More than any other world leader, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be unhappy at the departure of President Donald Trump from the White House. For the past four years, the maverick, unconventional and now one-time president has been the friendliest American leader Israel has ever seen. What are the seven takeaways for Israel and Netanyahu from the election of Joe Biden?
American support for Israel: Bipartisan support has been the soul of Israel-US relations. Over the years, especially since Israel’s spectacular military victory in the 1967 June War, both Democrats and Republicans have been committed to a strong Israel and its international recognition and regional acceptance. While peace with neighbours remains a major agenda, no American president, including Barack Obama, has ever made demands that Israel is not prepared to accept. The willingness of and even competition between leaders of both parties in the US to flag their pro-Israeli credentials is a testimony to the bipartisan nature of the American support for Israel. This will not change under the Biden administration.
Friend of Israel: President Trump did not hesitate to adopt controversial positions to exhibit his support for Israel on a host of issues. He surpassed all his predecessors in making Israel the cornerstone of his foreign policy. Trump did not hesitate to be discourteous, undiplomatic and rude towards several world leaders, including American allies and friends, but the Israeli leader has been his bosom buddy. With a stroke of a pen, Trump reversed and annulled decades of the carefully crafted American position on a host of issues such as Jerusalem, Golan Heights, settlements and annexation.
Going overboard on gratitude: For his part, Netanyahu broke the traditional bipartisan approach towards the American leadership and came to be identified with President Trump. This was not the first time the Israeli leader meddled in domestic American politics. Disheartened by his personal equations with President Obama, Netanyahu did not hide his preference for the Republican contender Mitt Romney in 2012. But under President Trump, Netanyahu behaved as if he was a cardholding Republican.
Though Netanyahu’s gratitude was natural and understandable, he was also influenced by Trump’s demand for unflinching, uncritical and unquestionable loyalty. Even a hint of balance on the part of Netanyahu would have earned Trump’s ire, rebuke and even exclusion. Hence, Netanyahu did the unthinkable. He did not meet, call or even tweet about Biden after the latter was anointed as the Democrat challenger in August.
Executive vs Legislative: Over the years, Israel’s primarily diplomatic focus in the US has been the Capitol, mainly the Senate and not the White House. Using its influence and leverage, it has managed to swing the lawmakers in favour of its foreign policy interests. To curb the president’s actions and exhibit its influence, Israel has been relying heavily on Congress. Some controversial American policies are rooted in congressional support. For example, in December 2017, President Trump declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, but its origin lay in the Jerusalem Embassy Act adopted overwhelmingly by both the houses of Congress in October 1995. Even if the Republicans don’t hold on to their Senate majority after the Georgia runoffs on January 5, Israeli reliance on Congress is likely to continue under Biden.
Swift adjusting: US support is critical for Israel, and Netanyahu will be prompt in recognising the new reality in Washington. He will make the necessary adjustments in befriending the Biden administration. The President-elect knows Israeli leaders since the days of Prime Minister Golda Meir in the early 1970s, and this will come in handy for Netanyahu. It is fair to assume a Netanyahu-Biden meeting will happen before the 20 January inauguration of the new president.
No radical American shifts: Despite reservations over the timing and implications, the Biden administration is unlikely to stop, freeze or reverse Israel’s gains under President Trump. This applies to moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or the pace of Arab normalisation. The Biden administration will listen more to the Left-leaning J Street than the hard-line pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC. Washington should have learned from the missteps and regional anger and unpopularity over the nuclear deal with Iran. This will weigh heavily in any American rapprochement towards Iran.
There will be changes in American policy towards key Israeli concerns such as Iran and the Palestinians. Biden will not take off where President Obama left off in 2017; in short, the Biden administration will not be Obama 3.0.
PR Kumaraswamy is a guest contributor. Views expressed are personal.