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How a Biden Victory Could Save Netanyahu

A lot of people on the Jewish right and in the pro-Israel community are panicking about Trump's looming defeat. But a Biden victory could be good news for Netanyahu’s political survival

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Jan. 21, 2016
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. January 21, 2016Credit: AP
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

With less than three weeks to go before the U.S. presidential election, things are looking grim for President Donald Trump’s re-election hopes. His Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden holds a nine-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of all national polls. 

Democrats would be wise, though, not to celebrate in advance. Biden’s edge in most of the battleground states is still within the polling margin of error; a last-minute swing to Trump could mean a repeat of 2016, with the president gaining an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote.

Many on the right are holding on to hope because of their memories of Trump confounding expectations in 2016. They also have a not entirely unfounded skepticism about polls, and how elements of the media hostile to the president are framing the election. 

But, barring a reversal of fortune, Jewish supporters of Trump already know that a Biden victory is at this point the most likely scenario. 

That has a lot of people on the right panicking.

President Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Des Moines International Airport on October 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa
President Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Des Moines International Airport on October 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.Credit: SCOTT OLSON - AFP

That’s particularly true among those in the pro-Israel community, who dread the possibility of Biden reviving the Middle East policies of his former boss, President Barack Obama. That might mean a return to a desire for more "daylight" between Israel and the United States, including pressure on the Jewish state to make concessions in a revived peace process, and a tilt toward the Palestinians

On top of that, Biden is certain to return the United States to the Iran nuclear deal, possibly ending sanctions on Tehran, a prospect that will frighten not only Jerusalem but also most of the Sunni Arab world.

Right-wingers view this possibility as a disaster. But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics assume a Biden victory would undermine or loosen his grip on power, they’re incorrect.  

As much as Netanyahu would much prefer Trump’s re-election, a reversion to the situation that existed from 2009 to 2016, in which an administration hostile to Israel’s government was in charge in Washington, will actually work to his political advantage. 

Although it was less than a dozen years ago, few seem to remember just how tenuous Netanyahu’s hold on power was when he became prime minister only two months after Obama’s inauguration in 2009, much to the consternation of official Washington. 

At the time, Obama’s foreign policy team hoped for a coalition crisis that would result in Netanyahu’s replacement by Tzipi Livni, whose Kadima Party had won one more seat in the election, but who failed in her attempt to form a government, allowing Netanyahu and his right-wing and religious partners to gain office.

The dynamic of the first years of his return to the prime minister’s office was set at this time. Netanyahu tried to tack to the center with his Bar Ilan University speech about accepting a Palestinian state. But even after the Americans gave up on trying to boost Livni, a serial pattern played out: Obama demanded settlement freezes or gestures about Jerusalem, Netanyahu generally refused, and the White House pressure didn’t have the intended effect. 

Obama’s attempts to undermine Netanyahu didn’t merely fail. American pressure only strengthened him.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011, with then-House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden watching
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011, with then-House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden watching.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Obama’s decision to snub Israel on a trip to the Middle East, during which he gave a speech to the Arab world, was his first major blunder. 

Israelis not only resented the content of his Cairo speech, in which the president treated the Holocaust and Palestinian grievances against the Jewish state as morally equivalent. By making it clear that his priority was repairing American relations with Muslims was more important than reassuring Israel, it undermined Israel’s left-wingers, who had hoped their path to power would be eased by Obama’s displeasure with Netanyahu.

That was also true when, in 2010, Biden was visiting Israel when the Israeli government announced its approval of a housing project in east Jerusalem. The Obama administration chose to turn that announcement into a crisis. 

The White House thought Netanyahu’s brazen defiance of their demands to avoid such decisions days before proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians would weaken him. Instead, they had handed him a cudgel with which he could beat them, and pose as the defender of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, against foreign interference. 

The same thing happened the following year on the eve of a Netanyahu visit to Washington. At the end of a speech about the Arab Spring, Obama threw in a passage about wanting the 1967 borders to be the starting point for new negotiations with the Palestinians. Again, he handed Netanyahu another opportunity to stand up to him

Obama regarded the prime minister’s on-camera Oval Office lecture to the president about Israeli security and rights as an unforgivable insult. But it again allowed Netanyahu to play the hero to his supporters and other Israelis who had already grown to resent the president.

Netanyahu had other factors in his favor: a hapless and divided opposition at home, and no viable Likud rivals. The Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate seriously, even when Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were clearly tilting the diplomatic playing field in their direction, also undermined the White House’s strategy. 

From then on, as both won re-election, each conflict between Obama and Netanyahu had the same impact on domestic Israeli politics. That was true even when Netanyahu stumbled. His speech to a joint meeting of Congress in 2015 backfired: regardless of the merits of his case, it made it more likely, rather than less, that the House and Senate would endorse the Iran nuclear deal that he opposed so fiercely. But it still played well at home.

Almost as important, the constant American pressure allowed Netanyahu to keep his allies on the right in check. The fear of American pressure, or possible defense aid cutoffs, was his standard foolproof excuse when his supporters pressed him about why he wasn’t more aggressive in building settlements, asserting Israeli sovereignty over the territories, retaliating against Hamas in Gaza or even attacking Iran. 

But once Obama was replaced by Trump, Netanyahu lost his wiggle room with the Israeli right. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Naftali Bennett visit an army base in the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Naftali Bennett visit an army base in the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019.Credit: ATEF SAFADI/AFP

Netanyahu was happy about Trump’s decisions on recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan, his administration’s pressure on the Palestinians and on Iran. But Trump’s support meant the Israeli right could corner him. He was unable to blame potential American disapproval to turn down demands from the right from frenemies like Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett.

If a Democrat had been in the White House, there’s no way the right would have forced Netanyahu down the rabbit hole of demanding the right to assert sovereignty over all of the West Bank settlements earlier this year.

As is the case for Trump, the coronavirus pandemic is Netanyahu’s biggest problem; his looming legal troubles are also hanging over his head. But while a Biden administration is likely to do much that will upset the Israeli right, it would actually help Netanyahu return to his former pose as Israel’s champion against American bullies. 

Nothing would do more to help the prime minister fend off a challenge from Bennett, who is currently rising in the polls, or to enable him to hold onto Likud voters, should the country hold another election in the next year.

Netanyahu won’t cheer Trump’s exit, but the notion that a Trump loss will topple him is misplaced. If anything, a Biden administration’s revival of Obama’s policies might just give the prime minister the ammunition to further prolong his tenure in office.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and a columnist for the New York Post. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin

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