The Media Line — Political uncertainty is nothing new in Israel these days. The country is headed for its fourth election in less than two years and, for the first time, experts say Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is facing a viable challenge to his lengthy reign.
What has changed this time around is the additional level of uncertainty in dealing with a new U.S. government.
Joe Biden will enter the White House on Wednesday. His relationship with Israel and Netanyahu goes back decades – for better or for worse. This time, though, the unpredictability of Israel’s internal political situation may leave the country at a huge disadvantage as Netanyahu and company try to lobby the Biden administration on issues such as Iran, arms sales to allies and settlement building. Conversely, it could also give Biden a ready excuse to push back against his left wing and delay implementation of any policy vis-à-vis Israel by claiming he wants to wait and check the posture of its new government, whenever that may be in place.
“To some extent, that’s not such a bad thing considering Biden and his people have so many other things to deal with,” Michael Koplow, policy director of the Washington-based Israel Policy Forum, told The Media Line.
“It’s definitely more challenging for the Biden administration to figure out the complexion of the Israeli government and where it will stand for the next five years. I don’t think it will prevent behind-the-scenes contact, though, especially in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program and, to a lesser extent, on the Palestinian issue,” said Koplow.
Biden will have his hands full putting out fires at home as America looks to recover from the coronavirus pandemic and a cratered economy, not to mention the consequences of the recent insurrection at the US Capitol.
“I think the first point to understand is that the Middle East is not likely to be a priority issue for the incoming Biden administration,” veteran diplomat Dennis Ross told The Media Line. Ross served as the US State Department’s director of policy planning and special Middle East coordinator, and later served as a special adviser for the Persian Gulf and southwest Asia, including Iran, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Between the pandemic, the economic fall-out from it, and the need to re-establish the U.S. as a global actor, the Middle East will not be at the top of the Biden Administration’s preoccupations. That said, the Middle East has a way of forcing itself onto the agenda. An Israeli election, by definition, means that policies for dealing with many bilateral issues would be put on hold unless, of course, they relate to Israeli security,” said Ross.
In fact, with a right-wing Israeli government – with or without Netanyahu at the helm – still the likeliest outcome of the March elections, Biden and his state department may take the stance that they’ll probably be dealing with the same Israeli policies, even if the leader changes.
“I don’t think the election is going to hold up any type of talks or cooperation with the US and Israel over American policy toward Iran because a) it will be near the top of Biden’s foreign policy list and Netanyahu is prime minister until at least the end of March, and b) even if there is a different prime minister, Israeli politics is pretty united in its view of Iran as a pressing threat,” Dov Waxman, a professor and The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies at UCLA, and director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, told The Media Line.
“Netanyahu, because of his very close alliance with Trump, wound up alienating Democrats and other segments of the population. He doesn’t have quite the same stature in America anymore.”
But, even if the Americans know the Israelis’ across-the-political-spectrum stance on Iran, might it help to have a different messenger in place, even for the short-term?
“Yes, absolutely,” according to Koplow. “Netanyahu, because of his very close alliance with Trump, wound up alienating Democrats and other segments of the population. He doesn’t have quite the same stature in America anymore,” he said.
“He’s dealing with a weaker set of cards than a few years ago. Still, the Biden Administration can’t afford to ignore him. But, somebody other than Bibi should be messenger because he’s burned so many bridges, particularly in Congress, that there is a danger he made himself the face of the opposition,” said Koplow, using the prime minister’s nickname.
To that end, a recent report in Axios claimed that Netanyahu was giving thought to appointing a special envoy to America for Iran nuclear talks. With Netanyahu’s confidante, Ron Dermer, wrapping up his tenure as Israeli ambassador to the US on Wednesday, and the incoming ambassador, Gilad Erdan, a virtual unknown in Washington, Netanyahu is looking to push his Iran agenda, even as several proponents of the Iranian nuclear accord begin to populate the upper ranks of the State Department again.
“Normally, those talks would take place directly with the prime minister or ambassador. It’s more of a signal that Netanyahu doesn’t have enormous faith in Erdan to oversee the Iran issue,” said Waxman.
“I’m not sure it benefits anyone,” Waxman told The Media Line. “So, let’s say Biden recommits to the traditional two-state outcome. That’s something he can do irrespective of who the prime minister is. If Biden resumes humanitarian funding to the Palestinians, it doesn’t depend on the Israelis. On more specific policies, like settlements and Area C treatment of the Palestinians, for example, everyone will want to have clarity on the path forward.”
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be affected, and there will be a reset that would require coordination with a permanent government, with the possibility of another election in 2021 not out of the question. So, any kind of long-term planning becomes really difficult,” he added.
And while Donald Trump handed Netanyahu diplomatic gift after diplomatic gift in the run-up to each of the last three elections, Netanyahu won’t be counting on anything from Biden. The best he can hope for is that the new state department doesn’t broadside him as a way of saying that the business of the last four years is over.
“On Iran, I fully expect that there will be quiet consultations with Israel to hear Israeli assessments of Iranian developments on the nuclear issue and in the region; to elicit Israeli concerns; and to explain US objectives and steps that might be taken in the pursuit of those objectives.”
“There is a long-standing instinct here, and it would almost certainly apply in the Biden Administration, not to take sides in the Israeli election,” said Ross.
“Obviously, Iran – with its enrichment to 20%, seizure of the South Korean tanker, efforts now to produce uranium metal – is trying to force itself onto the American agenda. And, this is an issue that affects Israel. On Iran, I fully expect that there will be quiet consultations with Israel to hear Israeli assessments of Iranian developments on the nuclear issue and in the region; to elicit Israeli concerns; and to explain US objectives and steps that might be taken in the pursuit of those objectives,” Ross said.
Ross said that, despite the current Israeli care-taker government and the tension between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, “it will still be necessary for there to be a mechanism for the necessary consultations. Keeping that mechanism as professional as possible and as discreet as possible will be a challenge in the heat of an election campaign, but I expect that the Biden Administration will strive for that.”
While intuition says Biden’s team would like to wash its hands of Netanyahu, in the bigger picture it might want to be careful what it wishes for.
“Someone like Yair Lapid has a very good relationship with the Democrats and would be much more amenable to working with Biden’s people. But, he doesn’t have more than a theoretical path to form a government yet,” said Koplow, of the leader of the center-left opposition Yesh Atid party.
“Netanyahu’s rivals on the right, though, like Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett, are less pragmatic and more ideological than Netanyahu,” said Koplow.
Essentially, it seems that the Biden administration holds the cards now, and it’s just a matter of how aggressively, and how quickly, it chooses to play them.