Netanyahu Said Trump Was Israel’s ‘Greatest Friend.’ How Will He Cope with Biden in the White House?
On Nov 8, the day after Joe Biden’s acceptance speech, Israel’s far-right defense minister Naftali Bennet tweeted his congratulations to the President-Elect. Bennet’s more effusive language, however, he reserved for the man still occupying the Oval Office: “You brought us peace without giving up land,” he wrote, “You made it clear the focus of the region is not the Palestinians. We will never forget this and we will always remain thankful.”
In the four years since Bennet declared “the era of the Palestinian State” over upon Donald Trump’s poll-defying win in 2016, Bennet’s views—on the White House, at least—have gone from fringe to consensus. Where in 2016, polling showed most Israelis favored President Hillary Clinton, the vast majority preferred Trump in 2020.
That’s largely down to the unprecedented favoritism Trump showed to Israel on issues related to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His team of special advisor Jared Kushner, special envoy Jason Greenblatt (since departed), and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman championed some of the ambitions of hardliners like Bennet, who aspire to a Biblical vision of Israel that stretches from the Jordan River to the Sea of Galilee, incorporating the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
But the proposed annexation of swathes of the West Bank was suspended over the summer as a condition of the UAE and Bahrain’s recent normalization deals with Israel. Under Biden, unequivocal in his support for a two-state solution, it might be off the table completely.
A Democratic victory strips Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of support from a U.S. president he described as Israel’s “greatest friend,” at a moment when he is facing weekly protests over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and a felony corruption trial. It could also leave him exposed to challenges from hardliners, whose views Netanyahu helped bring into the political mainstream.
“There’s no question that Bibi is losing his patron,” says Shira Efron, a senior policy researcher at the Israel Policy Forum, using a popular nickname for Netanyahu. That hurts the prime minister domestically, but it also diminishes his stature on the world stage. Netanyahu promoted the idea that “only [he] has an open door with the White House,” Efron says. “So, he didn’t just lose Trump, he lost the ability to mediate with other governments.”
Netanyahu’s own loss of prominence is mirrored by the one Israel can be expected to undergo. Biden will inherit a deeply divided America struck hard by a pandemic. His transition team will contend with a lame-duck president that has still refused to concede defeat. When compared to the challenges he faces in China, North Korea, and Iran, “I don’t think Israel–Palestine is going to be the number one priority for Biden,” says Yossi Meckelberg, an international relations expert at Regent’s University, London.
How Netanyahu and Biden will get along
Netanyahu and Trump may have been kindred spirits politically but the prime minister’s relations with Trump’s predecessor, former President Obama, were decidedly frostier. They were at their coldest when Netanyahu circumvented the White House to become only the second foreign leader since Winston Churchill to address Congress directly—denouncing the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy deal on Iran.
In his congratulatory note to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Nov 8, Netanyahu appeared keen to assert his friendship with Obama’s Vice-President. “Joe, we’ve had a long and warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years, and I know you as a great friend of Israel,” he wrote. “I look forward to working with both of you to further strengthen the special alliance between the US and Israel.”
Netanyahu’s opponents in Israel argue that Democrats have not forgiven him, despite the prime minister’s claims he has maintained good relations on both sides of the aisle. “The disconnect between him and the reality of the situation is so dramatic that he doesn’t even know what the Democratic Party and the new administration think and say about him,” says Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party and leader of the opposition in Israel’s parliament. “Netanyahu took a dangerous gamble and endangered our strategic bi-partisan relationship with the United States. Only a new government can fix that.”
Experts say a return to the acrimony that characterized Netanyahu’s relationship with former President Obama is unlikely. When relations were at their sourest it was Biden who served as an intermediary—one Israeli diplomat that served under Netanyahu described him as the “good cop.” Biden, a Catholic, has in the past declared himself a “Zionist” and reportedly intervened to remove references to Israel’s “occupation” from the Democratic party platform—although last year he said that Netanyahu had drifted to the “extreme right” in order to survive politically.
But the Biden White House is likely to change direction from the past four years. It may slow settlement building in the West Bank, which accelerated under Trump. It could also encourage Arab States pursuing new normalization agreements with Israel to attach conditions that would benefit the Palestinians, according to experts who spoke with the New York Times. Palestinian leaders told TIME recently that they hoped Biden would re-open the shuttered Palestinian mission in Washington, restore funding to Palestinian refugees, and establish a second U.S. consulate for the Palestinian leadership in East Jerusalem.
Arab Israeli lawmakers aren’t expecting much more than that, however. “Biden will take off the table the deal of the century,” says Ayman Odeh, the leader of a coalition of Arab–Israeli dominated parties, referring to the Trump peace proposal. “But it’s hard for me to believe that he’ll put actual pressure on Israel to end the occupation.”
To annex or not to annex?
In Israel’s domestic sphere, a Democratic White House may benefit the hard right as much as the far-left, who remain a marginal political force. While Netanyahu will have to be cautious about aggravating the Democrats with overt plays to his base, says IPC’s Efron, hardliners in Israel’s parliament will feel no such constraints.
“As long as you had someone like Obama in office, it served as Netanyahu’s break when the right asked him why are you not annexing? Why are you not extending settlements or legalizing the outposts?” says Regent’s University. “Then comes Trump: not only is he not stopping him; he’s pushing him.”
Meckleberg believes that no matter how much Netanyahu trumpeted his intent to annex the West Bank, he did not intend to go against the advice of his security establishment and risk opprobrium on the international stage. For a prime minister known to be a cautious actor on foreign policy, annexing territory Israel already effectively controls doesn’t make sense, he argues. The normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain allowed him to call it off without losing face.
Still, de facto annexation continues unabated. Days after Biden was declared winner, right-wing lawmakers in Israel began promoting plans to advance settlement infrastructure before Trump leaves office. Likud’s transportation minister Miri Regev on Oct 9 announced plans for new transportation infrastructure in the West Bank. Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi planted a tree near Jericho—a tactic used by some settlers to lay claim to land they illegally occupy. Authorities are this week expected to release a tender booklet for Givat Hamatos, one of the West Bank’s most controversial settlements according to Israeli anti-occupation organization Peace Now.
In the interim, Israel watchers are waiting on Biden’s pick for Secretary of State and the makeup of the Senate for a clearer indication of the extent to which the Democrats’ progressive wing might influence foreign policy. Among the favorites are former national security advisor Susan Rice, whose selection would be read in Israel as a signal Biden plans to pick up where Obama left off, a former Israeli diplomat told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. It would also be a blow for Netanyahu: Rice implied Netanyahu was racist in his angry response to Obama’s acceleration of peace talks with Iran, according to a 2015 book by former peace negotiator Dennis Ross. Ross also wrote that Rice’s “combative mind-set” had “damaged our relationship with Israel.”
When Biden addressed Americans on the evening of Nov. 7, some were struck by the magnitude of the task he faced. His acceptance speech focused on unity and healing the deep divisions that had spit America. To Meckleberg, it seemed unlikely he would deliberately seek contentious issues to tackle: “He won’t set himself to fail, which the Israeli–Palestinian conflict gives you: a high probability of failing.”