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How will Joe Biden deal with an emboldened Israel?

Biden’s Middle East policy will run up against a region where Trump and Netanyahu shattered norms with little consequence.

Analysis | Middle East

In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke with decades of Israeli tradition and blatantly interfered in partisan politics in the United States. Netanyahu colluded with then-Speaker of the House John Boehner to bypass President Barack Obama and address a joint session of Congress to express his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

Many Democrats were dismayed at Netanyahu’s action. Fifty House Democrats and eight senators skipped the speech in protest. Yet, while the incident has not been forgotten and Netanyahu’s standing with Democrats was certainly diminished, the bipartisan consensus on Israel suffered little damage.

Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice said Netanyahu’s action was “destructive to the fabric of the relationship” between Israel and the United States. Yet in the intervening years, Israel has been refused nothing and Obama himself responded to this direct interference in American politics by giving Israel a new 10-year commitment for the largest grant of military aid in history.

Democrats taught the Israelis a lesson, one neither Netanyahu nor any other Israeli politician has forgotten. They learned that Israel can do what it wants, and Democrats will not change their votes as a result. More than that, Netanyahu demonstrated that norms and conventional wisdom can be disregarded with little consequence.

When Rice warned of harm to the essence of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Netanyahu called her bluff. But Rice wasn’t really bluffing. She surely believed what she was saying. Netanyahu correctly gambled that she was mistaken, that Democrats would echo her sentiments, but when it came time to vote on matters important to Israel, they would continue to do as they had always done, with a minority defending universal human rights and the hope for peace and the majority falling in line with Israeli policy goals.

That began the reshaping of the political landscape into what President-elect Joe Biden will face when he takes over the White House next month. Committed supporters of the Israeli right like U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, former Special Representative Jason Greenblatt, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Jared Kushner, and others set about testing conventional wisdom in similar ways, most obviously by moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They, too, found there were few consequences for their actions.

In other norm shattering moves, President Trump published a plan that he claimed included a Palestinian state (it did not) without talking to the Palestinians; he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; and he brokered normalization agreements between Israel and several member states of the Arab League. All these moves had been argued, at one time or another, to be too dangerous, that they would set off regional earthquakes. They didn’t.

Biden will have to reckon with an emboldened Israel, one that has now proven what might have been suspected for many years: that the Jewish state has a great deal more freedom to act than it once believed.

This is not just about U.S. policy and pressure, but at least as much about the shifting dynamics of the Middle East. When Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2017, I wrote about what the result would be if the sort of regional display of outrage that many were warning of failed to materialize:

“Palestinians …will have been told that all the norms on which they have based their commitment to negotiations are nothing but smoke. They will have been told that the United States is their enemy, something a great many believe already, but which has never been so explicitly demonstrated. They will have been told that the international community is either unable or unwilling to do anything to materially assist them when the chips are down. They will have been told that their only hope is to create such pain for Israelis and unrest throughout the region that their needs will have to be addressed… It would also tell Israel, in no uncertain terms, that its view that its national and territorial desires completely trump Palestinian rights is correct.”

As it turned out, the message Israel has gotten is even stronger than I anticipated. They have seen that increasing their hold on the West Bank and maintaining an unrelenting siege on Gaza will no longer be an obstacle to normalization with Arab states. They can reach agreements with major players in the Arab world without giving anything at all to the Palestinians and, at least based on early responses, without endangering the rule of the autocrats they establish normal relations with.

Netanyahu will still need to do some work to mend fences with Biden and with Democrats. But his effusive praise of Donald Trump over the past few weeks while Trump waged war on American elections, coupled with the very noticeable amount of time Netanyahu waited to congratulate Biden on his victory last month sends a message to Biden that Israel is aware that it can defy a U.S. president, even undermine him, and get away with it.

It’s not complete defiance; Netanyahu is still keenly aware of how much Israel depends on the United States, and that support for Israel among Democrats has slipped markedly in recent years. But Netanyahu is telegraphing that he intends to be at least as irksome to Biden as he so often was to Obama during his time in the White House.

On Monday, the International Crisis Group, in partnership with the U.S./Middle East Project, issued a report laying out what they see as the basic steps Biden will need to take just to begin to restart Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. The Biden administration is likely to take a few of their recommendations, such as disavowing Trump’s “Deal of the Century” and renewing ties with and funding to the Palestinian Authority and the U.N. refugee agency, UNRWA. Others which are at least as crucial are much less likely, such as refraining from using America’s veto power at the United Nations and demanding greater transparency from Israel in its use of U.S.-funded weaponry.

Israel knows it has the overwhelming support of Republicans in Congress, as well as many Democrats, despite the agenda of their party and president.

But more importantly, Democrats have leaned heavily in the past on the argument that disruption or non-cooperation with peace efforts harms Israel and carries regional consequences. But now, the United States has its embassy in Jerusalem, several Arab states have normalized relations with Israel, even Saudi Arabia is much more open about its coordination and communication with Israel, and all the warnings about an explosion of rage in the region have not come to pass.

Netanyahu and the Israeli right have argued for years that peace with the Arab world was possible without ending the occupation. The United States maintained it was not, but now the evidence is clear that the Arab leadership is not only willing to abandon the Palestinians, they can get away with it too.

That will make Israel and its supporters in Washington much bolder and less willing to compromise with an American government it will inevitably see as less friendly than its predecessor. Biden’s inclination to moderation and accommodation will not mix well with the new Israeli attitude.

Photo: US Embassy, Tel Aviv
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