Under the rosiest of circumstances, the job of U.S. ambassador to Israel is no walk in the park.
Living up to high expectations on both sides for a warm and solid alliance with “no sunlight” between the two nations – despite decades-long policy differences – is a tricky tightrope that ambassadors have walked with varying degrees of success over the years.
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In the current situation, the need to represent the policies of the incoming Biden administration, following the unprecedented symbiotic relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, and return it to anything resembling its previous state, presents a particularly daunting challenge.
Netanyahu enjoyed rare access to – and influence on – the Trump White House. Now Israel’s leaders will have to adjust to the new reality, looking on painfully while Joe Biden rolls back some of the actions of the Trump administration, and lobbying hard to preserve others. At the top of the list: keeping the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and maintaining enough of the U.S. commitments that paved the way to normalization between Israel and some of the Gulf states to allow those ties to endure.
Israeli diplomatic and policy veterans hope that Biden’s history of friendly relations with Israel will preclude the relationship becoming as frosty and sharp-edged as it was during the worst days of Barack Obama’s presidency. But they know that differing viewpoints on Iran policy and the Palestinians mean that the new U.S. ambassador – no matter who it is – will have to administer some bitter medicine during his or her tenure.
The new envoy will be charged with making it clear that the Trump era is over and, once again, the U.S. administration will make no secret of its opposition to settlement expansion – viewing it as an obstacle to a future two-state solution.
Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, says she is looking forward to the departure of Trump’s current ambassador, David Friedman. She views his approach to the job as “upside down” and “a distorted concept of how an ambassador should behave.”
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She says: “Instead of representing the United States in Israel, Friedman was representing the settler movement in the White House – it was hard to watch and completely wrong.”
As Gilead Sher, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, puts it: “U.S. ambassadors have served traditionally as the administration’s top envoy to the State of Israel, rather than to its government or its prime minister only. This approach should be rapidly restored after four years of sectoral ambassadorship and partisan diplomacy at both ends.”
Friedman’s unwillingness to reach out to the wider Israeli public, concentrating his activity on “settlers and Netanyahu’s base,” Shalev says, stood in contrast to the approach of his predecessor, Obama administration ambassador Daniel Shapiro, who actively “reached out to all sectors of Israeli society.”
Shapiro’s name has been frequently floated as a possible returning candidate – he has refused to comment on the topic. Such a circumstance would not be unprecedented. Martin Indyk served as ambassador from 1995-1997 and then again from 2000-2001. Other names in the rumor mill include former congressmen Robert Wexler and Steve Israel, and former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross.
Dani Dayan, who just completed a four-year stint as Israel’s consul-general in New York, says that the role of the new ambassador should be primarily to “reassure” the Israeli public that “the new administration supports Israel (and still) sees Israel as America's staunch ally. He or she will have to confront the apprehensions that many Israelis have after eight stormy years with Barack Obama, to whom Joe Biden was his loyal vice president, followed by four years of a close romance with Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo and David Friedman.”
Though, as a settler leader, he doesn’t share Shalev’s politics, and refrained from criticizing Friedman, he agrees with her that a strong public diplomacy skill set will be crucial to keep the relationship on an even keel. “The U.S. needs an engaging ambassador more like Dan Shapiro and the late Sam Lewis, and less like James Cunningham or Richard Jones. ... He or she must understand Israel's sensibilities, even our fears.”
For this task, the political appointment of an engaging, high-profile personality known to be close to Biden with preexisting ties to Israel would seem to be in order. But for some of the structural tasks ahead, a seasoned State Department insider would perhaps be better prepared.
Members of the Biden camp have made it clear that while they won’t officially reverse the Trump decision to keep the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, they are intending to once again establish a separate American diplomatic channel to the Palestinians.
The Biden administration plans to reestablish the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem that Trump and Friedman subsumed into the Jerusalem embassy. The new ambassador will have to disentangle Palestinian affairs from their portfolio and help facilitate the reestablishment of formalized direct diplomacy with Palestinian leaders.
“Biden’s principle is that even if it may not be possible in this immediate period to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians,” says a source familiar with the future administration’s thinking, “everything possible should be done to keep a two-state solution alive and viable and [the U.S. institutions] should be organized to reinforce that message.”
This includes, the source adds, restoring financial assistance to the Palestinians, as much as possible within the constrictions of the Taylor Force Act, and reviving the USAID mission in Israel. This has been “decimated,” the source says, referring to the development agency that ended all assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in early 2019, following legislation passed by the Trump administration.
There are two policy minefields the new ambassador must navigate: First, Iran, and the Biden administration’s anticipated push to revive the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew in 2018 – a move that Netanyahu and the majority of the Israeli public loudly applauded. Presumably, any indication of a softened stance toward Iran will meet with the staunch opposition that Netanyahu displayed in the Obama years, when he joined forces with Republican legislators to try to scuttle the 2015 Iran deal – a move that was criticized as interference in U.S. domestic politics.
Second, the way that a renewed relationship with the Palestinians will play in Israel and the way that Biden chooses to approach the proposals made in Trump’s “deal of the century” – “given that it was created without Palestinian participation and totally disregarded Palestinian interests and long-term Israeli national security interests,” says Sher, the Barak aide who was a top negotiator with the Palestinians.
Although the deal “substantively abandons the parameters of previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and lacks coherent policy, it will continue to sit on the table for years to come,” Sher predicts. “The new ambassador should be aware at the outset of his or her term that any such plan will fail without significant Israeli concessions, complete re-sequencing, a fresh regional outlook and resourceful Palestinian initiative.”
Zehava Galon, former head of the Meretz Party, agrees that a “new agenda” is called for, and says she hopes that, unlike Friedman, the new ambassador renews ties with Israel’s “civil society” – namely, groups that have worked against the occupation and settlements “that have now been under attack for a long time.”
Usually, the decision of where an ambassador chooses to live is a minor logistical matter. In this case, it will send a message. According to the media, the traditional U.S. ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituah has been sold – reportedly to Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson, though this has never been publicly confirmed. For now, Ambassador Friedman remains there. It is still unclear whether residing there will be an option for his successor.
Presumably, with the embassy now officially located in Jerusalem, the next ambassador’s home should be built or purchased in that city. But this could conflict with the Biden administration’s plan to reestablish a consular presence for the Palestinians as well.
A possible complicating factor for the new ambassador’s debut is an impending Israeli election, though that will depend on exactly when the election is held, how soon the ambassador is named and confirmed, and when he or she arrives. At the moment, it seems highly probable that Biden’s pick could touch down as an intense campaign is underway.
Dayan was in a similar position when he began the New York consul general job. He recalls: “When I left for New York in August 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave me only one piece of advice: ‘Even when you are asleep, don't mention the names Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.’ That was sound advice for every diplomat who arrives in a democratic country in the midst of an electoral campaign. Keep your preferences to yourself.”