For Israel, Biden's Team Is Full of Familiar Faces

Although all expressed support for Israel, many of Biden's picks for senior foreign policy roles were instrumental in brokering the Iran nuclear deal, butting heads with the Jewish state

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An Israeli electronics store employee looks at a wall of televisions broadcasting live the 59th U.S. Presidential Inauguration ceremony, in Ashkelon, Israel, January 20, 2021.
An Israeli electronics store employee looks at a wall of televisions broadcasting live the 59th U.S. Presidential Inauguration ceremony, in Ashkelon, Israel, January 20, 2021.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The Biden administration includes several people who are well-known to Israeli political leaders from the Obama era, or even the Clinton presidency.

Among them are architects of the controversial nuclear agreement with Iran. The transition gives them a second chance to shape U.S. policy in the Middle East in general and toward Israel in particular. Here are a few of the most familiar names and what their past words and actions can teach us.

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Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, U.S. January 19, 2021.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

Secretary of State Antony “Tony” Blinken

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, the person who is expected to become the top diplomat of the United States laid out the principles that will guide him when it comes to policy toward Israel and its neighbors.

Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, said the U.S. should consult with Israel and the Persian Gulf states regarding any change in the nuclear agreement with Iran and stressed that President Joe Biden is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

In response to a question, Blinken said the new administration does not intend to move the U.S. embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem or to reverse recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He praised the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states brokered by the Trump administration, but noted that the Biden administration still believes that the two-state solution is “[t]he best way and maybe the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.”

When asked about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, Blinken said he and Biden are resolutely opposed to it, but he added that they fully respect the right of freedom of speech.

Blinken, 58, was born in Yonkers, New York, to Jewish parents. In the 1990s he served in senior positions in the Clinton administration. He served as Democratic staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from 2002-08. Biden chaired the committee during some of that period, and the two forged a relationship.

Blinken’s father, Donald Blinken, served as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Bill Clinton. Antony Blinken’s parents divorced when he began high school. His mother, Judith (Frehm) Blinken, married the author and lawyer Samual Pisar, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who wrote “Of Blood and Hope.” Blinken moved with them to Paris, where he completed high school.

In remarks he made in November when accepting his nomination as secretary of state, Blinken spoke at length about his Jewish roots and trauma his stepfather suffered in the Holocaust. Among other things, he recounted Pisar’s encounter with an American soldier after escaping from a death march in Bavaria. “He fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: God Bless America.”

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan

Sullivan was a lead negotiator in the secret talks with Iran that were held in Oman and that led to the nuclear agreement signed by the Obama administration in 2015.

He began his career in public service as an advisor to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential primary campaign. After Barack Obama won the presidential election and appointed Clinton as his secretary of state, Sullivan served as her deputy chief of staff. He also served as the director of policy planning in the State Department.

In Obama’s second term, he moved over to the White House, where he served as national security adviser to then-vice president. Sullivan supports a return to the Iran nuclear agreement and the lifting of the sanctions on Iran, on condition that Tehran agrees to fulfill its obligations under the deal.

He has described the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran as “simply unrealistic and unreasonable.” Sullivan is also respected by people who oppose the agreement. Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which embraces a hawkish position on the nuclear deal, called him the “sharpest guy on the [Iran] issue I know.”

When Sullivan’s nomination was announced, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren wrote on Twitter that Sullivan “knows and respects Israel, but he also negotiated with Iran behind Israel’s back to establish the nuclear deal that threatens every Israeli, the Middle East, and the world.” A former Rhodes scholar, Sullivan, 44, will be the youngest U.S. national security adviser in 60 years.

CIA Director William Burns

As a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, Burns headed the team in the secret negotiations with Iran. An admired professional diplomat who speaks Arabic, Burns has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, including as the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and to Russia. Since retiring from the foreign service in 2014, Burns has been the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In an essay he published in The Washington Post about a year and a half ago, Burns dismissed Trump’s program for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “In 3½ decades of government service, I never saw an American president concede so much, so soon, for so little.” He was writing before “Peace to Prosperity” was presented officially.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman

Assuming her nomination is confirmed, Sherman will be the first woman to hold the second most important position in the State Department. In Jerusalem she is well-remembered as the head of the U.S. team that negotiated the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, in her capacity as undersecretary of state for political affairs. Looking back to that time in a speech she gave in January 2016 at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Sherman said the tension the talks created between the Obama administration and Israel was “very, very painful” to her.

Sherman, 71, was raised in a Jewish home in Baltimore and started out as a social worker. Her first position in politics was as chief of staff for then-U.S. Rep. Barbara Mikulski, who is considered a friend to Israel. She is the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sherman previously served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under Secretary of State Warren Christopher and as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Deputy National Security Adviser to the Vice President Philip Gordon

In the Obama administration, Gordon served as special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf region, taking an active role in formulating the agreement with Iran and in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

He is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among other issues. Writing in The Washington Post a few years ago, Gordon said he felt betrayed when he heard that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning, behind his back, to give a speech to a joint session of Congress against the nuclear agreement with Iran that Obama was working toward.

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When he first heard reports of Netanyahu’s plan, he recalled, he didn’t believe them. “If ‘Bibi’ were coming to town,” Gordon wrote, “I would have known about it, as I was the White House’s coordinator for the Middle East and point person for Israel. Our relationship with our Israeli counterparts was so close and transparent that there was no way the prime minister would announce a major speech to Congress without letting the White House know in advance. Or so I thought.”

In his remarks at the Haaretz Israel Conference on Peace in 2014, Gordon slammed Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. “How will Israel remain democratic and Jewish if it attempts to govern the millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank?”

National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa Barbara Leaf

Leaf was the U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014-18, a position she came to after serving in high-level positions in the State Department, including deputy assistant secretary of state for the Arabian Peninsula in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq. One of her earliest foreign service assignments was as chief of the visa section in the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. After leaving the foreign service, Leaf served as a research fellow and director of the Arab politics program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In an interview with Baltimore Jewish Living in November, Leaf said that Saudi Arabia was unlikely to rush into a normalization agreement with Israel, noting “there is not wide public support for such a dramatic move.” The Biden administration, she said, did not intend to invest great effort for now in renewing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but would try to improve U.S. relations with the Palestinians.

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