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Analysis

Preferring Trump, Netanyahu is still prepared to score points with Biden victory

A win-win? PM prides himself on achievements he credits to his friendship with incumbent president, but also on having stood up to pressure from the Obama-Biden administration

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet Vice President of the United States Joe Biden (center) in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet Vice President of the United States Joe Biden (center) in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

With both US presidential candidates staunch supporters of the State of Israel and close personal friends of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier is likely viewing Tuesday’s election without dread for either outcome.

While his preference for another Donald Trump victory seems obvious, Netanyahu knows Joe Biden has a good chance of moving into the White House, and is therefore ready to turn the pendulum’s swing into a political victory of his own.

If the incumbent president gets four more years, the prime minister is likely to argue that it was their unique relationship that made the Trump administration one of the most pro-Israel in history.

“I got Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US Embassy,” he can be expected to proclaim with increasing frequency as the next election in Israel nears.

“It was due to my lobbying that he withdrew from the dangerous Iran nuclear deal. Because of our friendship he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and declared that West Bank settlements aren’t illegal. And it’s no coincidence that the ‘Deal of Century’ peace proposal sounded like I wrote it myself,” he might say.

Only with Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office can Israel continue to enjoy the fruits of this remarkably tight partnership, his supporters will argue. The trend of Arab countries normalizing ties will only continue if Netanyahu pushes Trump to seek more such peace deals, they will insist.

The Iranian threat? It was Netanyahu who got the American president to quit the deal, and it will take Netanyahu to prevent him from negotiating another flawed agreement.

A worker hangs an election campaign billboard of the Likud party shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and US President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Israel on September 8, 2019. Hebrew on billboard reads ‘Netanyahu, in another league.’ (AP/Oded Balilty)

And if Biden wins? Then Netanyahu is needed more than ever, his backers will say.

“It takes an experienced statesman like him to stand up to pressure. Who else could take on an administration hellbent on appeasing Iran and trying to force Israeli concessions on the Palestinian question?” they will ask.

The prime minister prides himself on having fended off immense pressure, especially regarding Israel’s West Bank settlement enterprise, from the last Democrat who sat in the Oval Office.

The fact that he dared openly confront and even antagonize Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, over the 2015 nuclear deal, shows that only someone of his stature can be trusted to stand up to Biden, Netanyahu and his supporters will doubtlessly argue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal . (AP/Andrew Harnik)

To be sure, it will be more difficult to portray Biden as hostile to Israel than it was with Obama. As opposed to the former president, whose detractors often cast doubts over his support for Israel, Biden has a 40-year record of staunch support for the Jewish state. He is said to have once referred to Israel as his “second home.”

“We must have no daylight between us,” he told then-Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren before his first visit to Jerusalem as vice president in March 2010.

“We’ve been personal friends for almost three decades,” Netanyahu said as he hosted Biden a few days later in his office. “And in all that time you’ve been a real friend to me and a real friend to Israel and to the Jewish people and you’ve come to Israel many times since you came here first on the eve of the Yom Kippur War.”

But the friendly atmosphere quickly turned sour as local authorities announced a plan to build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a Jerusalem neighborhood east of the Green Line, during the vice president’s stay.

The planned settlement expansion “undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel,” Biden fumed. It was one of many quarrels between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration.

Still, six years and one very contentious nuclear deal later, Biden came to Jerusalem for a second visit as Obama’s deputy, and was welcomed like a good friend.

“I want to thank you personally for your, for our personal friendship of over 30 years,” Netanyahu said at their joint press conference. “We’ve known each other a long time. We’ve gone through many trials and tribulations. And we have an enduring bond that represents the enduring bond between our people.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with United States Vice President Joe Biden in Washington DC, March 23, 2010 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Biden then recalled his first meeting with Netanyahu in the early 1980s. “We met in a parking lot outside of a restaurant where I was meeting with some American Jewish leaders, and we became close friends and I later signed a picture for you that I, as a joke I said ‘Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.’”

On the flipside, Netanyahu’s political opponents argue that it is bad news for US-Israel relations regardless of who wins Tuesday’s election.

We don’t want to find ourselves with a Democratic Party in the United States acting like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn

Another Trump term will irrevocably turn Israel into a partisan issue, they will say, as the US president has claimed that the Democrats are hostile to Israel, trying to drive a wedge between American Jews and the party most of them have traditionally been voting for.

And if Biden triumphs? Netanyahu and the former Delaware senator may have known each other for decades, but clashes over Iran and the Palestinians are inevitable regardless of any personal affinity, the prime minister’s critics can be expected to argue, noting that a Biden administration would be more than just the man on the top.

Incidentally, Biden’s running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, is also known as a friend of Israel. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that Biden, in a bid to reunite a divided Democratic party, may appoint some members of its progressive wing to key posts in the administration.

US President Donald Trump watches as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020 (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Support for Israel was always a bipartisan consensus, but Netanyahu “decided, mostly for internal reasons, to break with that principle,” opposition leader Yair Lapid charged Monday.

“Netanyahu created an almost complete identification between the current Israeli government and the Republican Party, between himself and President Trump. He wanted to use President Trump’s justified popularity in Israel to gain some points at home,” Lapid said.

The prime minister’s alleged preference of the Republicans is playing into the hands of “radical elements” within the Democratic party, Lapid went on. “He’s pushing the Democrats further and further away. We don’t want to find ourselves with a Democratic Party in the United States acting like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.”

Even if Trump wins, Jerusalem needs the support of Democrats in Congress, where decisions crucial to Israel’s security are being taken, he warned.

Still, even Lapid agreed that Israel doesn’t have to fret about the identity of the person who will be inaugurated on January 20.

“It’s a tight race but there are things we already know: The next president of the United States will be a friend of Israel. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are friends of Israel with a deep commitment to Israel and to Zionism,” he said.

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