What does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like under a Biden administration?

Those who know the former vice president predict that Biden will chart his own course and lean into his decades-long friendship with Netanyahu

Five days after the election came to an end, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was crowned the country’s president-elect. After the former vice president clinched the vote in Pennsylvania, the networks called the race, projecting that Biden would receive the more than 270 Electoral College votes necessary to assume the presidency. 

On Saturday night, Biden declared victory over President Donald Trump and laid out his vision for a new era in politics. “With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation,” Biden said from Wilmington, Del., citing a quote from the book of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season — a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal.”

Shortly after Biden’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted his congratulations to the president-elect. The tweet, which was posted hours after a number of world leaders issued congratulatory statements, was criticized by Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and commentators and mocked by political observers. “Bibi calls the race,” tweeted Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney in New York’s southern district. Netanyahu’s delayed response was coordinated with President Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who chose to wait for Biden to deliver his remarks as Trump refused to concede defeat. 

“The short delay is inconsequential,” Ari Harow, former chief of staff to Netanyahu, told Jewish Insider, dismissing the criticism. “Biden’s long-standing relationship with Israel is negated in any media-driven fallout over the timing of the congratulations.” 

***

Tuesday’s election and its outcome — while it ushers in a new era of American politics and global leadership — is not expected to result in a dramatic shift in the U.S.-Israel relationship, Jewish Democratic leaders and Middle East experts stressed in interviews with JI. 

“Biden has a very long history of being very supportive of Israel, of having the fate of Israel in his heart. It’s not just a political relationship,” noted former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. “A Biden win for the U.S.-Israel relationship means that he will continue to look for ways to strengthen and deepen it.” 

At the start of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu referenced the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, U.S. recognition of Israel’s control over the Golan Heights, the historic normalization accords with Arab countries and the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal signed by former President Barack Obama. In an interview with JI last month, Biden advisor Tony Blinken indicated that while a Biden administration would not roll back all of Trump’s Middle East policies, a President Biden would return to the more traditional approach of embracing a two-state solution and engage in talks with Iran. 

“I don’t believe you can roll back the clock to the Obama-Kerry period,” suggested Dr. Dore Gold, former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, referencing the policies of the former president and John Kerry, who served as secretary of state from 2013-2017. “Biden is his own man.”

“Joe Biden is not Barack Obama,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told JI. “His view of Israel is in many respects generational, and much closer to [that of] Bill Clinton. Biden, like Clinton, is in love with the idea of Israel. Therefore, he tends to make accommodation as Clinton did to the realities that Israel finds itself in, and his inclination is not to judge but to give Israel the benefit of the doubt.” 

Pointing to Netanyahu’s recognition of his decades long-relationship with the president-elect on Saturday night, former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) said “there’s no doubt” in his mind that Biden will have a good working relationship with the Israeli government. “The election of Joe Biden will clearly strengthen and enhance the relationship between the U.S. and Israel because Joe Biden has led in support for Israel for his entire career,” he said.

***

The future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will ultimately depend on how Netanyahu decides to approach relations with Washington, posited Tal Shalev, the chief political correspondent for Walla! News

“Netanyahu can decide that he wants to try and work with the Biden administration, that Biden is not Obama, and maintain a good relationship with the White House, and for that one would assume that it would be better for him to have Gantz and [Foreign Minister Gabi] Ashkenazi in his coalition — just like he had Tzipi Livini and Ehud Barak during the Obama administration — to make it easier to communicate with a Democratic administration.”

Harow, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, argued that given the common interests between Netanyahu and Trump, a shift in U.S. policy away from consensus Israeli positions would be a setback for Netanyahu, “further [encouraging] Netanyahu to preempt this change in tone and head to elections at the beginning of the year.” 

Shalev suggested that Netanyahu “might be tempted to go back to the old Obama-Netanyahu dynamics, which was a dynamic that was extremely valuable politically, that helped him consolidate his base,” she said. “Netanyahu might decide that he wants to call early elections to present himself as the only prime minister who can protect Israel’s interest, and turn the relationship more hostile than it actually [will be], for his own electoral reasons.” 

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, told JI that Netanyahu’s record suggests he won’t change course in a Biden administration. “Netanyahu deliberately severed relations with Democrats, deliberately ignored the views of a majority of American Jews, actively supported Mitt Romney in 2012, and confronted Obama and Biden in 2015 by going behind their backs to speak to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal,” Pinkas stressed. “To think that he can mend relations is to expect the pyromaniac to enlist to the [fire department].” 

However, according to Gold, “There is a lot of work to be done before radical changes in U.S. policy can be implemented — assuming the Biden team wants to go in that direction, which is not clear at all.”

Alan Solow, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a close friend of Obama, noted that Biden “has a long record of close relationships with Israelis of all political stripes and has been to Israel many times. He understands the issues deeply. So there are not going to be any major surprises in the way Joe Biden handles the U.S.-Israel relationship. If there are surprises, they’ll be forced perhaps by activities that the Israelis do, pushing the limits on issues which will force Biden out.” 

“I think that anybody who believes that the Bibi-Biden relationship is going to be some sort of honeymoon needs to lay down and wait quietly until the feeling passes,” said Miller. “There’s going to be tension. There’s going to be bumps in the road. But I would argue that unless Bibi wants to bring it on himself, it won’t be as a consequence of Joe Biden looking for a fight with Netanyahu. It’s likely to flow much more naturally over time.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Vice President Joe Biden. (GPO)

***

While Biden plans to create a federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to address the resulting recession, he has also pledged to re-enter the Iranian nuclear deal. On the campaign trail, Biden said that his administration would reenter the agreement if Tehran returns to compliance, and said he hopes to work with U.S. allies to “make it longer and stronger.” 

“I think that inevitably will cause some tension with Netanyahu,” former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told JI. “Biden’s attitude is that the deal is fixable and Trump has left him with a lot of leverage to do that. I think that the prospects for dealing with the problems in the agreement are quite good. But Netanyahu may not agree with that approach, and so that’s going to be a source of tension.”

Walla News! diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid reported on Sunday that the Trump administration is currently coordinating with Israel and other Gulf states on a plan to issue new sanctions on Iran in the final week’s of the president’s term.

Mark Mellman, president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, expressed hope that rejoining the international accord with Iran would not cause tensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship, as it did in 2015. “I think there is general agreement in the policy community that there’s no going back exactly to the Iran deal. I am reasonably confident the administration is going to try and strike a deal that will be different from and better than the earlier agreement,” Mellman explained. “I also think the personal relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Biden is better than the relationship with President Obama.”

Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador from 2001-2005, believes that Biden will consult with Netanyahu about his administration’s approach to Iran. “I don’t know if they’ll be able to reach any kind of an agreement,” he said. “Biden, I think, believes that the most important and immediate imperative is to stop Iran from enriching uranium — to stop the program in its tracks — and then to use the time after Iran has stopped to work on all the other issues, including the length of the agreement, the missile developments, their support for terrorism and so forth. We know that Netanyahu doesn’t agree with that.” 

Jewish Democratic Council of America executive director Halie Soifer noted that though Democrats did not wholly support the agreement in 2015, “they were unanimously opposed to Trump walking away [from the deal] in 2018,” which she believes gives Biden leeway to try and broker a new deal that would be acceptable to Israel. 

“Joe Biden shares the same objective as Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Soifer said, “which is to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. And now it’s a question of how you go about doing that.” 

***

Biden’s long-standing relationship with the American Jewish community and mainstream pro-Israel groups will play a factor in his administration’s relations with Israel and in maintaining bipartisan domestic support for Israel’s security. 

“I think there’s a lot that can be achieved and done in the U.S.-Israel relationship with Biden which could not have been achieved with Obama, and to some extent even with Trump, because you need bipartisanship,” Abe Foxman, who headed the Anti-Defamation League from 1987-2015, told JI. “Biden will build bipartisanship and make sure Israel will not be politicized.” 

Foxman said he believes that a Biden administration will have an “open door” policy for Jewish organizations across the political spectrum. 

“The door will be very open to a wide variety of viewpoints from the Jewish community — ranging from pretty far left to pretty far right,” Solow predicted. “I’m not saying every single organization will get an invitation, so to speak, but it will be a wider variety [than previous administrations].” 

Susie Gelman, chair of the Israel Policy Forum, told JI that she expects a Biden administration “would seek to engage with a wide variety of groups offering different perspectives, including some that might disagree with him — something that has not happened in the Trump years.” 

One organization which hopes to work with the incoming administration is J Street, which raised $2 million for Biden’s campaign. “J Street actively supported Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s campaign because their views on core issues align with ours,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told JI. “We will have a strong working relationship with the new administration, and we look forward to an open exchange of ideas.” 

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, noted that while a majority of Orthodox Jews supported Trump’s reelection, “even before this campaign, Joe Biden was the kind of person that was very open to reaching out and building coalitions broadly.” 

Diament said he is “hopeful” that the OU “will have a productive working relationship” with the Biden administration, which he expects will do “more outreach” to communities that backed Trump. “[Biden] literally campaigned on wanting to bring the country together more,” Diament explained. 

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a columnist and social critic who also serves as the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, said he predicts that “mainstream Democratic concern for Israel will carry the day in both Congress and the White House, and that the Biden administration, while it will not dismiss the concerns of the ‘progressive’ voices in its party, will be on the same page as mainstream pro-Israel groups when it comes to positions and actions vis-a-vis the Middle East.”

Biden’s “DNA is all about inclusivity,” said Steve Israel, who served in Congress during the debate over the Iran deal in 2015. “He will listen to all voices and then make a judgement. If there’s one person in Washington who never shuts and locks the door, it’s Joe Biden.” 

Ultimately, “Joe Biden is going to be president of the United States,” Solow said, “his views are going to drive this policy. He will hear the progressives out, but I don’t think that they’re going to move the U.S. policy to Israel appreciably to the left.”

Holocaust historian and author Deborah Lipstadt suggested that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party will instead seek to influence economic policies. “I think his relationship with the Jewish community will be very close,” said Lipstadt. “Biden will have a good relationship with different Jewish leaders than the Trump administration had.” 

But one organization that is unwilling to give Biden a grace period is the Zionist Organization of America. “I am very, very worried,” ZOA President Mort Klein told JI. “I have known Joe Biden for 25 years. Every time he promised me he would do something on Israel, he never did it.” Klein said he was worried about Biden’s positions on the Middle East and his potential cabinet appointments, but said he would judge the next president “based on statements and policies, and if he does good things for America and Israel, I’m happy to say so.” 

According to Mellman, “To have a seat at the table, you have to be respectful of the office, the man. I didn’t respect Donald Trump, and so I didn’t expect that. And if some folks on the extreme [right] are disrespectful to the vice president or to the office, I don’t expect them to be at the table. But I expect him to reach out to a broad spectrum.”   

***

In his interview with JI last month, Blinken pledged that a Biden administration “would certainly try and continue to pursue and advocate for normalization with any Arab state that is prepared to do that,” while also working to achieve a two-state reality between Israel and the Palestinians. But when asked about the odds of Saudi Arabia joining the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan in normalizing relations with Israel, Blinken maintained that a Biden administration would “undertake a strategic review of our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia to make sure that it is truly advancing our interests and is consistent with our values. But beyond that there is not much I can say at this point.” 

Kurtzer said that while Biden assesses his approach, he doesn’t believe facilitating a normalization deal “is going to be a major priority, because what the Saudis have said, or at least the King of Saudi Arabia has said, [is] that there has to be progress on the Palestinian issue. And that’s going to depend on Netanyahu, not Biden.” 

Gelman, who advocated against Israeli annexation of the West Bank, said while she doesn’t think Saudi-Israel normalization “will be on a fast track, I would hope and expect a Biden administration to seek to utilize the normalization treaties to date to create progress towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Indyk told JI that Trump’s peace plan will likely be off the table as the Biden administration will seek to reestablish ties with the Palestinian Authority. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Biden take a proactive role in trying to promote Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations,” said Indyk.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered daily in a must-read newsletter.