At odds on Iran and settlements, Netanyahu and Biden can still avoid a brawl

While US and Israeli administrations disagree, there are ample reasons to believe they can avoid repeating the fights of the past and find a constructive way forward

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)
Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)

In a 22-minute, 2,411-word inaugural address Wednesday, US President Joseph Biden gave scant mention to his foreign policy aims, focusing instead on the importance of domestic unity.

“We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” he promised from the dais. “Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”

Behind those two sentences, though, lies much of the concern for Israeli decision-makers over what the coming years may hold: A break from predecessor Donald Trump’s Israel-friendly policies, and a return to an approach in which the US was “engage[d] with the world.”

To Israeli (and many Arab) leaders, Trump’s foreign policy was not marked by disengagement and broken alliances, but by a clear-headed distinction between good and evil, and a long overdue understanding that Iran is the source of instability and violence in the Middle East.

US President Donald Trump drinks water from a bottle as he delivers remarks on November 15, 2017 in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM)

To them, the last four years were a welcome departure from what was considered a diplomatic consensus they did not agree with. But as Biden returns to the White House, many in Israel fear the clashes that marked the last years of Barack Obama’s administration and his openly frayed ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

With distinct — and potentially conflicting — approaches to pressing matters of mutual concern, Netanyahu and Biden will have to interact carefully as they get to work. There is sure to be friction over two core issues, Iran’s nuclear program and settlement construction.

But even on these thorny questions, there are avenues for productive cooperation. And on other ongoing challenges that are currently on the backburner, Netanyahu might find himself more closely aligned with Biden than he was with his predecessor.

More than one way to skin a deal

Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, opting instead to reimpose crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Biden has indicated his desire to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, arguing that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has “been a boon to the regime in Iran and a bust for America’s interests.”

Writing in an op-ed for CNN, then-candidate Biden promised he would “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

Jerusalem, however, rejects any return to the JCPOA, and all indications are that the issue will be at the top of its agenda as it gets to work with the new administration.

“The 2015 JCPOA agreement is flawed from its foundations,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel. “We don’t think it can be tweaked, and it would be a mistake returning to it.”

President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark ‘National Nuclear Day,’ in Tehran, Iran, April 9, 2018. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The Iran nuclear issue has the potential to set the US-Israel relationship during the Biden Administration off to a rocky start. During the Obama-Biden years, disagreements over the right approach to stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions led to mutual distrust and barely concealed rancor between Jerusalem and Washington, and there are some fears that the sides will pick up where they left off.

Netanyahu was sure to highlight the threat from Tehran in the video he released to mark Biden’s inauguration. “I look forward to working with you to further strengthen the US-Israel alliance,” said the prime minister, “to continue expanding peace between Israel and the Arab world and to confront common challenges — chief among them the threat posed by Iran.”

Many Obama foreign policy veterans will be back in key positions under Biden, including incoming deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, who had been the chief US negotiator for the JCPOA. Her boss, incoming secretary of state Tony Blinken, was Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president. Incoming national security advisor Jake Sullivan was also involved in the Iran nuclear negotiations.

Media reports indicate that Netanyahu and his foreign policy advisers are concerned about the return of some Obama-era officials, especially Sherman, who will be the No. 2 at State.

This may be overstated, and though many of the same players are there, a fight is far from inevitable. All three of the aforementioned officials have years of experience working with Israeli counterparts, including Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who will likely be Netanyahu’s “Iran czar” in talks with American officials.

Then-US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman meets with Then-National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, on February 18, 2015. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

Sherman herself enjoys close relationships with Israeli decision-makers.

Testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Blinken appeared to go out of his way to make clear the administration would involve Israel from the start.

US Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Alex Edelman/Pool via AP)

“It’s vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and partners in the region, to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries,” he said, adding that a new agreement could address Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region as well as its missiles, a long-standing Israeli ask.

Though the outcome of the Iran deal went against Israel’s wishes, the man blamed for the deal, then-secretary of state John Kerry, is out of the picture.

“Kerry did a very poor job of handling the portfolio,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.

Even with Kerry off handling Biden’s climate policies, Israel still needs to keep a close eye on who becomes the president’s point man on Iran. If Robert Malley, who served in Obama’s National Security Council and took part in the JCPOA negotiations, does become Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Israel will find it much tougher to influence America’s approach in its favor.

John Kerry, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem on November 24, 2015. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Still, Netanyahu has some breathing room on Iran. With the US still in the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic and daunting economic challenges, Biden has more pressing issues on his plate. The president signed 17 executive orders in his first day in the White House, none of them having anything to do with Iran or Middle East policy.

Moreover, with experienced foreign policy hands in key positions, there will be a proper policy process, including consultations with Israel and pro-American Gulf states. Israel will not just be banging the table and yelling for a new deal, at least at first, but advocating for cooperation and the use of policy tools that can be used to pressure Iran and create leverage, including sanctions and credible deterrence.

An F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, August 5, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/US Air Force via AP)

Both of those tools existed before, but now they will be bolstered by the strategic alliance between Israel and the Gulf brought into the open with the so-called Abraham Accords, even if the Arab states are thought to be less gung ho about military action than Israel.

“These accords not only benefit the countries directly involved, but impact the whole regional security architecture in ways that will help advance regional security and US interests,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. “The recent shift of Israel from European Command to Central Command is an example of how these developments can help create a better-integrated region.”

Build Bank better

Construction over the Green Line in the West Bank and Jerusalem is another potential minefield for the two allies.

Under Trump, the US changed its long-standing approach to settlements. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in 2019 that the US no longer considers settlements illegal under international law. In October, it lifted a ban on US funding for scientific research over the Green Line, a boon for Ariel University. Weeks later, the US Customs and Border Protection agency said it would begin labeling products from settlements, “Made in Israel.”

Israel approved plans for over 27,000 settler homes during Trump’s four-year term, more than 2.5 times the number approved during the Obama administration’s second term, according to the anti-settlement Peace Now organization.

In the final days of Trump’s tenure, Israel approved almost 800 new homes in West Bank settlements.

Israel has every reason to believe that things will be different under Biden, and that it won’t be able to build without some sort of blowback.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden, in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

As vice-president, Biden made no bones about criticizing Israel’s settlement policy; in 2010, the announcement of homes being approved in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo while Biden was on a visit to Israel led to a major diplomatic spat.

“Israel’s government’s steady and systematic process of expanding settlements, legalizing outposts, seizing land, is eroding in my view the prospect of a two-state solution,” Biden said in 2016.

He put forth the same approach as a candidate, saying that Israel “should stop the expansion of West Bank settlements and talk of annexation that would make two states impossible to achieve.”

None of this is new for Netanyahu or Israel, which has dealt with decades of criticism from the US and other allies on its settlement enterprise, decades in which it has learned how to navigate the pro-forma condemnations without antagonizing Washington by going too far.

New housing construction in the Nokdim settlement in the West Bank, south of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, October 13, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

There’s no reason Netanyahu cannot revert to his previous standard operating procedure and find a sensible middle ground. As it has done in the past, Israel can commit quietly to not building beyond the existing perimeters of settlements, while adding homes within them.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz will also be key in making sure Israel does not cross too far over the line, at least for the next few months.

“He will likely make it very difficult for things to be done in his jurisdiction that exacerbate US-Israel relations,” predicted Lerman.

Cold Turkey, warm ties

Despite the talk of inevitable tensions over Middle East policy, Biden and Netanyahu are closer on some key issues than many realize.

Biden supported Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab countries, a repudiation of the idea that the Palestinians hold a veto over Israel’s place in the Middle East. “It is good to see others in the Middle East recognizing Israel and even welcoming it as a partner,” Biden said in a statement released in September, following deals with the UAE and Bahrain.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, DC, on November 21, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

Even though the Biden administration is stocked with passionate proponents of a two-state solution, the Palestinians’ hand is far weaker now, and Biden recognizes that.

For the time being, the new president can re-establish ties with only small gestures like re-opening the Jerusalem consulate to serve Palestinians and allowing the PLO office in Washington to reopen, Lerman suggested. Neither move will tip the scales greatly or bother Israel much.

Moreover, foreign policy issues that leaders would prefer to ignore often have a way of imposing themselves rudely on the agenda. Though Turkey is putting out a conciliatory tone toward Israel, Greece, and the EU, the conflict in Libya or tensions in the eastern Mediterranean could reignite, bringing Turkey closer to conflict with Israeli partners Egypt or Greece.

On Turkey, Israel will find Biden more in line with its concerns than his predecessor. Trump had a warm personal chemistry with Erdogan, while Biden has a history of angering the Turkish leader with calls for his replacement.

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