Israel and Mideast not expected to top foreign policy priorities for Democratic nominee; if elected, his administration may disengage from region, but won’t leave Israel behind
By Jacob Magid – The Times of Israel
Joe Biden during a joint press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, not seen, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool via AP)
NEW YORK — A recent survey of American Jewish voters found that they place foreign policy at the bottom of their priorities when deciding which presidential candidate to support.
Just five percent of respondents said foreign policy will be the most important issue to them at the ballot on November 3rd — putting the issue behind the pandemic (26 percent), healthcare (17%), the economy (13%) and race relations (6%). Just 11% said foreign policy was even the second most important issue for them.
This could bode well for Joe Biden, who has preferred to focus on addressing the health and economic crises brought on by the coronavirus and on a unifying American leadership, respected both at home and abroad, that his campaign says is necessary to properly address those challenges.
Speaking on the record, campaign officials assert that the issue of Israel is of the utmost importance to the former vice president and that Biden will work to strengthen the US relationship with the Jewish state.
But when shielded by assurances of anonymity, some are more willing to admit that Israel, and even the Middle East more broadly, is not going to receive the amount of attention that it has enjoyed during Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House.
One senior adviser to the campaign told Foreign Policy magazine last month that the Middle East would be “a distant fourth” in the list of foreign policy priorities, after Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and Latin America.
Addressing Israel specifically in a conversation with The Times of Israel, another foreign policy adviser clarified, “It’s not that a Biden administration won’t focus on Israel. It just might not be given center stage like it has been in recent years.”
Regardless of whether he plans to take on many, or any, of the region’s problems as president, Biden’s campaign has been sure to provide a plethora of detail regarding the candidate’s positions on the Middle East. And where it hasn’t, the former vice president has a 47-year record in politics that can be useful in helping to clear away any remaining fog.
When discussing Israel, Biden’s support for US aid to the Jewish state is often the first item mentioned by campaign staff and surrogates.
The Democratic nominee calls his commitment to Israel’s security “unshakable” and has characterized US financial assistance to Israel as “the best $3 billion investment we make.”
Biden was involved in negotiations between the US and Israel to reach the 2016 $38 billion, ten-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) for defense aid to Jerusalem that was the largest such military aid package in US history.
The Biden campaign platform vows to “sustain our unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security… and the guarantee that Israel will always maintain its qualitative military edge.”
The campaign has stated its opposition to arms sales to Israel’s enemies, and its Jewish outreach director, Aaron Keyak, spoke out last month against the Trump administration’s brewing sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.
Two-state solution, settlements and BDS
The former vice president is a longtime proponent of the two-state solution. His campaign’s website states that a Biden administration would “work with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to support peace-building efforts in the region.”
“Biden will urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to take steps to keep the prospect of a negotiated two-state outcome alive and avoid actions, such as unilateral annexation of territory and settlement activity, or support for incitement and violence, that undercut prospects for peace between the parties,” the campaign says.
Biden has not shied away from criticizing Israel on settlement expansion. He even did so publicly in Israel, hours into a state visit in 2010, after the Interior Ministry announced the advancement of a plan to build 1,600 housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
Still, Biden was seen as less willing than Obama to become embroiled in public spats with the Israeli government. One former Obama administration official told The Times of Israel that Biden had opposed the White House decision to abstain from a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements that passed weeks before Trump entered the Oval Office.
That distance from the Democratic party’s harsher Israel critics has remained to this day, with Foreign Policy reporting that Biden personally intervened in August to keep the word “occupation” out of the official Democratic platform.
Last year, Biden rejected calls from other Democratic presidential candidates for aid to Israel to be conditioned on an end to settlement expansion, calling the idea “absolutely outrageous.”
In April, he called Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem “short-sighted and frivolous,” but clarified that he would not seek to move it back to Tel Aviv if elected president.
Amid an increasingly polarized political discourse, which has featured, for example, in Trump’s 2019 assertion that Jews who vote for Democrats show “great disloyalty,” the Biden campaign has vowed to ensure that support for the US-Israel alliance remains bipartisan.
The campaign also touts the Democratic nominee’s leading role in “efforts to oppose the delegitimization of Israel, whether in international organizations or by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement here at home.” As opposed to the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Biden has even ventured to say that BDS “veers into anti-Semitism.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) greets US Vice President Joe Biden upon his arrival to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool, via AP)
Israeli leaders then and now
At this month’s vice presidential debate, Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, summed up his foreign policy philosophy: “Joe says, just think about it as relationships.”
Indeed, Biden has long placed a premium on the leverage yielded from contacts he’s developed throughout the world arena over decades of public service.
This theme is given particular emphasis when the Democratic nominee lays out his positions on Israel and the Middle East.
Rarely in his speeches to Jewish organizations does Biden neglect to highlight the close relationships he’s formed with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. Mention of Israel’s fourth premier is often coupled with an anecdote from one of Biden’s first trips to the Jewish state as a young senator in the early 1970s. Then, Meir shared with the freshman politician what she referred to as Israel’s “secret weapon” for withstanding the security challenges of the region.
“‘We have nowhere else to go,’” Biden recalls being told, always slowly and quietly repeating the line for dramatic effect.
Those personal relationships with Israeli leaders have been given more emphasis over the years in an apparent attempt to downplay the growing differences that Biden has had with recent governments in Jerusalem.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] has undermined the stability of self-determination for the Palestinians, undercutting hope for a viable two-state solution any chance that he gets,” Biden told J Street, the progressive, pro-Israel lobby, last month.
But later on in that address, Biden repeated another fond memory he has of signing a photo for Netanyahu with the inscription, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”
While not supporting the relocation of the US embassy back to Tel Aviv, Biden has called for reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington — both of which were shuttered by the Trump administration.
The Biden campaign also vows to “reverse the Trump Administration’s destructive cutoff of diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and cancellation of assistance programs that support Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, economic development, and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.”
However, the platform clarifies that any aid to the Palestinians must be consistent with the requirements of the Taylor Force Act, “including that the Palestinian Authority end its system of compensation for individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism.”
Biden went further, telling the Council on Foreign Relations last year that “Palestinian leaders should end the incitement and glorification of violence, and they must begin to level with their people about the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.”
Arab and Muslim-majority countries normalizing with Israel
The US’s brokering of normalization deals between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain has been a rare issue on which the Trump administration has won Biden’s praise.
“Even our brethren in the Arab world… have come to realize that it is in their interest that there be a two-state solution [and] that Israel is able to live in peace and be recognized,” he told J Street last month.
His campaign states that Biden will “urge Arab states to move beyond quiet talks and take bolder steps toward normalization with Israel.”
A Biden foreign policy adviser told The Times of Israel that such agreements “may have an even better chance for sustained success under the auspices of a Biden administration because they wouldn’t be brokered under threat.” The campaign surrogate appeared to be taking a shot at the aggressive tactics used by the Trump administration to negotiate the region’s latest normalization deals.
The adviser added that Saudi Arabia in particular might be more inclined to agree to normalize relations with Israel during a Biden presidency in order to improve its standing with the Democratic party — which has wilted in recent years due to Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen and the brutal 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
When it comes to the Islamic Republic and its renegade nuclear program, the differences between Trump and Biden are far more distinct.
Biden has lambasted Trump for leaving the Obama-negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.
The Democratic nominee has argued that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran has made the Islamic Republic more provocative, driving it to restart its uranium enrichment instead of coming to the table to negotiate.
If Iran returns to compliance with the deal, a Biden administration would reenter the JCPOA, “using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities,” the campaign says.
Broader Middle East policy
As for policies less related to Israel directly, Biden has vowed to end “forever” wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, in what is nearly identical to Trump’s rhetoric calling for an end to “endless” wars in the region.
The campaign’s platform says Biden “will end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.”