Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president, showed this week how something totally expected can nonetheless seem like a bolt from the blue. Biden’s statements against Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned West Bank annexation accurately reflect the Democratic Party’s position as well as the traditional U.S. policy up until January 2017, when Donald Trump came into office. After years of paradise, dark clouds are on the horizon.
Biden’s strident tone in a Jewish fundraiser this week should serve as a wake up call for most Israelis, who have grown complacent during Trump’s three plus years of pampering and have been too preoccupied with coronavirus and internal political upheavals to devote much thought to annexation. Whatever its final version – only the Jordan Valley, everything but the Jordan Valley, selected Jewish settlements or anything in between – Biden has put Israel on notice that annexation could exact a steep price, if he wins the elections.
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Contrary to what many Israelis have been led to believe, annexation won’t be a repeat version of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing sovereignty in the Golan Heights or even abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, which has had grave ramifications but in totally different spheres. Annexation won’t provide another example of the famous Arab saying, “the dogs bark but the caravan passes,” because in this case, the dogs will be biting as well.
Annexation is a bombshell of much higher magnitude. It won’t end with a wink and a nod between Trump and Netanyahu or with flaccid protests by an international community otherwise engaged. Annexation is viewed as a death knell for whatever remains of the peace process and a two-state solution; as a catalyzer for an outbreak of violence and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority; as a diplomatic IED capable of demolishing Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan; and as a direct finger in the eye of the European Union, with which Israel enjoys robust economic and technological ties.
Biden’s statement is a clear shot across the bow of Israel’s new government, aimed not only at Netanyahu but perhaps even more so, at his new partners Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. Even though Biden made clear he would not touch U.S. aid to Israel in retaliation, the former VP is signaling that annexation could damage, if not imperil, Israel’s ties with a Biden administration. The stakes are even higher, given that the annexation is not only timed to coincide with the U.S. election campaign but is linked to it directly. According to press reports, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer has been urging Republican senators to support annexation now, before Biden’s election makes it too late.
Biden’s warning doesn’t simply put Netanyahu on notice that a future President Biden won’t take kindly to annexation; it is aimed at chilling Israel’s enthusiasm here and now. By making his position clear, Biden has drawn a red line in the sand: Crossing it, under these circumstances, will be viewed as a direct challenge to Biden and his Democratic Party. It would be seen by Democrats as a devious attempt by Netanyahu to exploit what could be Trump’s last month in office. It would cement Israel’s identification with Trump in hard concrete.
Biden obviously remembers his public humiliation by Netanyahu in March 2010, when Israel announced new construction of 1600 housing units in East Jerusalem just as the then Vice President was visiting. In retrospect, the insult – which Netanyahu claimed was unintentional – was a harbinger of the ensuing strife and confrontation with the Obama administration as a whole. But what goes around comes around, even if takes more than a decade.
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Nonetheless, under different circumstances, Biden may have chosen to take a softer line on annexation, especially while courting Jewish votes. A recording of the Sunday fundraiser reveals that Biden’s Jewish listeners were in any case more troubled by anti-Semitism and BDS rather than the future of the Jordan Valley. But the Democratic Party has moved to the left, first because of angry opposition to Trump and all that he stands for and now because of the economic crisis induced by the coronavirus plague.
Biden, as he has throughout his career, nudged himself leftwards along with his party. He is a student of the famous saying attributed to 19th Century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader."
Biden is also engaged in a concerted campaign to garner support from Bernie Sanders’ angry and frustrated fans, who are no fans of annexation, settlements, Netanyahu and, in some cases, Israel itself. It may be a mission impossible, at least where Israel is concerned: Biden's record of support for Israel is long and solid. His platform on Israel and the Jewish community, published on Wednesday, enraged the Democratic left for its unequivocal support for Israel and reprimands for Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism. Biden’s platform made no mention of annexation per se, reverting to the traditional warning against “unilateral steps.”
For die-hard lefties, Biden is an “AIPAC Democrat” or in other words, an aider and abettor of occupation. If Biden stands a chance of winning them over, it certainly won’t be because of his positions on Israel.
Biden’s words also enraged right-wing and Republican Jews, but delighted them at the same time. They seized on his statement to try and portray Biden as “anti-Israel” and to accentuate his links to Trump’s predecessor, Barack HUSSEIN Obama. Republicans are once again lapsing into their typical election-eve daydream of moving Jewish votes to Trump. On November 3, like clockwork, they will be snapped out of their reverie.
Israel never was and probably never will be the most important item on the American Jewish agenda. This is doubly true at a time when the U.S. President is seen by most Jews – as Trump is – as a direct threat to their safety and wellbeing. Biden, on the other hand, has a proven track record on Israel, questioned only by those who view Netanyahu’s right-wing ideology as gospel truth and its critics as heretics who should be burned at the stake.
More importantly, as far as Jews are concerned, Biden is possibly the quintessential Democratic candidate, in some ways, more so than Obama himself. Biden not only reflects the positions of most American Jews on most issues of the day - immigration, health, rule of law, separation of church and state et al - in his four decades in public service he has learned to walk the walk and talk the talk of liberal American Jewry. They, in return, consider him to be a true “mensch,” possibly the last of a dying breed.
In many ways, Biden is the Benny Gantz of the 2020 Presidential elections, which does not necessarily portend well for Democrats. Just as Gantz was the anti-Bibi, Biden’s success relies on maintaining his position as the anti-Trump. For now, at least, the formula seems to be working well: Recent polls show Biden with a commanding lead that would suffice to overcome Trump’s built-in advantage in the Electoral College, as shown in 2016. But he is facing one of the most cunning and ruthless politicians in modern history, one who will stop at nothing – absolutely nothing – in order to destroy his rival.
Nonetheless Biden’s warning should give any rational Israeli government pause to reassess whether the jingoistic satisfaction of annexation is worth the potential damage to relations with a future U.S. president. But given that it’s Netanyahu we’re dealing with here, a prime minister whose chief concern is averting a jail sentence and one who is up to his neck in political debt to the U.S. president, the opposite might very well happen. Like any gambling addict with a losing hand, Netanyahu is liable to bet the house and, as is often the case with him, it won’t even be his.