WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Wednesday that the US embassy in Israel would remain in Jerusalem if he’s elected, even as he called US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the diplomatic base from Tel Aviv “short-sighted and frivolous.”
Biden, speaking during a virtual fundraiser, suggested relocating the embassy again would not help the stagnant peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
“But now that it’s done, I would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv,” Biden said.
Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, when he announced plans to move the embassy there. In May 2018, his administration opened the new facility — a decision that was met with intense controversy, both in Washington and in the Middle East.
Following the move the Palestinians cut ties with Washington, calling the Trump administration biased toward Israel.
Yet rather than reversing Trump, Biden told donors he’d reopen a US consulate in East Jerusalem to engage Palestinian leaders in talks about a “two-state solution” that had long been the official US posture toward Israel and the Palestinians.
“I’ve been a proud supporter of a secure, democratic Jewish state of Israel my entire life,” Biden said. But, he added: “My administration will urge both sides to take steps to keep the prospect of a two-state solution alive.”
Biden’s aides have explained his position before. But his remarks Wednesday were perhaps the most detailed explanation he has given himself since launching his campaign.
Congress authorized the embassy move to Jerusalem in 1995 – with Biden voting for the measure as a Delaware senator – but a succession of presidents from both major parties delayed the shift, setting conditions as part of ongoing peace negotiations.
Biden said Trump gave away that leverage.
“Moving the embassy when we did without the conditions having been met was short-sighted and frivolous,” the former vice president said. “It should have happened in the context of a larger deal to help us achieve important concessions for peace in the process.”
His comments confirm the position set out by a top foreign policy adviser on Tuesday, who also said Biden opposes unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, a move Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to implement as early as July.
Speaking on a webinar hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Tony Blinken said Biden would not move the US embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, saying such a step “would not make sense practically and politically.”
Blinken said Biden had been “on the record several times [that] unilateral steps taken by either side that make the prospect of a negotiated two-state outcome less likely is something he opposes, and that includes annexation,” according to Jewish Insider.
He said annexation of settlements or the Jordan Valley would be “bad” for Israel.
Blinken said that a potential Biden administration would aim to revive and “ultimately advance” the two-state solution.
“In many ways, pulling the plug on a two-state solution is pulling the plug, potentially, on an Israel that is not only secure but is Jewish and democratic — for the future. That’s not something any of us, who are ardent supporters of Israel, would want to see,” said Blinken.
But he said he was “not going to prejudge what we might do or not do in the context of a Biden administration” since much could change before then.
The remark came a day after Trump’s administration said it was ready to recognize annexation but asked Israel’s government to also negotiate with the Palestinians.
“As we have made consistently clear, we are prepared to recognize Israeli actions to extend Israeli sovereignty and the application of Israeli law to areas of the West Bank that the vision foresees as being part of the State of Israel,” a US State Department spokesperson said when asked if the US would allow Israel’s new government to move forward with the process.
The step would be “in the context of the Government of Israel agreeing to negotiate with the Palestinians along the lines set forth in President Trump’s Vision,” the spokesperson told The Times of Israel.
“The annexation would be in the context of an offer to the Palestinians to achieve statehood based upon specific terms, conditions, territorial dimensions and generous economic support. This is an unprecedented and highly beneficial opportunity for the Palestinians,” the spokesperson said.
At the same webinar, Delaware Senator Chris Coons, speaking as a surrogate for the Biden campaign, expressed hope that Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and his deputy, Gabi Ashkenazi — both former IDF chiefs of staff — would use their leverage in the upcoming new unity government to hinder any application of sovereignty over the West Bank.
“My hope would be that Ashkenazi as foreign minister and Gantz as defense minister — in what will be internal deliberations — given their deep experience in the IDF and given the security consequences of an abrupt move, would caution Bibi [Netanyahu] against some significant step like this,” Coons said.
The Trump peace plan unveiled earlier this year — which angered the Palestinians and was rejected by much of the international community — gave Israel the green light to annex settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley area.
The Palestinians have refused to negotiate with the Trump administration, considering it biased. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas threatened last week to cancel all agreements with Israel and the US if Israel moved forward with annexation plans.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that annexation was ultimately “an Israeli decision.”
Netanyahu said Sunday that he was “confident” Trump would let him fulfill his election promise to apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank “a couple of months from now.”
“Three months ago, the Trump peace plan recognized Israel’s rights in all of Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name. “And President Trump pledged to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Jewish communities there and in the Jordan Valley.”
“A couple of months from now, I’m confident that that pledge will be honored,” Netanyahu said.
According to the wording of the “emergency government” deal between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White, starting July 1, Netanyahu “will be able to bring the agreement reached with the US on the application of sovereignty [in the West Bank] for the approval of the cabinet and/or the Knesset.”
In addition, “the law will be passed as quickly as possible… and will not be disrupted or delayed by the chairmen of either the House or the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees.”
The Netanyahu-Gantz deal stipulates that any Israeli action would need US backing, and must take into account Israel’s peace treaties with neighboring Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab states that have formal peace treaties and diplomatic relations with Israel.
The prospect of annexation has recently drawn international condemnation, including from senior officials at the United Nations and the European Union.
The Arab League plans to hold an urgent virtual meeting this week to galvanize opposition to the annexation plan, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has reportedly approached counterparts in a number of countries including Russia, Germany, Egypt, Japan, Sweden and Norway to oppose the outline.
Netanyahu’s right-wing base is eager to move forward with annexation while the friendly Trump administration is in office.
Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War. The Palestinians seek those territories as part of a future independent state. Annexation of West Bank settlements would infuriate the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors.