Mondoweiss / July 4, 2021
Joe Biden is showing up his former boss, Barack Obama, in a key area of foreign policy. He has decided to have no public daylight between the United States and Israel, in the political interests of himself and the new Israeli government.
The strategy helps explain why Biden has had very little public criticism of Israel, while apparently jawboning the government behind the scenes to rein in its actions. And in turn why the new Naftali Bennett government in Israel has tried to defuse sources of international outrage by going slow on the continued illegal settlement of Palestinian lands. Even as the outrages quietly continue.
Lahav Harkov, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, explained Biden’s approach in an interview with an Israel lobby group, the Israel Policy Forum. Harkov referred to a famous incident early in the Obama presidency that surely came to haunt the young president for his entire administration, when Obama reportedly said he wanted to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel.
In June 2009, Obama gave his big speech in Cairo and declared that the settlements must end and so must the “intolerable” “humiliations” of Palestinians. Then in July he met at the White House with concerned Jewish leaders. Here is the Washington Post‘s account, per CNN:
“Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Obama, ‘If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them.’”
“’Look at the past eight years,” Obama said, according to the Post. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.’”
Obama had misread the political map. The Jewish organizations and Benjamin Netanyahu had more political sway on these issues than he did, and Netanyahu took on the new “daylight” understanding “with gusto,” as Harkov says, repeatedly embarrassing and humbling the president. Obama had to eat his words as he started up his campaign for a second term, ultimately vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements.
Now Biden and Bennett want to bring U.S.-Israel relations “back on track to what it was before Netanyahu and Obama were on a collision course,” Harkov says, “trying to show a very strong U.S.-Israel alliance and keeping disagreements behind closed doors when possible.”
Israel’s leaders and Biden share an interest: keeping Israel a “bipartisan” issue in the U.S., with support from both political parties. That keeps the money and diplomatic support flowing to Israel, and also shuts progressive Democrats out of policy-making so that the Democratic Party doesn’t split openly over Israel, just at the edge. “The plan is to get the relations with the majority of the Democratic Party back on track,” Harkov says.
Barack Obama was right; Israel will only change its conduct with outside pressure. It just never happens…
Israeli leaders are also hoping to keep the American Jewish community on Israel’s side as in years gone by. Both Bennett and his Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have the “idea that all Jews are brothers, we are one big family, and even when we disagree we should feel connected to one another,” Harkov says. Yes good luck on that, too; young American Jews endorse the human rights reports calling Israel an apartheid state.
I don’t think Biden’s strategy will work in the end. There is just too much evidence of Palestinian persecution in plain sight for the left not to demand official response from the U.S. government. Like Israeli soldiers shooting at a Palestinian child in occupied Hebron. Or thuggish Jewish settlers stealing Palestinians’ homes out from under them in Jerusalem.
Then there is the U.S. reestablishing a consulate general in Jerusalem to serve Palestinians, something that the Trump administration removed in a symbolic slap to the Palestinians. Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised in late May after meeting with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
Harkov says that Israel is pushing to have the consulate general as far from Jerusalem as possible–in Ramallah, or in Abu Dis, which is inside Israel’s large municipal boundary for Jerusalem but outside the separation wall. So Israel wants to strip Palestinians, who have lived on this land for centuries, and regarded Jerusalem as their spiritual center, from any real connection with the heart of the country.
“Certainly [Abu Dis] would be a better option as far as Israel is concerned dealing with sovereignty issues in Jerusalem,” says Harkov, who says that she years ago interviewed for the job of government spokesperson for Israel. As she is being interviewed by an Israel lobby group. And of course no Palestinian was on the call to say what they think of a capital for a supposed Palestinian state in the West Bank.
So the Biden administration is seeking to strengthen and protect an Israeli government that is dedicated to preserving apartheid, in order to prevent political damage inside the Democratic Party, because the Democratic Party is still closely aligned with the Israel lobby here. I can only imagine what Democratic Party policy would be like if the lobby did not have such influence inside the U.S.
Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006