Adnan Abu Amer
Middle East Monitor / November 2, 2020
Israel is getting ever more concerned about the result of the US election tomorrow. It fears a win for Democrat candidate Joe Biden and the loss of its ally Donald Trump. In preparation for a Democrat victory, it is seeking closer cooperation with regional countries, greater influence within the Democratic Party, and positive contacts with Biden’s campaign team to negate the possibility of an anti-Israel foreign policy in Washington and an end to the US-Israel honeymoon.
Among the Israeli concerns about a President Biden in the White House is that he may take the US back into the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018. The Israelis also expect the issue of its settlements across the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem to be back on the agenda with a Democratic administration, which is likely to view them once again as an obstacle to peace. The UN will also probably be emboldened to criticise the illegal settlements. Israel’s relationship with the White House will, most Israelis believe, be less than cordial.
The assessment is that if Biden is elected, the Palestinian issue will be the top priority of his foreign policy, because he will try to distance himself from his predecessor. Radical Democrats are likely to push for key government positions and from there apply pressure on Israel regarding the settlements. Israelis still remember the “bad old days” when Barack Obama was in office. In 2016 he signed a ten-year aid agreement with Israel worth $3.8 billion per annum, which Congress must ratify annually. Today, the radicals in the Democratic Party are demanding to take advantage of this to push Israel to change its positions.
Moreover, it is unlikely that any more of Trump’s promises will be enacted. The US Embassy, of course, will stay in Jerusalem with Biden in the White House, but the ambassador may sit in Tel Aviv. A President Biden will, it is believed, reopen the Palestinian Embassy in Washington — the Office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to be precise — which Trump closed in 2018. Furthermore, he will restore aid to Palestinian institutions, as well as to UNRWA, which provides essential basic services to Palestinian refugees, but Biden does not intend to use aid to Israel as a means to put pressure on it to change its policies.
Biden’s first foreign visitors if he wins on 3 November could well be Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defence Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, the Foreign Minister. They will hope to be able to turn a new page in the relationship.
Without doubt, the most crucial issue facing Israel with Biden is Iran, because if elected he will work on a new-old agreement with Tehran to ease the harsh sanctions imposed by Trump. He will also fight for an improved long-term agreement that includes restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme and missile development.
The US presidential election is taking place with Israeli and American experts believing that Washington has lost its relative strength and global influence, which is reflected in its position towards Israel, including the threat to cut military aid. While Israel now depends on the US less than it once did, it is clear that the identity of the man sitting in the White House, whether Biden or Trump, has a bearing on Israel and its future regarding Iran, the settlements and the Palestinians.
There is no doubt that the Israelis are facing a major shift on this historic occasion. They must ask themselves if they are prepared for what could be a very awkward election result. Close scrutiny reveals that Israel has more or less abandoned the Democrats in America since 2016, and can only rely on no-questions-asked support from Trump, the Republicans and Evangelical Christians.
Contacts with the Democrats and its associated influencers, including the academic elite, labour organisations and minority groups — chief among them, of course, the Jewish community — were put to one side in the rush to get immediate gains from a Trump administration. These have been achieved at the expense of Israel’s long-term vision.
The gap between Israel and the world’s largest and most influential Jewish community in the world has widened under Trump’s presidency. American Jews are traditionally mainly Democrats, and are likely to be so on 3 November. It will be interesting to see if they are.
Donald Trump is a president sympathetic to Israel, probably the most pro-Israel US president in history. We will know in a few days’ time if he is going to vacate the White House in January 2021, or in January 2025. Either way, Israel has to be ready for the day that someone replaces him. If Biden does win this week, then Netanyahu’s short-termism of the past four years will be a major hindrance to Israel’s relationship with the new president.
Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza