipated over the first few months as tensions in Jerusalem and Gaza led to war. Former U.S. officials and policy experts began airing their grievances with the administration’s “intentionally neglectful” approach, claiming that the new team decided that it was not in Biden’s political interest to get actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian matters.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza last May.Credit: Anas Baba / AFP

“Israel’s Brutal Month With the Democratic Party – and Its Impact on Public Opinion”

The debate over whether U.S. support for Israel remains bipartisan reached new heights in May during the Gaza conflict. Progressive Democrats expressed unprecedented pro-Palestinian sentiments while lambasting Israel. Meanwhile, the debate entered pop culture like never before.

“Israel Is Worried About These Two Senior Democrats – and Not Because They’re pro-Palestinian”

Despite the heavy progressive criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza and solidarity with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Israeli officials were more concerned about rare rebukes from members of Congress who for decades had been considered strong supporters of Israel, namely Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

“Ohio Democratic Primary Showcases Party’s Divide Over Israel”

The Democratic infighting on Capitol Hill in May portended future electoral battles within the party, with pro-Israel Democrats striving to cement support against progressive upstarts. This was on display in July during the Democratic primary for a special House election in Ohio, where progressive Israel critic Nina Turner battled centrist Shontel Brown. Brown won after Jewish-establishment and pro-Israel organizations pitched in full force.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem last week. Credit: David Azagury, U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

“Israel Wants U.S. to Enforce anti-BDS Laws Against Ben & Jerry’s. Will It Work?”

Progressive criticism of Israel wasn’t limited to Washington this year. Perhaps no story captured this more than Ben & Jerry’s move to cease ice cream sales in occupied Palestinian territory. More than 30 states have anti-boycott laws, which Israeli officials have tried to encourage the states to use against the Vermont-based company, bringing into question what constitutes a boycott of Israel and the constitutionality of such laws. These issues could have dramatic implications on matters concerning the First Amendment and freedom of speech.

“Ahead of First Meeting, Biden and Bennett Try to Dismantle a Jerusalem Landmine”

One of the first Trump policies that Biden committed to change concerned the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which served the city’s Palestinians and was shuttered by Trump in 2018. Biden let the issue remain idle in the hope of not destabilizing the new Israeli government, and Israeli opposition against a reopening has only grown, with Republican lawmakers unanimous against the plan.

Democratic congressional candidate Shontel Brown campaigning in Bedford Heights, Ohio, in November. The centrist won the election. Credit: Tony Dejak / AP

“Here’s What It Would Take for Israel to Enter America’s Visa Waiver Program”

As Israel tried to make a fresh start with the administration after Naftali Bennett became prime minister, a key issue for Jerusalem was the effort to gain entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which would spare Israelis from the lengthy and expensive process of procuring a visa. U.S. officials and lawmakers, however, are skeptical there will be a change, as Israel has failed to meet many of the program’s requirements.

“The Democrats Trying to Make the Two-state Solution Relevant Again in Congress”

While “dueling Democrats in disarray” became the narrative of the party’s stance on Israel, a silent majority of Democratic lawmakers aimed to show that the party still supports Israel despite its criticism of the occupation. This came to a head with the Two-State Solution Act, maybe the most thorough law on how the United States can help push for a two-state plan.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking at the Capitol earlier this month.Credit: Alex Wong / AFP

“Both of These Politicians Opposed Iron Dome Funding. Only One Was Called Antisemitic”

Maybe the most memorable political moment concerning Israel was the September vote on $1 billion in emergency funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system. The money was originally blocked by progressive House Democrats, but after it was overwhelmingly approved in the House, Republican Sen. Rand Paul strove to block final authorization. While Paul’s obstructions drew criticism, this was nowhere near the vilification heaped on progressives, who were accused of antisemitism.

“What AIPAC Is Telling Congress on Biden’s Iran Negotiations”

The main U.S. foreign policy plank that Israel cares about, as always, is Iran and Biden’s attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobby group in Washington and the vanguard in opposing the deal, continues to advocate for a different U.S. approach to curb Iran’s nuclear program. It also recently announced the formation of PACs, entering the campaign space for the first time in the hope of keeping pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress.

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