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Analysis

Who are Biden’s potential senior appointees, and what are their views on Israel?

Some picks may hinge on whether Democrats win Senate; choices for secretary of state boast pro-Israel bonafides but rankled some by supporting Iran deal

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Delaware Democratic US Senate candidate Chris Coons, right, applaud while attending a rally for the Delaware Democratic Party ticket on November 1, 2010, in Wilmington, Del. (AP/Rob Carr)
Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Delaware Democratic US Senate candidate Chris Coons, right, applaud while attending a rally for the Delaware Democratic Party ticket on November 1, 2010, in Wilmington, Del. (AP/Rob Carr)

NEW YORK — With just 68 days until he takes office, US President-elect Joe Biden has begun announcing appointments for senior positions in his coming administration — starting Wednesday with the pick of seasoned Washington veteran and longtime ally Ron Klain to serve as his chief of staff.

More announcements are expected in the coming weeks, though the Biden-Harris transition team may wait on some of its more consequential cabinet picks until after the two run-off elections in Georgia on January 5. A source familiar with the transition team’s strategy told The Times of Israel that if Democrats win those Senate races, giving the party a majority in both houses, Biden will be more inclined to tap appointees who might otherwise have a harder time getting through.

On the issue of Israel, multiple sources involved in the campaign said that all of Biden’s picks will be closely aligned with the position of the president-elect. Biden does not see eye-to-eye with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on West Bank settlements and the need for a two-state solution, but views safeguarding the security of the Jewish state as an issue of utmost importance in the region.

Jockeying for key cabinet posts has already begun, mostly behind the scenes, with allies of the president-elect hoping to benefit from their extensive efforts on Biden’s behalf over the past year.

Here is a list of front-runners for key foreign policy posts, compiled based on conversations with Biden campaign officials along with well-placed sources familiar with the matter.

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks on November 9, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Secretary of State

Susan Rice is seen as a leading contender to serve as top US diplomat. She worked extensively with the Obama-Biden administration, first as ambassador to the UN and later as national security adviser. She also has a wealth of experience in the State Department, serving as assistant secretary for African affairs under president Bill Clinton.

On Israel, Rice has highlighted her “battle every day [as ambassador at the UN] to defend Israel from a drumbeat of hostility.” The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations honored her with their National Service Award in 2011 for her efforts.

However, Rice also gained her fair share of critics in the Washington pro-Israel establishment for her harsh criticism of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. As national security adviser, she was the person who called then-ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power in December 2016, instructing her to not veto a Security Council resolution condemning settlements.

Vice President Joe Biden talks with National Security Adviser Susan Rice as President Barack Obama meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on April 14, 2015. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

“She’s developed a reputation for being less friendly on Israel, but Biden is not a foreign policy novice and he will be the one steering the administration’s policy on the matter,” one pro-Israel DC strategist said. “Moreover, the differences between her and some of the more ‘friendly’ options are much smaller than [Rice’s] differences with [Israel-critical] Democrats like Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib.”

The biggest strike against Rice has been her association with the 2012 deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others dead. Rice was accused of misleading the public about the incident, but the veteran diplomat has maintained that she was simply sharing talking points given to her by US intelligence officials.

While presidents-elect are typically granted their pick for secretary of state regardless of the composition of Congress, an increasingly politicized Washington may make Rice a harder sell if the Democrats don’t control the Senate as well as the House.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware speaks during the third day of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 14, 2020. (Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

If Biden is looking for a safer pick, he’ll likely go with Chris Coons. The Delaware senator is seen as part of the more traditional pro-Israel wing of the Democratic party and has been a regular speaker at AIPAC events.

Coons’s foreign policy experience comes from two terms serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he has gained a reputation as being someone able to work across the aisle to promote consensus legislation on a wide range of foreign policy issues — similarly to Biden himself.

He expressed opposition to the Obama administration’s 2016 abstention to the anti-settlements Security Council resolution and was a co-sponsor to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which made it a federal crime to promote the boycott of Israel and its settlements.

Coons does not give Israel carte blanche, however, and did come out against Netanyahu’s West Bank annexation plans earlier this year, expressing hope that Blue and White’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi would be able to talk the premier down from going forward with the highly controversial move.

The plans have since been shelved as part of Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

Coons was also a key vote in favor of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, falling in line behind the Obama-brokered agreement, which many moderate Democratic senators wrestled extensively with before ultimately supporting.

Coons, along with former Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, helped block efforts by progressives earlier this year to include wording more critical of Israel in the Democratic Party’s platform, a Biden campaign official confirmed.

Coons has been the only candidate to publicly admit interest in the post of secretary of state, telling Politico last month, “Joe Biden and I have very similar, closely aligned views on foreign policy. He’s got a lot of great folks from whom to choose, but if he were to consider me as well, I’d certainly be honored.”

US Senator Christopher Murphy attends a talk at the third day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC) at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, southern Germany, on February 19, 2017. (AFP/ Christof STACHE)

Another Chris on the secretary of state shortlist has been Senator Chris Murphy. He is seen as a preference of progressive Democrats for the job, having been among the first and most vocal lawmakers to oppose US support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, along with arms deals to Riyadh.

Murphy opposed US President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, arguing that “it needs to be done at the right time and in the right manner. I don’t see any peace process beginning any time soon so I seriously question the wisdom of making the choice now.”

Earlier this year, he led a group of 18 Senate Democrats who signed a letter to Netanyahu, warning him that annexation risked damaging the US-Israel relationship. Murphy defended the letter in a webinar with the American Jewish Committee, saying opposition to annexation is a matter of broad consensus in the Democratic party and among many Republicans as well.

He later asserted that “everything in [the Middle East] should flow from our priority above and beyond all other priorities to make sure that Israel remains safe, sovereign and protected.”

US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns meeting with Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, on Monday, July 15, 2013. (AP/Facebook page of Egypt’s army spokesman)

Murphy has said that he would “work [his] tail off” to push more countries to follow the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan in normalizing relations with Israel, while also expressing discomfort with making such agreements “dependent” on arms deals from the US — as some reports have indicated was the case with the UAE.

Biden has emphasized that his administration would bring about a return to a foreign policy based heavily on diplomacy. Campaign officials said this may lead the president-elect to appoint someone with deep ties to the State Department, such as veteran diplomats William Burns or Nicholas Burns (not related). Both have decades of foreign service experience in Democratic and Republican administrations. Both are also defenders of the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden has said he hopes to re-enter shortly after taking office.

Secretary of Defense

Politico describes this post as “Michèle Flournoy’s to lose,” and few names have been raised with as likely a shot as the well-respected former under secretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration.

Flournoy served as a top Pentagon official during Obama’s first term and then returned to the Center for a New American Security, the centrist think tank she co-founded.

She also held senior defense policy posts during the Clinton administration, as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction and deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy.

A senior Republican Senate aide told Politico in 2012 that Flournoy was well versed in Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, which is partially funded by the US, as well as regional arms sales and the importance of Israel’s military edge over its neighbors.

Michele A. Flournoy, former US under secretary of defense for policy. (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

“Michelle worked extensively with Israelis on intelligence and security issues and took time during her vacation to speak to the Democratic Majority for Israel, which shows her level of commitment to the issue,” said DMFI founder Mark Mellman.

Another possibility for defense secretary is Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. The Iraq war veteran earned a Purple Heart after losing her legs in Iraq when her helicopter was struck by an RPG.

She was vetted as a potential running mate to Biden ahead of the 2020 election. Her name has also come up as a possible secretary for veterans affairs appointee.

Duckworth has enjoyed the backing of both AIPAC and J Street since entering Congress in 2013, voicing support for military aid to Israel and opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. She was also one of the 18 senators to sign Murphy’s letter warning Netanyahu against annexation.

UN Ambassador

Wendy Sherman is a favorite for UN envoy, a source familiar with the transition team’s strategy told The Times of Israel.

The former deputy secretary of state was a key architect of the Iran nuclear deal, which exposed her to criticism from parts of the pro-Israel establishment in Washington.

Invoking her own Judaism, she has described the dissent the Obama administration faced over the multilateral accord from the American Jewish community as the most “painful” part of its efforts to push the deal through.

But Sherman also began her career in politics working as chief of staff for then-congresswoman Barbara Mikulski, a prominent pro-Israel voice on Capitol Hill until her retirement in 2017.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, center, meet with foreign ministers and representatives of Germany, France, China, Britain, Russia and the European Union during nuclear talks with Iran, in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2015 (Carlos Barria/Pool via AP)

Another name being considered for the UN ambassador post is Pete Buttigieg.

The former South Bend mayor quickly came out in support of Biden after ending his own presidential candidacy earlier this year. He is currently part of the Biden transition team and has also been listed as a possible pick for veterans affairs secretary.

The 38-year-old navy veteran has considerably less foreign policy experience than Sherman, but he did speak at length on the issue throughout the campaign.

Buttigieg has eschewed unconditional US assistance to Israel no matter its behavior or policies, and has called for applying concrete forms of pressure to guide Israel in a direction that could yield more progress on the peace front.

Last year, the former mayor said he would consider using American aid to “leverage” Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians, but would not commit to taking any specific actions.

His campaign made a point to publicly announce that he would not attend the AIPAC policy conference earlier this year and he subsequently came out aggressively against annexation, calling the move a “provocation [that] is harmful to Israeli, Palestinian, and American interests.”

Democratic presidential candidate, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is interviewed in the spin room after a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News and MSNBC, in Las Vegas, February 19, 2020. (Matt York/AP)

The Washington Post reported Friday that another name being bandied about is that of former secretary of state and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as a way of underscoring the new administration’s renewed commitment to global cooperation.

Clinton is a pro-Israel stalwart, also seen as a proponent of traditional solutions to the conflict, who has shown a commitment to countering efforts to delegitimize Israel and to fight BDS.

National Security Adviser

Though Tony Blinken, the top foreign policy aide to the Biden campaign, is on many analysts’ shortlists for secretary of state, a Biden campaign official told the Times of Israel that the former deputy secretary of state would be a natural fit for national security adviser.

In talks with Jewish groups, Blinken likes to highlight a story of how, in the midst of the 2014 Gaza War, he was awakened in the middle of the night by Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who expressed an urgent need for military assistance, as Israel tried to fend off non-stop rocket fire from the Hamas-run coastal enclave.

Blinken took the issue to Obama and Biden at the White House the next morning and recalls receiving the same three-word response from both the president and vice president: “Get it done.” Blinken then worked with Biden to successfully lobby Congress to commit to a quarter-billion dollars in funding for Iron Dome replenishment within days.

“Tony became a key part of the campaign and the president-elect will want him in his ear on foreign policy,” said one source familiar with the transition team’s strategy.

Hosts US Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken (R), during a luncheon gathering in honor of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on June 30, 2015, at the State Department in Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Blinken told the Times of Israel last month that while the recent Middle East normalization deals brokered by the Trump administration are welcome developments, the subsequent plan to sell advanced F-35s to the United Arab Emirates leaves the impression that the peace deal between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem was something of a “quid pro quo.”

Blinken is sure to get a senior role in the Biden administration, but if not as national security adviser, the position could well go to Jake Sullivan.

Like Blinken, Sullivan served as national security adviser to Biden when he was vice president. The longtime aide to Hillary Clinton has been credited for launching secret talks with Iranian officials in 2012 that laid the groundwork for the nuclear deal.

A leaked 2015 email correspondence with Clinton showed Sullivan mocking an apology made by Netanyahu for warning that Arabs were “coming out in droves” to vote against him during that year’s election.

Mellman said Sullivan “has been both publicly and privately strongly in the pro-Israel camp,” highlighting that he too took time during a vacation to address DMFI earlier this year.

This Nov. 11, 2009 file photo shows then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walking with then-Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan in Singapore. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

Ambassador to Israel

A source familiar with the Biden transition team’s strategy said former New York congressman Steve Israel is a favorite to serve as the ambassador to the Jewish state.

“He cares deeply about Israel and about strengthening the US-Israel relationship and a role like ambassador would be a logical next step for him based on his work over the years,” the source said.

The 16-year congressman campaigned aggressively for Biden over the past year, telling anyone who would listen that the former vice president’s commitment to the Jewish state was and would forever be “ironclad.”

Blasting former president Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Israel told The Forward he disagreed with it “fundamentally,” adding that “the reason for the Palestinian plight is the Palestinians.”

Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington after attending a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and the House Democratic Caucus to talk about the Iran nuclear deal, July 15, 2015. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Israel was one of the few Democrats to vote against the Iran deal, but he labeled as a “political stunt” Netanyahu’s decision to lobby against it in a joint Congressional address uncoordinated with the Obama administration.

He has also expressed support for traditional Democratic talking points on the conflict, writing in an op-ed last year that “denied a two-state solution where both sides can enforce peace, Israel will preside over a potential demographic timebomb.”

But Steve Israel is not without competition. Two sources familiar with the matter used the same phrase to describe Miami-based developer Michael Adler‘s chances at landing the Israel envoy gig: “If he wants it, it’s his.”

Adler is a longtime friend of Biden and hosted a major fundraiser for the president-elect’s campaign earlier this year. For years he led the centrist National Jewish Democratic Council and he’s been active with AIPAC.

In 2016, Adler penned a Times of Israel op-ed titled, “Might as well give up trying to paint Democrats as weak on Israel.

Michael Adler. (NJDC/JTA)

Another possible pick for ambassador to Israel is Robert Wexler. The former Florida congressman has been deeply engaged on the region both during and after his 13-year stint on Capitol Hill.

He is the longtime President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is a strong proponent of a two-state solution and critical of Israeli settlements.

Multiple sources said that former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro would take the job again if asked. But they clarified that the ex-envoy — who played a big role in Jewish outreach during the campaign, and who stayed in Israel for the past four years, as a distinguished visiting fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies — would likely prefer a new role, such as Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department.

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