Political turmoil erupted in Israel following the win by former Vice President Joseph Biden in the US Presidential Election. Biden will accede President Trump, presumably the closest ally Israel has ever had. In an attempt to reassure Israelis twelve hours after the election was called, Netanyahu tweeted that Israel has a “long and warm personal relationship” with Biden, describing him as a “great friend of Israel.” It was not until a week after the election that Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to Joe Biden as President-elect. Prior to his acceptance of the results, he repeatedly put forth that Biden is “supposed to be appointed the next president.” Netanyahu is not equivocating when he says they have a long relationship: according to the Prime Minister’s tweet, they have known each other for forty-years. Assessing the warmth of the relationship between the two leaders is a little more convoluted due to two topics of contention which have muddled what a future relationship between the two could look like: the Iran Nuclear Deal and Israeli settlements.
The Iran Deal:
The former Obama Administration, which pioneered the Iran Nuclear Deal five years ago, had been at odds with Netanyahu since the deal’s creation. The original intent of the deal was to lift economic sanctions placed on Iran in exchange for Iran’s compliance with the agreement. Such provisions of the agreement include not enriching uranium past 3.67% and being subject to frequent inspections of their nuclear facilities to make sure they are not building a nuclear weapon. On numerous occasions since 2015, Netanyahu has agonized over the notion that the JCPOA will strengthen Iran. In one statement, he claimed: “in the coming decade, the deal will reward Iran, the terrorist regime in Tehran, with hundreds of billions of dollars. This cash bonanza will fuel Iran’s terrorism worldwide, its aggression in the region and its efforts to destroy Israel, which are ongoing.”
One of the biggest disagreements has been over the deals’ inclusion of a ‘sunset clause,’ which details that after 15 years, the restrictions on Iran’s centrifuge capacity and uranium enrichment are withdrawn. For this reason, both Israeli and American politicians have insisted that as soon as restrictions are dropped, Iran will rapidly work to build a “bomb.” Prime Minister Netanyahu and then Vice President Biden’s disagreement on the Iran Nuclear Deal was exacerbated in 2015 when Biden did not attend Netanyahu’s speech that cautioned Congress about the deal. However, according to former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michal Oren, he implied that Biden and Netanyahu’s relationship was not completely sour, as Biden acted as a mediator between former President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Regardless, President-elect Biden would almost certainly re-enter the Iran Nuclear Deal following his inauguration, much to the distress of Israel and the Gulf States. One Israeli Ambassador for the US referred to the possibility of the Biden Administration’s return to the deal as a “mistake.” PM Netanyahu has worked tirelessly to persuade President-elect Biden not to rejoin the deal. In one remark directed at Biden, he stated: “do not return to the previous [Iran] nuclear deal. We must keep to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.”
However, the recent assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, dubbed the ‘grandfather’ of Iran’s nuclear program, has made Biden’s proposed policies exceedingly more difficult to achieve. Since Iran’s’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, it was believed by many that Iran had ramped up its nuclear program once again under the leadership of scientist Mohsen Fakhirzadeh. Although, it is less likely that the assassination was done to disable Iran’s program but more so to hamper the prospect of a relationship between Biden and leader of Iran Hassan Rouhani.
As many in the international sphere have blamed the US and Israel for being behind the attack, Israel has remained mostly quiet. Although, one senior Israeli official, when asked if Israel was behind the attack, did say “Iran’s aspirations for nuclear weapons, promoted by Mr. Fakhrizadeh, posed such a menace that the world should thank Israel”. Biden has called Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal a “self-inflicted disaster” and said that once in office he would “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy.” Again, the latest move by the Trump administration to have allegedly orchestrated this assassination with the help of Israel, if true, is more likely an act intended to spoil future negotiations with Iran.
However, the most stark contrast between the incoming and outgoing administrations is Biden’s willingness to work with Palestinians. Accordingly, some Israeli officials “expect Mr. Biden to work to preserve the viability of a future Palestinian state.” This contradicts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s move to legitimize Israeli settlements in the West Bank just last month.
While President’s Trump’s action of moving the US embassy to Jersusalem is expected to stand, many Israeli and Palestinian officials expect Biden to open a consulate in Jerusalem which will primarily serve Palestinians. And despite PM Netanyahu’s moves to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has agreed to resume coordination with Israeli authorities, which had previously been suspended since May over Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh said Tuesday. Al-Sheikh said that “the relationship with Israel will return to how it was,” before President Trump’s inauguration, after President Mahmoud Abbas received confirmation that Israel remained committed to past agreements with the Palestinians. Israeli defense officials said that Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election made it easier for the Palestinians to agree to resume relations. Palestinian Authority took advantage of the transition in Washington scheduled for January 20 to justify the renewal of security and civilian coordination with Israel in the West Bank.
Overall, the presidential win by Biden has dramatically decreased Israel on America’s foreign policy priority list. The Biden administration will further weaken Netanyahu’s legitimacy by lacking President Trump’s unconditional support, at a time when the prime minister is facing plummeting approval ratings, successive waves of coronavirus, high unemployment, felony corruption charges which he will go on trial for early next year, and emboldened opposition who is set on ousting him from office. Moreover, Biden is under no pressure to secure a strong friendship with Netanyahu and will probably invite his political opponents, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, to the White House, according to Netanyahu biographer, Anshel Pfeffer. Hebrew University professor Gideon Rahaht shared, “I think Netanyahu will have some difficulty bringing the relationship back to what it once was. He bet on the Republicans. It is pretty clear that the relationship will be more difficult for him.” As analyst Shimrit Meir wrote in the leading newspaper Yediot Aharonot, “official Israel is showing no signs of preparation for the day after Trump — not politically, not in terms of public communications, and no less importantly, not mentally.” In light of his oversight of a Trump loss, Netanyahu will have to quickly adjust back to the political arena that existed before the Trump era.