The Broader Drivers of Biden-era Israeli-American Relations

Dr. Ehud Eiran January 2021

Much of the discussion in Israel about the future of US-Israel relations in the wake of the new administration focuses on a narrow set of issues: President Joe Biden’s personal feelings toward Israel, including – as claimed by Likud Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi – his decades-long friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or young senator Biden’s meeting with prime minister Golda Meir on the eve of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Others looked at “Jewish influence” around the outgoing president versus how many Jews were appointed to senior positions by the incoming president.

True, Israel and the US enjoy a “special relationship” and personal proclivities do matter. Pro-Israel Jews around the president may indeed make a difference. However, US policy toward Israel will be shaped by broader American considerations. At least four come to mind.

First, the Biden administration is committed to reviving America’s global leadership through its alliances as ”force multipliers of our influence around the world,” in the words of incoming Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. To stress this point, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated in the first briefing that the president will start his interaction with other nations by calling heads of allied states, beginning with Canada.

In the past, some of these allies, mostly the Europeans, had placed the Israeli-Palestinian issue on their common agenda with the US. Regional and intra-European realities have probably made the matter less urgent for Europeans. However, we should still expect a European nudge, at a minimum, to sustain the possibility of a two-state solution.

Second, the Biden administration will take a more internationalist approach toward global challenges, as opposed to former president Donald Trump’s America First vision. Hours after his inauguration, Biden signed executive orders that re-integrated the US into the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. Therefore, an expected American return to a multinational negotiated approach toward Iran will not only be based on the merits of this specific case and American reluctance to go to war. It would also reflect a broader policy preference.

The failure of Trump’s strategy in slowing down Tehran’s nuclear project and senior incoming US officials’ involvement in the Iranian-American talks in the Obama era would further support a multinational negotiation goal.

In the past, an internationalist approach also included support for basic tenets of the international normative framework, such as the prohibition on territorial expansion by force. One potential implication would be a possible review of Trump-era policy stances that clash with international law, such as recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This, while taking into account that rolling back policies is not as easy as launching them.

Third, the Biden administration is committed to reviving the global march of liberal democracy. This will restore Washington’s strategic framework since the Cold War, which advocated for a more democratic world both on pragmatic and ideological grounds. In the Israeli context, that would mean a potential growing unease in Washington with the decline in the quality of Israeli democracy. In particular, Israel’s ongoing control of millions of Palestinians and public displays may seem to contradict liberal-democracy, such as the Nation State law.

True, the US overlooked democratic deficits in many of its allies, mostly during the Cold War. However, in our case, Biden may need to respond to voices from progressive circles that would like to end Israeli control over the Palestinians or award them full rights.

Finally, the US under Biden will probably continue viewing China as a rival. Beijing’s economic and political rise and its growing assertiveness under its current leadership challenge US hegemony and are bound to lead to an American response. This, regardless of who sits in the White House. US allies, such as Israel, who aspire to benefit from China’s economic expansion, would need to develop even more nuanced policies that would balance pressures from these two great powers. Israel was able to do so in the last few years, but its approach may be tested by heightened great power competition.

Taking this broader view regarding US-Israel relations is essential. It would provide not only a better understanding of American policy in the region on the issues that are already ongoing – such as the Iranian challenge – but will also offer new opportunities for American-Israeli engagement. For example, Israel is not a significant player in the global effort to deal with climate change. However, the incoming US administration promised to focus on the issue, creating new possibilities for joint projects with Israel’s innovation ecosystem that would benefit not just the alliance but also humanity.

**The article was published on Jpost, 27 January 2021

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