What will relations between the US and Israel look like under President Joe Biden?

Vice President Joe Biden visit to Israel March 2016
Vice President Joe Biden visit to Israel March 2016 (Wikimedia)

As presidential candidate, Biden welcomed the normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.

In a statement following the deals, Biden said his administration would “build on these steps, challenge other nations to keep pace, and work to leverage these growing ties into progress toward a two-state solution and a more stable, peaceful region.”

American-Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said in an interview that he hoped Biden would build on the Abraham Accords, underscoring that recent normalization deals have shown what a “warm peace” between Israel and Arab states can look like.

“Hopefully Biden won’t dismiss the agreements just because they were negotiated by Trump, but will play the strong hand he’s been dealt in the Middle East,” Klein Halevi said.

Similarly, American presidential historian Gil Troy said in an email that he hopes “that despite the justifiable contempt Joe Biden and his people have for Donald Trump and his administration, they will learn whatever is worth learning from Trump, particularly the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East.”

Troy added, “Barack Obama’s policies mostly failed in the Middle East, especially concerning Syria, Iran and the Palestinians/peace process. Why replicate them? By contrast, Donald Trump’s all-often-blindly disruptive strategy worked extremely well in freeing American policymakers from the Palestinians’ terrorism veto and the Iranians’ regional con game.”

According to Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum based in Washington, D.C., “Biden and Secretary of State designate Antony Blinken have been unambiguously explicit that they view these agreements as a positive and will try to build on them.”

Koplow wrote that the Biden administration should continue normalization efforts, stating, “Normalization between Israel and its former foes not only benefits Israel, but benefits American interests and regional stability as well, and puts to rest an ugly boycott that delegitimizes Israel’s fundamental right to self-determined sovereignty.”

Rejoining the JCPOA (Iran Deal)

Klein Halevi said that the closeness of the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is likely to be marred by deep differences on Iran, Israel’s most important policy and security issue.

“It’s clear that Biden and Harris intend to go back to the disastrous Iran deal,” Klein Halevi said. “From my perspective, there is no greater existential threat to Israel than that deal.”

Dov Waxman, a professor and the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert foundation chair in Israel studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), agreed that “the issue of Iran, particularly its nuclear program, is likely to be the greatest source of tension and potentially, conflict, between the Biden administration and the Israeli government.”

The 2015 Iran deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — was widely unpopular in Israel. In a controversial speech to Congress about the threat of the deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the agreement “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

The U.S. left the Iran deal in May 2018 under President Trump. Biden has said he would rejoin if Iran returns to strict compliance and would “work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.” Netanyahu has already expressed his opposition to the U.S. rejoining the agreement.

Historian Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said a major sticking point is how the Biden administration will approach the negotiations with Iran.

“They want to come back into the agreement and then negotiate Iranian concessions,” Rabinovich said, adding that anyone with experience “knows that you actually do not begin by granting and then asking for concessions, but you negotiate the concessions and then you add in what you’re willing to grant.”

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Peace Efforts

President Biden has stated: “I believe a two-state solution is the only path to long-term security for Israel, while sustaining its identity as a Jewish and democratic state. It is also the only way to ensure Palestinian dignity and their legitimate interest in national self-determination.”

Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, a former Weston fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a prominent peace activist, said in an email that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “although Biden’s policy will not ignore the Palestinian side as Trump did,” it will still “give more weight to Israeli concerns than to Palestinian interests.”

Dajani said that the U.S. relationship with both Israel and the Palestinians under President Biden will depend more on Israeli and Palestinian leaders than on American-led initiatives. As Israel prepares for a national election in March 2021, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas announced parliamentary and presidential elections set for May and July, the first Palestinian elections in 15 years.

“New leadership with courage and vision would steer the two nations towards peace,” Dajani said, citing a quote from Martin Indyk, a former U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, “As long as Netanyahu leads Israel and Abbas leads the PA, the chances that the gap between them could somehow close aren’t very likely.”

UCLA professor Waxman said he did not expect the Biden administration to push for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the near term, given that “the prospects for peace talks to be successful are practically nil under the current circumstances, at least with the current leadership in Jerusalem and in Ramallah.”

Instead, Waxman predicted, the Biden administration will focus on “trying to maintain at least the possibility for a two-state solution to the conflict down the line.” This would include preventing Israel from annexing large parts of the West Bank and building new settlements, which many view as undercutting the prospects for a two-state solution.

Troy said he hoped the Biden administration would look beyond old paradigms for resolving the conflict.

“It will be a sad day, for the U.S., the world, the Palestinan people and Israel, if Biden’s people go back to the stale, disproven Oslo assumptions that the road to Mideast peace runs through the dictators in Ramallah (and now in Gaza too),” he said.

“Biden needs the newly-updated post-Trump-Kushner GPS showing that there are many routes to take to Middle East peace and progress. The more ties with Israel proliferate, the more Palestinian extremists will be isolated,” Troy added.

Relations Between the US and Israel Under President Biden
Biden has known every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. He is fond of telling a story about meeting Meir in 1973 when he was a 30-year-old senator.

Biden was part of a group of senators who met with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin in Washington in June 1982, a few days after the start of the Lebanon War (also known as “Operation Peace for the Galilee”).

According to The New York Times, “the bitterest exchange” at the meeting was between Begin and Biden. While the senator voiced his support for Israel’s Lebanon operation, he opposed Israel’s establishment of new settlements, warning Begin that “Israel was losing support in this country because of the settlements policy.”

Over the years, Biden has expressed both staunch support for the Jewish state as well as criticism of its policies, particularly over Israel’s establishment of new settlements in the West Bank.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, who served alongside Biden in the Obama administration, said on the American Jewish Committee’s People of the Pod podcast that over the years, Biden has forged personal relationships with many Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu. The two men have known each other since the 1980s when Netanyahu was working as a young diplomat in Washington.

Shapiro described Biden and Netanyahu’s friendship as “very Israeli-style where they can argue, sometimes very intensely, but the friendship is not diminished through the argument.”

Sara Hirschhorn, a visiting assistant professor in Israel studies at Northwestern University, said in an email that relations between the Biden administration and Israel would hinge on the outcome of the March 2021 Israeli elections, but elements of the relationship could be predicted.

“The USA will likely re-enter the Iran deal over Israel’s objections, and Israel will likely test the United States over settlement policy,” Hirschhorn wrote. “Both administrations will pursue their own goals, with both predictable friction and cooperation between the parties who are allies, but not in agreement on all policy priorities.”

Klein Halevi underscored that in his opinion, both Biden and Harris are genuine friends of Israel and have deep connections with the Jewish state.

He said a major difference between the Obama and Biden administrations with respect to Israel will be their tone toward the Jewish state. “We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of tone, especially between friends,” he said.

“Obama treated Israel as an ally but also as a burden,” Klein Halevi explained. “There were times when Obama was very warm toward Israel and times when he spoke to us with contempt.”

“The tone is going to be different,” he added. “I hope that the Biden administration will be open to hearing Israel’s position on the Iran deal, and not only Israel but also the position of Arab countries, and that Biden will have some of the humility that Obama lacked.”

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.