Dispatch

How a Biden Presidency Could Hurt Netanyahu—and Help Him

Sudan’s decision to forge ties with Israel is one more gift from the Trump administration.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) sits with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) sits with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a dinner at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—If Joe Biden wins the White House next month, as the polls predict, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a lot to lose.

But he could also have something to gain.

No world leader has benefited more than Netanyahu from the presidency of Donald Trump, who abandoned Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and helped Israel normalize ties with two Gulf Arab nations—policies that bolstered the Israeli right.

The White House announced on Friday that a third Arab country, Sudan, would also forge diplomatic relations with Israel, though the details remained scant.

Biden, by contrast, will look for ways to reengage with Iran on nuclear issues and restore Washington’s bilateral ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organization that Trump downgraded. His administration would likely be populated by policymakers from the Obama era who still begrudge Netanyahu’s incursions into U.S. domestic politics. The result could be a kind of simmering tension between Israel and the United States reminiscent of the Obama years.

“Netanyahu described the Obama years as having to play defense. And now with the Trump administration, he could go on offense,” reshaping the parameters of the conflict with Iran and the Palestinians, said Dan Rothem, a Tel Aviv-based analyst who served as an advisor to former Israeli President Shimon Peres. “With a Biden administration, he’ll have to go back on defense.”

The tensions won’t necessarily flare immediately. Biden has long-standing ties to Israel dating back to a meeting with then-Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973. Any negotiation with Iran will take months to get going in earnest and will be complicated by the events that transpired since Trump abandoned the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

The United States has imposed painful economic sanctions on Iran, and Tehran has resumed uranium enrichment in violation of the original agreement—a multilateral deal that barred Iran from building a nuclear weapon for 15 years. Mistrust of Washington in Iran has only deepened.

Moreover, Biden won’t seek to simply revive the nuclear agreement, which was criticized by Republicans and Israel as a “bad deal.” A former U.S. foreign-policy official advising the Biden campaign said returning to the pact will be a “way station” on the path to a longer-term nuclear agreement that is stricter and covers a broader swath of issues. Biden would seek to include limitations on Iran’s ballistic missile program in a new deal and address Tehran’s regional involvement in Lebanon and Syria.

Achieving that, analysts say, will require diplomatic finesse.

“[Biden] speaks of his desire to return to [the nuclear deal], but it’s not very clear how he is going to do that,” said Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “There are many obstacles to going back. As long as we don’t see concrete negotiations between Iran and the U.S., Israel will be more cautious in its response.”

Indeed, any sign of U.S. concessions to Iran or easing up on sanctions to return to negotiations is likely to rankle Netanyahu and leave Israel more isolated.

“Any Israeli government, whether under Netanyahu or the [parliamentary] opposition, is going to be out of step with the U.S. [under Biden],” said Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran who teaches at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center. “Israel wants the sanctions to continue. This means that Israel will be alone in having to deal with the threats posed by Iran in Syria and Lebanon, as well as the threats posed by the Iranian missile program.”

Still, a clash with Washington might offer benefits for Netanyahu: It could help could him deflect attention from his corruption trials and his political woes, and prompt Israelis to rally around him.

During the Obama years, Netanyahu preached to the international community against Iran with ideological zeal, likening Tehran to Nazi Germany. While that ran up against Obama’s pragmatic approach to the region, it helped galvanize Netanyahu’s base and power him to successive election victories.

A resumption of tensions with United States would allow Netanyahu to portray himself as the only Israeli politician with the kind of relationships in Washington—with Republicans in Congress, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and pro-Israel evangelical Christians—required to fight a new deal.

Daniel Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said Netanyahu would do well to initiate a “heart to heart” with a Biden administration and seek common ground on Iran rather than whip up U.S. domestic political opposition regarding Iran.

“I was always against trying to walk this fine line between the administration and Congress. Policy decisions are made by the administration,” he said. “The holy grail is ensuring bipartisan support in Congress.”

While diplomacy with Iran takes months to evolve, Israel and the United States are liable to clash much sooner on policy toward the Palestinians.

The Trump administration pandered to Netanyahu by crafting a lopsided proposal for peace with the Palestinians, naming a benefactor of Jewish West Bank settlements as its ambassador to Israel, and taking other steps to diminish the prospects of Palestinian statehood.

Biden is not expected to immediately renew a push for a comprehensive peace agreement that Obama pursued or demand a settlement freeze. He has said he won’t reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

But he is expected to revisit Trump’s decision to downgrade ties with the Palestinians. Trump has cut U.S. aid to the Palestinian government, defunded the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s embassy in Washington, and eliminated the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which served as a separate diplomatic mission for the Palestinians.

“It’s the small things that can create huge tension,” said Barak Ravid, a diplomatic reporter for Walla! News.

Ravid said that a Biden administration would push back if Israel announced massive plans for settlement expansion or imperiled the stability of the Palestinian Authority. Fantasies of the Israeli right of annexing swaths of the West Bank, which seemed about to come true when Trump unveiled his peace plan earlier this year, will surely come off the table.

“Bibi will have to go through detox from his addiction to Trump. It made him into a Superman,” Ravid said. “Without Trump, he’s like an athlete who stopped taking steroids and needs to do a sprint in his real capacity. Even the most moderate people around Biden can’t stand Netanyahu.”

Ksenia Svetlova, a former Israeli parliament member from the Labor party who is a fellow at the Mitvim Institute, said both Trump and Obama, in their own separate ways, broke accepted conventions toward Israel in Middle East policymaking. And while Biden represents more business as usual, it will still require Netanyahu to chart a new course with the United States.

“It’s not going to be easy, especially after you get accustomed to working with a president who answers your every heart’s desire. Every possible dream and idea that Netanyahu had about the Middle East seemed possible for him. Now there will be a lot of suspicion,” she said.

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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