Analysis |

Between the ICC and JCPOA, Israel Doesn't Need JNF to Stir Up Trouble With Biden

With its plan to start buying Palestinian land to support West Bank settlements, the Jewish National Fund (or JNF) just became another acronym headache for President Biden

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem in 2010.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem in 2010.Credit: Baz Ratner / AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

It is very doubtful whether in his 36 years as a senator, eight years as vice president and three weeks as president of the United States, Joe Biden ever came across the Jewish National Fund.

Maybe, as a child in Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of Biden’s Jewish friends had a blue JNF box at home. Or maybe as a young politician, Biden planted some trees in Israel in tribute to friends or family via the JNF. Quite possibly, he once spoke at a JNF event in New York or Washington. But nothing ever suggested to him that the JNF would one day figure in his foreign policy as POTUS.

Why Bibi could play ball with Biden over Iran. Listen to Alon Pinkas

If you think this is a strange thing, try connecting the following acronyms: JNF, ICC (International Criminal Court), JCPOA (aka the Iran nuclear deal), CCP (Chinese Communist Party), and a recent news story on apparently rogue missile sales from Israel to an unspecified “Asian country.”

Add to that the mildly amusing saga of the Biden-Netanyahu phone call that hasn’t happened, and you get a not-so-pretty picture of a relationship being unnecessarily strained by avoidable issues.

It started when Israel came out publicly and visibly against Biden’s yet-to-be-determined Iran policy, just as his administration was beginning the process of drafting and weighing the modalities and sequencing of reentering the nuclear deal.

JNF World Chairman Avraham Duvdevani last November. Credit: Courtesy of JNF

A few days later, the ICC issued a pre-trial ruling that extended its jurisdiction to the occupied territories, thus enabling and essentially authorizing an investigation (already underway) for alleged war crimes committed by Israel (and Hamas) during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

Despite the United States not being a member state of the ICC, Israel will surely need America’s clout and influence as it deals with this new challenge.

The Israel-China-U.S. triangle is a third focal point of possible friction. China’s expanding presence in the Middle East, from Djibouti to Iran, and its deepening economic and defense relations with Israel, are a source of disagreement sure to burden the relationship.

On top of all that comes the JNF’s new settlements plan. Founded in 1901 to reclaim land for the Zionist endeavor, the fund announced a proposal to officially authorize land purchases in the West Bank – a “redemption of land” (for Jews only) – within or adjacent to existing settlements.

Since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, the JNF has refrained from doing so due to political sensitivities.

The plan, approved by the organization's leadership on Sunday and now awaiting board ratification, authorizes the buying of private Palestinian lands in Area C, near Gush Etzion, greater Jerusalem and around Hebron.

In and of itself, the JNF plan would not have set in motion a series of reactions. The thing is, there is no in-and-of-itself here. The move was harshly criticized in North America by both the Union for Reform Judaism and T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization that represents over 2,000 rabbis and cantors, for violating international law and Palestinian rights. From Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vantage point, it also brought unwanted attention from the United States to the Palestinian issue at a time when he believes the focus should be on Iran.

The JNF move also triggered a condemnation from the State Department last Thursday. “It is critical to avoid unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut the efforts to achieve a two-state solution. This includes annexation, settlement building, demolitions, incitement and payments for terrorists,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

A day later, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked a simple question: Are Israel and Saudi Arabia considered “important allies” by the Biden administration?

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki during a briefing last weekCredit: SAUL LOEB - AFP

Rather than automatically responding with a simple “yes” and reciting the reply every intern in the press office can roll off their tongue without even thinking, Psaki provided a convoluted, blurry and patently unclear answer: “Well, you know, again, I think we – there are ongoing processes and internal interagency processes – one that we, I think, confirmed [in] an interagency meeting just last week – to discuss a range of issues in the Middle East. ... We’re – we’ve only been here three and a half weeks, and I think I’m going to let those policy processes see themselves through before we give, kind of, a complete laydown of what our national security approaches will be to a range of issues.”

What ongoing processes? What does “see themselves through” mean? What range of issues?

Psaki was also asked why President Biden hasn’t called Prime Minister Netanyahu since his inauguration over three weeks ago. “I can assure you he will be speaking with the prime minister soon, and he’s looking forward to doing that,” she said. It’s not like he’s spoken to all global leaders, she added.

Both Price and Psaki’s responses can be conveniently dismissed in Israel as “spokesperson statements,” meaning they are limited in context and time to the moment they were given, and do not necessarily reflect any coherent policy or departure from previous policy.

Wrong. This is not how the press offices in the White House and State Department work. Unlike Israel, where every minister and every spokesman is a self-ordained and self-aggrandizing policy-inventor, in a functioning U.S. administration, a lot of preparation, planning and thought goes into every answer the administration provides.

This is not to say that silly, misleading, ill-conceived and dilettante statements haven’t been made throughout the years in Washington. Far from it. But it would be irresponsible to discount the two recent statements by Psaki and Price as such.

In terms of policy, both Psaki and Price’s responses point to a broader trend: Disinterest in the Middle East, and a somewhat acrimonious disinterest in Mr. Netanyahu himself.

Less than a month into his tenure, and with the distraction of Trump’s impeachment trial hovering above Washington, Biden has to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, laying the foundations of a broad, national vaccination campaign and colossal economic ramifications, including a huge economic aid package ($1.9 trillion). Furthermore, there is no indication he will reverse the gradual but patently clear course of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East.

The one outstanding issue – the Iran nuclear deal – is where the United States is deeply involved. For Israel, when your focus is on the JCPOA and the ICC, it may not be smart to enrich Biden’s familiarity of acronyms by making headlines about the JNF.

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