By Douglas Bloomfield
President-elect Joe Biden may not plan to put the Israeli-Palestine quagmire at the top of his foreign policy agenda when he moves into the White House, but an Israeli prime minister who joined his friend Donald Trump in repeatedly sticking his finger in the eye of the Democrats may force his hand.
As it has happened so many times in the past, an Israeli decision to flaunt its expansionist settlement policies before a U.S. administration could provide a dangerous spark in January; so could Biden’s determination to re-enter the nuclear agreement with Iran, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently— and in a highly partisan fashion —opposed.
Throughout his public career Biden has consistently opposed “the steady and systematic expansion of settlements” as “moving Israel the wrong direction,” but during the 2020 campaign he repeatedly ruled out using threats to cut aid as leverage to change policy, as advocated by some of his rivals.
Antony Blinken, the campaign advisor who is now the secretary of sate nominee, has said the Biden administration will oppose any linkage between aid and “political decisions” Israel makes.
Israeli media reports that he plans a new spurt in settlement construction before Trump leaves office. Netanyahu announced Monday, Jan. 11, that he will advance plans to build over 800 new settlement homes just days before Joe Biden is sworn in as president of the United States.
Another diplomatic tinderbox awaiting Biden centers on Iran. Washington and Jerusalem have had many disagreements over the years, sometimes spilling over into the public arena. Netanyahu was the instigator of one of the most acrimonious. The low point came in 2015 when Netanyahu went behind the back of the Democratic president to join forces with his Republican opponents to lead their lobbying campaign against the Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the nuclear deal with Iran.
It is no secret that Obama and Netanyahu could barely tolerate each other. Bill Clinton had his problems, too. Following one meeting with the prime minister the Clinton complained to his advisors, “He thinks he is the superpower, and we are here to do whatever he requires,” reported Amb. Dennis Ross, the top U.S. Mideast negotiator. Ross has described Netanyahu in such meetings as “insufferable” and “overcome by hubris.”
Israel/ U.S. Relations
Netanyahu’s hard right policies and overtly partisan embrace of Trump and the right wing of the Republican Party have contributed to the widening rift between Israel and both the Democrats and American Jewry. In November, 80 million Americans, including a majority of Jewish voters, chose Biden to be their next president. If Netanyahu is intent on provoking public clashes with Biden, too, he will be doing enormous damage to U.S.-Israel relations that the new president has unfailingly championed and supported.
GOP Clashes With Israel
Democrats weren’t the only presidents to clash with Israel. During the 1981 AWACS debate over early warning aircraft for Saudi Arabia, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff was reported telling Republican senators that they had to choose “Reagan or Begin.” That official was James A. Baker III, who later publicly told another Israeli leader that when he is ready to get serious about peacemaking he could phone the White House switchboard.
Then President Reagan and his secretaries of state, Alexander Haig and George Shultz, were considered friendly toward Israel but not his vice president and secretary of defense, George H.W. Bush and Caspar Weinberger. Those two were considered hostile; among other moves, they were responsible for halting the delivery of F-15s to Israel in 1981 as punishment for the bombing of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osiraq. They were also advocating of a new U.S. policy of building a strategic consensus in the Persian Gulf, centered around Saudi Arabia.
Senator Biden called the plan a “fatal mistake” because it meant “a shift of the center of gravity from America’s true friend, Israel, to others,” he told Ambassador Meir Rosenne in the 1986 meeting as reported in a diplomatic cable sent to Jerusalem by the Israeli congressional liaison, Neville Lamdan, which was recently found in the Israel State Archives and published by Haaretz.
Biden’s view of the Saudis hasn’t softened over the years. He has called the kingdom a “pariah” that is “no more than a collection of 500 princes and their families.” He told the Council on Foreign Relations, “I would end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship.”
The Trump administration has been willing to overlook the kingdom’s poor human rights record, its brutal war in Yemen and the assassination of Washington Post columnist Adnan Khashoggi in exchange for promises of large U.S. weapons purchases.
Ironically, with Israel courting the Saudis to turn their semi-secret relationship into full blown diplomatic recognition, Netanyahu may take on the role of Saudi lobbyist to block unfavorable —in his and the Saudi view —Biden administration moves. As noted in this column earlier, there is ample precedent.
Netanyahu is used to being one of the first foreign leaders to meet incoming American presidents, but not this time. He asked for an early Oval Office invitation but was told Biden has put off meetings with foreign leaders for the time being, citing the pandemic crisis, the Washington Post reported. Meanwhile, Netanyahu will be busy. His criminal corruption trial resumes in January and he has called for the fourth election in less than two years to be held in March.
Israeli voters want a prime minister who can skillfully manage the American portfolio. Taking public pot shots at a president even before he takes office can only widen Israel’s growing rifts with Washington, particularly with the Democratic Party and American Jewry.