Biden and Israel: The Constraints Are Plentiful

As inauguration nears and President-elect Joe Biden assembles his cabinet and broader domestic and foreign policy teams, they collectively stare at four years of damage done by a Trump Administration that often seemed hell-bent on reversing every step taken by the Obama-Biden Administration. The project of beginning to address this damage is an ambitious one on all fronts. While some changes can be made immediately by executive order, which the Biden camp has promised it would utilize, many more possible modifications and reversals will take far greater time and effort. A recent assessmentreviewed some of the damage done during the Trump Administration’s tenure regarding Israel/Palestine. This paper will consider the various obstacles facing a Biden Administration in its effort to undo some of that damage.

A Different Starting Point

While a Biden Administration might seem to some like a continuation of President Barack Obama’s presidency (or some version of its “third term”), the truth is that even though Biden seems to be bringing back many former team figures into his cabinet, the world in 2020 is a very different one than that Obama found when he took office in 2009.

On the day that Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Israel broke a cease-fire, kicking off an escalation that led to a then-unprecedented bombardment of the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip. The mass destruction wrought by the Israeli military left close to 1,500 dead, half of whom were civilians. The 22-day campaign, which featured multiple massacres and war crimes, captivated the attention of the world in the very last days of the George W. Bush Administration, whose Middle East peace effort stalled after the 2007 Annapolis Conference. It became clear that on top of dealing with the dual American quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan left over by the Bush Administration, Obama would have to make Israel/Palestine a priority. While he appointed former Senator George Mitchell as a special envoy almost immediately, Israeli elections and government formation meant they had to take a wait-and-see approach for several months. During this time, President Obama began unfurling his approach to the Arab and Muslim worlds, one that sought detente with Iran and recognized Palestinian suffering.

Biden finds a completely different situation today. There has not been a hot conflict in Israel/Palestine since the 2015 Israeli war on Gaza, and while the violence of military occupation has been consistent daily, it has not risen to the level of dominating global headlines in some time. Unlike 2008, the Arab world is still reeling today from the destructive repression of the Arab Spring, which led to civil war in some states and intensified policies of repression and control in others. The human rights and humanitarian crises these have created led to another other set of challenges in the region which demand attention. Arab leaders are also in a different place today than they were in 2008 relative to Israel, with several regimes having normalized relations with it, weakening the leverage of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. At present, there is very little pressure being applied on the incoming Biden Administration—not from Israel/Palestine, the Arab countries, or the international community—to engage immediately in that conflict.

The Partners

In 2009, as the Obama Administration was coming into office, Israel was in the middle of elections. The faction formerly led by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which had previously participated in negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, ended up winning the most seats when the Kadima Party, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, secured 29 mandates. Failing to put together a coalition, however, Kadima handed over the reins of power to a Benjamin Netanyahu-led Likud government, which has ruled in one form or another since that time. Israeli politics has persisted in its rightward movement and Netanyahu has continued to be a very well-known figure in US administrations, particularly among Democrats, whom he has found every way to alienate. This dynamic was even more pronounced in the last five years as Netanyahu directly attacked Barack Obama and cozied up with Donald Trump.

Biden will, in all likelihood, make overtures to Netanyahu again, and while the beginning of the Biden Administration may well see another Israeli election, there is little reason to believe the Israeli electorate will return anything but a right-wing government.

Biden will, in all likelihood, make overtures to Netanyahu again, and while the beginning of the Biden Administration may well see another Israeli election,1 there is little reason to believe the Israeli electorate will return anything but a right-wing government. Netanyahu will argue, as he has consistently and persuasively made the case to Israeli voters, that he and only he is capable of best handling the relationship with Washington, milking the Republicans for the most he can get and holding off the pressure from Democrats. To be sure, Biden will not find a useful partner in Netanyahu, neither before nor after an election.

The prospects are not much better in Abbas. Now in his 86th year, the aging Palestinian president lacks legitimacy, credibility, and strategy. Recently, he lost a close confidant in Saeb Erekat, who died from COVID-19 and who was instrumental in navigating the Palestinian relationship with Washington and the world. Abbas went from trying to embrace Trump at the outset of his term to cutting off all relations with him after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; and since the election, Abbas has hurried to return to security coordination with the Israelis. He shows no strategic vision beyond hoping to race back to the very status quo from which Palestinians suffer. It is clear that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas will give Biden an incentive to create positive change.

Political Capital

The incoming Biden Administration already faces a full slate of difficult agenda items and a domestic arena so rife with partisanship that every effort it will make will likely be opposed. Even Biden’s cabinet appointees might be held up for weeks or months if the Senate remains in Republican hands and chooses an obstructionist path. In 2015, collusion between Netanyahu and then Republican House Speaker John Boehner led to an unprecedented politicization of American diplomacy when Republicans aligned with the Israeli prime minister to oppose the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This only got worse in the Trump years and will be one of the immediate challenges facing Biden’s foreign policy efforts.

At some point during his administration, President Obama determined he could seriously pursue either an Iran or an Israel/Palestine diplomacy, but not both, in large part because of the limited political capital he had. This was probably to Netanyahu’s liking. Even if the Israeli prime minister would have preferred not to see the JCPOA come to fruition, he would certainly accept it over being pressured to actually make concessions on his colonial project in the occupied West Bank. Will Biden agree to disagree with Netanyahu, as Obama did, putting the Palestinian issue aside and focusing instead on Iran? It sure looks as if that will be the case. The incoming Biden Administration, while it has committed to rejoining the JCPOA, seems set for a shaky start. It would have been easy for Biden or his named national security appointees to put out a statement condemning the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, widely suspected to have been carried out by Israel, but instead there has been silence from the Biden camp. Not even a vague statement recommitting to diplomacy was issued.

Even if the Israeli prime minister would have preferred not to see the JCPOA come to fruition, he would certainly accept it over being pressured to actually make concessions on his colonial project in the occupied West Bank.

This suggests that either the Biden foreign policy team is backing away from the diplomatic objective or, if in pursuit of it, they have calculated that staying silent ahead of the politicized confirmation hearings is the prudent approach. Neither of these choices bodes well for Iran diplomacy and indicates that the Biden Administration is already wary of just how little political capital it has when coming up against pro-Netanyahu forces in the United States and abroad. If the JCPOA is the primary objective, they will be even less willing to spend political capital on Israel and Palestine.

Taking on Congress

Even if the Biden Administration decides it wants to do the bare minimum to address some of the changes Trump made on Israel/Palestine, it will have to deal with Congress—where it is likely to confront opposition. Such resistance will come not only from Republicans, who have increasingly sought to use Israel as a political football, but from moderate Democrats who seek to position themselves as pro-Israel. This comes at a moment when many Democrats are increasingly being branded as anti-Semitic by their opponents if they display any openness to considering Palestinian rights.

Perhaps the simplest of all reversals on Palestine that Biden can make to address some of the Trump damage is to reestablish relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). How exactly that would happen is tricky and most likely runs through Congress. Presidents have sought waivers to permit the PLO to keep an office in Washington, DC, but this became impossible as legislation changed to tighten restrictions if the PLO took its case to the International Criminal Court or pursued additional steps at the United Nations. After the Palestinians moved toward the ICC upon learning of Trump’s intention to recognize Jerusalem as Israeli, the White House could no longer legally seek this waiver. Further, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act in 2018 which would subject the PLO to legal vulnerability in civil suits in the United States if it reopened its office. This would allow a wide range of pro-Israel legal outfits the opportunity to file endless and costly suits against it. There are ways to work around this, as Lara Friedman has suggested, arguing that Biden could declare Congress’s restrictions unconstitutional, since foreign relations are the purview of the Executive; however, doing so would require a direct confrontation with the very Israel lobby actors who worked to implement the barriers that Biden would be trying to circumvent. There is no evidence to suggest that Biden wants such a confrontation or that he would consider the outcome worth the cost.

The Peace Process Approach

The fact that the peace process is in shambles is a further limitation on the Biden Administration. Trump spent four years burying the dead corpse of the peace process, making it impossible to even pretend it still exists. Previous administrations have claimed to shape their tactics within that broader peace process strategy, pushing the parties or holding off on pushing them based on whether it would advance the diplomatic process at the moment. But with diplomacy so far in the rearview mirror, all that remains is the disincentive of domestic political costs—until a different vision emerges. Neither the Biden Administration, nor Netanyahu, nor Abbas seem willing or capable of providing that alternative vision. Instead, what is left is the status quo. The Biden Administration’s tactic, absent any alternatives, can only be expected to advance that tired and worn out vision.

Expect Little

For a variety of reasons––and primarily Biden’s domestic agenda and his limited political capital––the incoming president is very unlikely to create much change in Israel/Palestine policy. Even in areas where he may have disagreed with Trump’s policies and perhaps was inclined to reverse them, he is going to run up against opposition every step of the way. Absent some crisis on the ground or in the region which reorients the entire picture, changes leadership, or makes the costs of the status quo unbearable, the incoming Biden Administration might occasionally sound different from Trump’s when speaking about Israel/Palestine. But it will not be taking steps to fundamentally alter what Trump has left in place. If change in US policy on Israel/Palestine is to come in the Biden years, it will not be initiated from inside the White House.

1 Netanyahu’s government collapsed on December 23 when the Knesset voted to dissolve itself, setting the stage for a fourth general election in two years.