Biden and Israel or Biden vs. Israel? Panelists examine life after Trump

Then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2016
Then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2016 (Photo by U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)

How will a Joe Biden presidency affect the United States’ diplomatic relations with Israel? How will the Biden administration handle issues like the Iranian nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And how might Israel respond? These were some of the questions at the center of a panel discussion last week, “The Biden Administration and Israel: What Can We Expect?”

A return to previous U.S. policy positions

The U.S.-Israel relationship will change in “profound ways,” as the Trump administration was a departure from the consensus of previous administrations, said Scott Lasensky, a professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. Pre-Trump presidents declined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, largely because their status was seen as being the result of negotiations. Trump disagreed.

Lasensky said the Biden administration plans to restore diplomatic relations with the Palestinian National Authority, resume aid to the Palestinians and reaffirm support for a two-state solution, a reversal of Trump policy.

“If your benchmark for U.S.-Israel relations is the last four years, the Trump presidency, well then you’re going to be in for a major shock to the system,” Lasensky said. “And you’ll probably consider the changes negative.”

U.S. and Israel don’t have to agree on everything

Asked how Biden’s desire for the United States to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal will affect its relationship with Israel, Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, said it’s clear that Biden doesn’t want conflict with Israel, and foresees them being able to work together, even if they don’t agree on everything.

“On the U.S. side, early on, the American position has been, if Iran goes back in, we will go back in. And the Iranian position has been, if the U.S. goes back in, we’ll go back in,” Goldenberg said. “So now that will be unpacked over time and what that actually means.

“I think at the end of the day, for both the U.S. and for Israel, we don’t necessarily have to agree on everything,” Goldenberg said. “But it’s so much better for both of us if we are quietly sitting in a room, aligning our positions, talking about our disagreements and finding ways to address them.”

What about settlements?

The United States wants to keep open the possibility for a two-state solution, said Shira Efron, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

One of the main stumbling blocks are the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But the main U.S. priority will be to “restore bilateral diplomatic ties with the Palestinians, which in practice have not existed in the last few years.”

She said Biden plans to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington office, which Trump closed in 2018. There’s also the possibility of the United States reopening its consulate general in East Jerusalem, which was merged with the U.S. Embassy in 2019. Efron doesn’t believe these things would be contentious, but it’s possible they could be.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not even going to be a priority topic, not because the administration in the United States doesn’t think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important. It’s because the conditions have not changed fundamentally to advance it as a top policy issue,” Efron said.

Israelis love Trump

Surveys have shown an Israeli preference for Trump over Biden, said Tamar Hermann, academic director of the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

Hermann said if she were Biden, she would give some sort of clear statement regarding America’s commitment to Israel’s security.

“Otherwise it will be very easy to harness Israeli public opinion against the American administration,” Hermann said. “I’m very much afraid that people are highly skeptical. And unless the administration gives some very, very strong signals that the concern about security is the prime issue for it, then we are about to see some reluctance to cooperate on many critical issues.”

The panel discussion on Jan. 28 was sponsored by the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and the Joseph & Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.

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