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To Trump-trained Israeli Ears, Biden’s Victory Rhetoric Sounds Alien and Potentially Hostile

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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President-elect Joe Biden gestures on stage after speaking, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.
President-elect Joe Biden gestures on stage after speaking, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Joseph Robinette Biden’s victory speech on Saturday night was one of his best ever. Biden sounded far more confident, focused and energized than he’d been throughout the campaign, and all of a sudden even looked like a United States president straight out of central casting. Realizing a life-long dream, getting elected president of the United States and having much of the world erupt in spontaneous celebration can do that to you, apparently.

Nonetheless, it was the content of Biden’s speech that was most striking. In normal times, Biden’s call for decency and unity may have been dismissed as hackneyed cliché, but after four years with Donald Trump’s vitriol, his words were almost shocking. Instead of the “darker impulses” of the Trump era, Biden said, “better angels” will prevail. As one clever Internet meme put it, with Biden as president, MAGA means Make America Good Again.

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In normal times, when the defeat of a rival doesn’t completely overshadow the election of one’s own candidate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would have stolen the show. The election of the first woman, first woman of color, first South Asian and first daughter of immigrants to the second-highest office in the land is a historic milestone by any measure. For members of the tribe, there is the added treat of Harris’ husband Douglas Emhoff, the first second gentleman in history and the first Jew to make it into one of the top four slots on the American social registry, may God help him.

Harris is a tough-talking former prosecutor and political jouster who could emerge as one of the most influential vice presidents in American history, and is now perfectly placed to succeed Biden, when the time comes. On Biden’s big night, she also personified the incoming, multi-colored diversity of a new Democratic regime that stands in stark contrast to Trump’s almost exclusively white and male cabinet and administration, with the exception of an array of mostly talented spokeswomen who nonetheless look suspiciously alike.

The U.S. has held many polarized elections in which the two candidates were a study in ideological contrasts – Carter vs. Reagan, for example, or Nixon vs. McGovern – but never one that seemed quite so much like a war of the worlds or clash of civilizations. On the face of it, two white males in their mid-70s were duking it out for the White House, so what else is new? But in reality, Trump and Biden would take America in totally opposite directions. That is why the dancing in the streets from coast to coast evoked elation at the fall of an evil and repressive regime, more than customary delight with political victory and a routine changing of the guard.

Biden’s speech was broadcast in the wee hours of the morning in Israel, which means that most people were apprised of it by the local media, with a few short video clips from the Democratic shindig in Wilmington, Delaware. The small Israeli minority that supported Biden from the outset will revel in Trump’s defeat and rejoice at the prospect of a more inclusive, tolerant, humane, humble and rational U.S. administration that won’t neglect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, either. They will pray that the winds of change sweeping Trump out of office will ultimately uproot Benjamin Netanyahu, as well.

For Netanyahu, his supporters, the Israeli right wing, settler leaders, most Orthodox Jews and a sizeable chunk of public opinion in general, who sincerely prayed for four more years, Trump’s unexpected defeat came as a shock. They had persuaded themselves that the Trump-inspired wave of tough-talking, anti-elitist, right-wing populism, which is their favorite kind, was unstoppable. They had assumed that, like Netanyahu, Trump is a magician who would pull a rabbit out of his hat and be saved at the last minute by a surge of American patriots. It was close, but no cigar.

A man holds up a copy of Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom declaring Joe Biden as president-elect at a park in Jerusalem on November 8, 2020.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

Biden’s benign touchy-feely victory speech from Wilmington on Saturday night, on the other hand, may have grated on Israeli ears and even set off alarms. Biden didn’t mention Israel, of course, or foreign policy in general, but throughout his speech he frequently echoed Barack Obama. For Netanyahu and the Israeli right, Biden channeling Obama is not a good omen. After four years of bliss with Trump, who couldn’t care less, and the evangelicals, who worship Netanyahu’s Israel with no questions asked, those nagging, do-gooder, minority-supporting, peace-seeking and Obama-loving Democrats will soon be back in charge. The battle over the Land of Israel, as they view it, will soon resume.

Biden’s words of compassion, comfort and commitment to restore traditional American values also sounded eerier in Israel than in most other Western countries, for the simple reason that for the past four years, Trump’s hateful and divisive rhetoric has prevailed here, as well. The president’s unique style may have disgusted Europeans and distanced them from the U.S. overall, but in Israel it was perceived as confirmation of Israel’s own polarized politics and nasty internal discourse. As long as Trump was around, Netanyahu, no matter how outrageous, would always pale in comparison.

So, while the media naturally focuses on how Netanyahu will personally get along with Biden – he’ll do far better with the president than with the rest of Biden’s administration and party, that’s for sure – it may be harder for the Israeli public as a whole to adjust. Biden is a self-proclaimed Zionist and a hawkish right-winger on Israel in relation to his party, but it’s been a long time since Israelis have heard a U.S. president express sympathy for Palestinians, which Biden often does, support a two-state solution or tell Israelis to their face that occupation and annexation will lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Slightly more evenhanded slogans and formulas on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that were once shrugged off as routine are bound to sound confrontational and even hostile after four years without. Biden’s wish to mend ties with Europe, to rejoin international organizations and to reassume American leadership of the free world all portend an end to four years of Trump paradise, in which Israel was the cherished child and Washington fended off its enemies, critics and just about anyone with bright ideas that deviated from the script.

Trump was seen by Israelis as a straight-shooter who says exactly what he thinks, which is how they like to view themselves, though their admiration may have influenced by the fact that the president denigrated their own perceived enemies and never had a bad word to say about Israel itself. Biden, on the other hand, can talk to Israelis “dugri” and tell them unpleasant truths directly in their face.

Unlike Obama, Biden won’t have to think twice or look over his shoulder for fear that he’ll be accused of harboring sinister intent towards Israel or animosity towards Jews as a whole. Biden isn’t African American and his middle name isn’t Hussein (although Robinette deserves its own discussion). Even if Israel and the Middle East are far from the top of his urgent priorities, Biden will jolt Israelis by merely repeating the positions he’s held since joining the Senate 47 years ago.

Biden, in fact, is likely to eventually shift the fundamentals of Israel’s entire internal discourse. After four years of Trump, concepts such as dignity, diversity, equal opportunity and even basic human empathy sound subversive, if not revolutionary – but who knows? They might catch on.

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