Argument

Is Biden Bad News for Bibi?

A Democratic win could lead to political upheaval and another Israeli election.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give joint statements to the press in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give joint statements to the press in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. DEBBIE HILL/AFP via Getty Images

The effects of Tuesday’s vote will ripple far beyond the shores of the United States. With Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden increasingly on track to a victory—barring unforeseen legal challenges—and a move into the White House in January 2021, Israel is one of the places whose political calculus stands to be impacted most directly and significantly by the impending personnel changes in Washington. The prolonged delay in declaring a winner hasn’t overly traumatized Israelis, who are accustomed to waiting weeks, if not months, after Election Day until the final picture emerges.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister since March 2009, heads a wildly unstable coalition government. Its key leaders feud incessantly and publicly about everything from the national budget and senior appointments to regional strategy and even the country’s response to COVID-19.

Conventional wisdom has been suggesting that Israelis are speeding toward an imminent election, which would be their fourth since April 2019. But the advent of a Biden presidency could precipitate a grudging cease-fire between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is slated to replace him as premier in a rotation next November.

The past four years have generated a diplomatic windfall for Israel. Netanyahu—a uniquely talented Trump-charmer among world leaders—has leveraged these gains domestically, fashioning himself as the Israeli politician most capable of shepherding his nation’s critical relationship with Washington.

That argument has been an almost impossible sell, however, when Democrats have occupied the Oval Office. Netanyahu’s dealings with Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were notoriously strained; in his December 2016 parting shot, after a rare U.S. abstention on a United Nations Security Council resolution censuring Israeli settlement activity, Netanyahu lashed out at the Obama administration, accusing it of having “colluded with [the U.N.] behind the scenes” in a “gang-up” on Israel.

Polls forecasting President Donald Trump’s defeat were not lost on Netanyahu. It was no accident when the prime minister chose to articulate last week that bipartisan U.S. support for Israel has been “one of the foundations of the American-Israeli alliance.” (That episode came on the heels of Trump’s clumsy Oct. 23 attempt to embroil Netanyahu in the campaign when he asked him, in front of assembled media, whether “you think sleepy Joe could have made this deal [with Sudan], Bibi?” Netanyahu dodged the bullet.)

Expectations are that Biden’s Middle East policy will place him on a collision course with Netanyahu and his right-wing boosters. A renewed U.S. focus on pursuing a “path of diplomacy” with Iran and jump-starting the currently dormant negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians—including a resolute U.S. commitment to a two-state solution—are certain to spark clashes between Biden and Netanyahu, about whom Biden once famously said, “I don’t agree with a damn thing you say.”

A depreciation in the value of Netanyahu’s stock on the world stage could make Israelis more amenable to considering an alternative investment. Netanyahu will seek to make a case for continuing as premier on the grounds that, if Israel is indeed destined to spar with the U.S. government, there is no person better positioned than him to wage those battles. That may not be enough for him to survive at Israel’s helm. Gantz met on Wednesday with Netanyahu’s nemesis, former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, in a conspicuous sign that the vultures might already be circling and plotting the prime minister’s overthrow in parliament.

If the 14 members of Gantz’s Blue and White faction were compelled to break ranks and join together with the opposition in what’s known as a constructive no-confidence motion, it could be curtains for the incumbent.

Any attempt to eject Netanyahu from power will meet with formidable resistance. Netanyahu is a political master, and his rivals will surely encounter difficulties in resolving their own differences en route to mounting a unified challenge against him. He’s unlikely to make their task that much easier by rushing now to call a snap vote. That said, the same political turmoil buffeting the United States could soon propel Israel—where the situation is fluid—back into the vortex of yet another election.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner

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