Analysis: What to expect from the Biden-Harris administration

The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will bring avowed friends and supporters of Israel to the White House in January. Their approach towards the Middle East is likely to be very different in both style and substance to the outgoing administration.

Biden’s commitment to Israel is long-standing. One of his first visits overseas after being elected to the Senate in 1972 was to Israel. He later described his meeting with the then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir as “one of the most consequential meetings I’ve ever had in my life”.

However, friends of the future president trace his commitment to the Jewish state back to his childhood. “Biden would often tell me how his support for Israel was formed,” the former Democrat congressman Steve Israel wrote shortly before the election. “He was a young kid sitting at the dinner table. It was around the time of the debate on the establishment of the modern state of Israel. His father was unable to comprehend how anyone could oppose this historic step. To this Irish American Catholic salesman, it was obvious why Israel had to exist. The establishment of a state for the Jewish people was the only way to fulfil the promise of ‘never again’ after the tragedy of the Holocaust. It was the first time Biden ever heard that phrase, and he never forgot the lesson.”

The future vice-president is also known for her strong commitment to Israel. “Her support for Israel is central to who she is,” Harris’ campaign communications director, Lily Adams, said last year as the California senator fought for the Democratic party presidential nomination. “In the Senate and on the campaign trail, Harris is opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel, foreign aid cuts to the state, condemnatory votes on Israel at the United Nations and public criticism of its leadership — all tactics increasingly popular with the Democratic base and adopted by several of her Democratic presidential rivals,” one media outlet noted.

Beyond Obama and Trump

Although Biden was never anything other than studiously loyal during his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice-president, his background, observers suggest, means he is likely to strike a different tone from the last Democrat to sit in the White House. “There is little likelihood that Biden will reprise the acrimony of Barack Obama’s dealings with Israel and possibly, the Biden administration will be prove a great boon to the Jewish state,” Joshua Muravchik, author of Making David Into Goliath, suggested recently, citing the assessment of the former Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren: “Biden is from a generation that remembers 1967 and 1973. He has Israel in his heart. He actually … gets Israel.”

Indeed, the president-elect is one of the few non-Jewish politicians in the US who describes himself as a Zionist. US support for Israel, Biden argued in 2014, was not a favour, but a “moral obligation” and a “strategic necessity”.

But it is with Donald Trump, not Obama, that the differences in Biden’s approach will be most pronounced. Unlike his predecessor, the president-elect has made clear that he wants support for Israel to once again be an issue above partisan politics. While Trump made clear that many of his actions had been guided by a desire to curry favour with pro-Israel evangelical voters – a core Republican party constituency – Biden pledged during the campaign to “ensure that support for the US-Israel alliance remains bipartisan, reversing Trump’s exploitation of US support for Israel as a political football, which harms both countries’ interests”.

Unlike Trump, who steadfastly refused to state his commitment to the concept, Biden is an avowed supporter of a two-state solution and a critic of settlement building. “I believe a two-state solution remains the only way to ensure Israel’s long-term security while sustaining its Jewish and democratic identity,” Biden argued last year. “It is also the only way to ensure Palestinian dignity and their legitimate interest in national self-determination. And it is a necessary condition to take full advantage of the opening that exists for greater cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbours. For all these reasons, encouraging a two-state solution remains in the critical interest of the US.”

Given the huge domestic challenges he will face upon entering office, and the stalled peace process, the Biden administration is not expected to immediately prioritise action on a two-state solution. “This isn’t 2009, it’s not 2014. The parties are far from a place where they’re ready to engage on negotiations or final status talks,” Tony Blinken, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser and the former US deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, stated in an interview shortly before the election. However, Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration, argues that “while negotiations might not be possible now, he wants to ensure that all parties will do everything possible to sustain the viability of the two-state solution and avoid doing anything that makes it harder”.

Biden was highly critical of Trump’s peace plan when it was released in January, describing it as a “a political stunt that could spark unilateral moves to annex territory and set back peace even more. I’ve spent a lifetime working to advance the security [and] survival of a Jewish and democratic Israel. This is not the way”. He thus vocally opposed the plan’s proposal that Israel should be able to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank, saying: “Israel needs to stop the threats of annexation and stop settlement activity because it will choke off any hope of peace.”

At the same time, Biden – who, on the campaign trail, touted his role in the Obama administration’s huge $38bn 10-year military aid package to Israel – broke with those on the left of the Democratic party who wanted to make such aid to the Jewish state and other forms of security assistance conditional. As he argued in a TV interview last November: “I strongly oppose Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank. I have made that clear to Bibi when … I was vice-president … But the idea that we would cut off military aid to an ally, our only true, true ally in the entire region, is absolutely preposterous. It’s just beyond my comprehension anyone would do that.” The president-elect repeated that pledge earlier this summer, stating: “I’m not going to place conditions for the security assistance given the serious threats that Israel is facing.” As Shapiro has suggested, Biden “intends to pursue a two-state solution, not through threats and ultimatums but through vigorous diplomacy”.

Biden has also stated that he does not intend to undo some of Trump’s actions, such as recognising Israeli control of the Golan Heights and the decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The new president will likely though soften the blow to the Palestinians with regard to the latter by reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem. Biden – who had previously urged Arab states to “move beyond quiet talks and take bolder steps towards normalisation with Israel” – has also supported the historic recent steps taken by the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. “I think Trump is going to accidentally do something positive here, in terms of this issue of … other Arab states,” he said in September.

However, senior figures around Biden have expressed unease at the manner in which the Trump administration encouraged the UAE to normalise its relations with Israel by pledging to sell it the US’ highly advanced F-35 fighter jets. Blinken publicly argued shortly before the election: “The Obama-Biden administration made those planes available to Israel and only Israel in the region.” He added that in order to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge, as current US law requires, a Biden administration would have to “take a hard look” at the F-35 sale, which the White House notified Congress of last month.

Normalisation-plus?

More importantly, unlike Trump, Biden is also expected to attempt to use the push for normalisation, in the words of Shapiro, “to ensure that these new relationships become a source of momentum for renewed progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, or at least keep that two-state solution alive and viable”. Blinken has similarly argued that “the more countries normalise their relationship with Israel, the greater I think Israel’s confidence is in being able to make peace across the board … and also hopefully to resolve the Palestinian issue to the extent that it makes Israelis feel generally more secure. That may be helpful in creating greater confidence to move forward with the Palestinians, and it may also be that it does send a message to the Palestinians that they have to actually engage, negotiate in a meaningful way.”

For Ramallah, the departure of Trump and arrival of Biden in the White House is undoubtedly good news. Abd Elraouf Arnaout, political correspondent of the Al-Ayyam newspaper told Axios before the election that while Palestinian officials don’t know exactly what to expect from Biden, they think anything would be better than four more years of Trump.

That uncertainty, commentators have suggested, was reflected in President Mahmoud Abbas’ message of congratulations to Biden on his election, which stated: “I look forward to cooperation with the president and the strengthening of ties between the United States and the Palestinians to achieve liberty, independence and justice for the Palestinian people … [and] peace, stability and security in the region and the entire world.” As Jack Khoury of Haaretz noted: “The announcement did not mention the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders or security cooperation with Israel. Those familiar with the details said … [Abbas’ office] deliberately chose general, vague wording so as not to raise any expectation.”

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to “reengage the Palestinians”, saying he will “reverse the Trump Administration’s destructive cut-off 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”. Biden is also expected to reopen the PLO’s mission in the US, which was closed by Trump.

But the president-elect has also been forthright in his criticism of the Palestinian leadership on occasions. He has accused Abbas, of having “not stepped up when given opportunities”. He has also argued that the PA should “acknowledge, flat-out, Israel’s right to exist – period – as an independent Jewish state and guarantee the borders” and stated it “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”.

Biden has also taken the PA to task for its “support for incitement and violence” and has said that any financial assistance to it will have to comply with the terms of the 2018 Taylor Force Act, including its requirement that the PA end its policy of paying salaries to imprisoned Palestinian terrorists and their families. “The Palestinians need to end incitement in the West Bank and rocket attacks in Gaza,” Biden said in May. “What they are teaching in their schools is still in the school books. No matter what legitimate disagreement they may have with Israel, it’s never a justification for terrorism, and no leader should fail to condemn as terrorists those who commit these brutalities.”

Biden’s election may also pose a challenge for the PA which has grown used to a defensive, reactive stance over the past four years. Instead, a more balanced approach from Washington may force Abbas to adopt a more proactive position and set out its own diplomatic proposals and initiatives.

The president-elect is a long-standing opponent of the BDS movement, which, his campaign website said, “singles out Israel and too often veers into anti-Semitism”. It also said that, if elected, Biden would “fight other efforts to delegitimise Israel on the global stage”.

While good news for the PA, Biden’s win is less welcome for Hamas. As Muhammad Shehada, a writer and civil society activist from Gaza, argued this week in Haaretz, Trump’s approach had left Abbas isolated and weakened, and consequently required him to seek backing from Palestinian groupings such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In that quest, the Abbas had sought reconciliation with Hamas and had appeared to accept its demand for elections, which would, in turn, give the terror group a “significant, officially sanctioned presence in the West Bank”. Hamas would also have exploited the Palestinian rage which would have accompanied a second Trump term, potentially sparking a third intifada. Biden’s victory will thus significantly ease the pressure on Abbas, strengthening the hand of Palestinian moderates, and weakening that of radicals and extremists.

Back to the Iran deal?

The greatest source of tension between Israel and the US over the past decade was the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, which, even at the risk of encroaching deep into domestic American politics, Benjamin Netanyahu argued vigorously against. Like many other Democrats, Biden stayed away from the Israeli prime minister’s 2015 address to the US Congress in which he attempted to rally opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Out of office, the former vice-president has described Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement “a self-inflicted disaster”. Biden has also sought to cast the current administration’s approach as harmful to Israel. “Trump has put Israel in danger by tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, and replaced it with nothing,” Biden said in September. “Iran is closer to a [nuclear] weapon than when we left office in 2017,” he suggested. “And instead of Iran being isolated, we are the ones being isolated.”

Biden is now proposing a twin-track approach, analysts argue. To begin with, he will offer what experts term “compliance for compliance”, offering that the US will rejoin the agreement and lift the sanctions imposed by Trump in return for Iran stopping its growing list of breaches of the accord. In the second prong, Biden, who has said he wants to addresses “Iran’s other destabilising actions” in the region, which were not covered by the original agreement, will seek a renegotiation to make the deal “stronger and longer”.

But both Iran and Trump may complicate this stance. The former has reacted coolly to the president-elect’s approach, with the Foreign Ministry spokesman stating this week that “we have no regard for what Biden’s advisers say … No one can talk about the JCPOA and open what has been signed, agreed upon, and sealed.” As Biden is aware, domestic Iranian politics – with presidential elections due next year – means the Islamic republic may initially spurn the new administration’s efforts.

At the same time, Trump appears determined to use his remaining weeks in office to tighten the screw still further on Tehran by imposing a raft of new sanctions, some of which may be difficult politically for Biden to attempt to lift. “The intent seems to be to max out maximum pressure in the short term and throw up procedural and political hurdles for a Biden administration to contend with if it moves to provide Tehran with sanctions relief after January,” Naysan Rafati, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, told The Guardian.

This underlines that, whatever Biden’s plans for January, the Trump administration’s ability to throw up roadblocks and hurdles as it heads for the exit should not be underestimated.