What will Biden’s policies on Israel look like ?

Nominated Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Chandan Khanna - AFP)

Richard Silverstein

Al-Jazeera  /  December 22, 2020

The incoming US administration is unlikely to be a cheerleader of the Israeli far right but he will also not challenge the status quo and Israel’s continuing colonisation of Palestine.

 As President-elect Joe Biden announces the final choices for his cabinet, many in the American political establishment are breathing a sigh of relief. Predictability, moderation and centrism in policymaking are the words of the day.

Though progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez loomed large in efforts to bring Democrats out to vote in record numbers, Biden seems to have turned his back on them and their progressive agenda as he fills federal agencies and cabinet positions.

That holds true in foreign policy as well. Many pundits are expecting continuity with the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. This middle of the road approach was recently confirmed by Biden’s pick for secretary of state – Antony Blinken – who has an impeccable Democratic pedigree. Blinken’s father and uncle served as ambassadors under Clinton and his step-father served in the Kennedy administration.

Blinken has been described as a “multilateralist” and “internationalist” who believes in close ties with European allies. He is also known to firmly stand by Israel and support the Iran nuclear deal. So what does this mean for Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East – Israel?

“Status quo” in Palestine

Given the dysfunctional federal government Biden will inherit from outgoing President Donald Trump, including a massive COVID-related economic and public health crisis, his administration will have to concentrate on resolving domestic issues.

US foreign policy will most likely focus on countering China’s expansionism, Russia’s interference in European, and American affairs and Iran’s antagonism provoked by the Trump administration. These issues pose a major challenge to US policymakers and will absorb much of the energy of the Biden foreign policy team.

​This means the Biden administration is unlikely to put forward any major initiatives to resolve the conflict in Israel-Palestine. It may reverse some of the pernicious policies of the Trump administration, reopening the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington and the US consulate in East Jerusalem, which serves Palestinians, and resuming funding for UNWRA.

However, Biden will not move the US embassy to Israel back to Tel Aviv, as he made clear ahead of the elections. Blinken, his secretary of state pick, has also said such a move “would not make sense practically and politically”.​

Blinken has also made a number of controversial statements regarding the Palestinians, accusing them of being responsible for the failure of negotiations. “In the category of ‘Never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity’, I think a reminder to Palestinians … that they can and should do better and deserve better and that requires leadership: leadership to make clear the reality of the Jewish state; leadership to make clear the need to end incitement and violence; leadership to bring people along for the prospect of negotiating,” he said in May, using the words of former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban.

The Biden campaign has also made its stance on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement quite clear. Ahead of the election, it released a statement saying it “firmly reject[s] the BDS movement, which singles out Israel – home to millions of Jews – and too often veers into antisemitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices” – although the latter part referring to the Palestinians was later removed after it provoked controversy in the Arab-American community.

Biden is likely to revert to the historic US position on Israeli settlements – that they are illegal and an obstacle to peace – but he and Blinken are unlikely to do anything about it. They will likely favour the “status quo” in Palestine, which means the Israeli government will continue undisturbed to move farther towards its goal of absorbing the Occupied Palestinian Territories into Israel proper, leaving Palestinians stateless aliens in their own land.

No cheerleader for Netanyahu

Unlike Sanders, who has advocated for tying US military assistance to restraining Israeli settlements, Biden fully supports unconditional aid for Israel. Both he and Blinken have declared to Israel lobby audiences that withholding aid would be a hostile act against Israel and rejected it outright.

That said, Biden is unlikely to serve as a cheerleader for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the Israeli radical right, as Trump did. There will be no Israeli election campaign banners featuring Netanyahu and Biden, hanging on skyscrapers.

Although relations with the Israeli prime minister may not be as icy as they were under Obama – who personally disliked him – Biden is unlikely to go out of his way to maintain Likud in power. He will not produce electoral gifts for Netanyahu, by backing Israeli annexation of the West Bank or recognising Israeli sovereignty over illegal Israeli settlements, as Trump did.

Thus, if Israel goes to the polls – as many observers expect – for the fourth time in two years, Netanyahu may not be re-elected. He will likely face court on the three corruption counts he is charged with and may get sentenced to prison.

But even if he loses power, this is unlikely to moderate Israel’s current policies. Given the lack of real ideological diversity in the choices for prime minister, Biden would eschew any intervention on behalf of any candidate.

His administration will probably support the process of Arab normalisation started under Trump and championed by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But given that Kushner spearheaded this effort with the close cooperation of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, normalisation may decelerate under Biden, as US relations with these states may become quite tenuous. One of the main reasons for that will be Biden’s declared aim of returning to the nuclear agreement with Iran.

The Iran deal challenge

Policy on Iran will be one area in which the incoming Biden administration will clash not only with Gulf allies but also with Israel. Netanyahu campaigned tirelessly against the nuclear agreement before it was signed. After Trump took office, the Israeli prime minister urged Trump to reject it, which he did.

Biden has repeatedly said he wants the US to return to the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He is seeking a return to a more stable, less contentious relationship with Iran – one which guarantees it will not develop nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future in return for lifting punitive economic sanctions.

Israel – with the help of Trump – is trying to prevent this from happening. The recent assassinations of a senior al-Qaeda figure in Tehran and the country’s leading nuclear scientist, Moshen Fakrizadeh, are designed to box Biden in and undermine his efforts to reach out to Iran. Israel hopes this killing, as well as the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by a US drone in January, will convince Iranian hardliners to reject a return to nuclear negotiations. Given Blinken and Biden’s exceedingly close relations with the Israel lobby, they will be torn between pursuing their own policy agenda and mollifying Israel’s hawkish demands.

They will also have to restrain Israel’s military adventurism, including its oft-stated goal of regime change and attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Obama restrained Netanyahu from such attacks, but the Israeli leader has shown nothing but disdain for Democratic presidents and their warnings.

​Can Joe Biden say no to Israel? And if he does, will Israeli leaders accept such a rejection? Or will they continue their reckless policy of assassination, sabotage, and perhaps even an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? All of these challenges will show what Joe Biden is really made of.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state