Spotlight on US-Israel Relations: What’s Next?

Don’t be fooled by public flattery: US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not, by any means, friends. Biden has expressed pro-Israeli opinions throughout his long and illustrious career. This is unlikely to change just as he enters the oval office, at the tender age of 78.

Yet two personas cast a long shadow over Biden’s evolving relationship with the Israeli premier, who is in the midst of a fourth round of elections in just over two years. One is Donald Trump; the other – Barack Obama.

The Close Trump-Netanyahu Relationship

Trump, whose quick exit from the international stage remains quite shocking, was genuinely close with Netanyahu. Trump was also surrounded by Jewish advisors and relatives, most of them deeply aligned with the Israeli right-wing. Netanyahu and his close advisors, former Israeli Ambassador in Washington DC Ron Dermer and Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, easily found a way to communicate with the president and influence his decisions.

For the Israeli right wingers, Trump’s single term had been a dream come true. He was a four year Santa Claus, a gift that kept on giving.

An American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran? Check. Moving the U.S. embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, as previous administrations had constantly promised but failed to do? Check. Recognizing Israeli sovereignty the Golan Heights? Check. Allowing former Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to return home to Israel? Check. Pushing peace or normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab Countries? Check, check, check.

Netanyahu rewarded the president with constant groveling, Trump’s favorite way of doing business. The Israeli government had even announced the building of a new settlement in the Golan called Trump Heights. It was, unsurprisingly, an empty gesture. The settlement was never built. All that remains of it — like the Soviet Potemkin villages — is a deserted billboard, some of its letters torn down by angry opponents of the prime minister.

Netanyahu also stated that Israel had never had a friend as good as Trump in the White House. However, Netanyahu failed in delivering Trump’s most important need – a political change among US Jews. Most American Jews remained staunch Democrats, openly despising the Republican president and voting against him last November.

Political Division in Israel

Trump was the most divisive figure in the history of US politics and after the presidential elections Netanyahu remained on the wrong side of that great divide. This had come in addition to long years of animosity between the Israeli prime minister and the Democrats. The party leadership had disliked him since the mid-90s, when he rose to power shortly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, whom President Bill Clinton had considered a close personal friend.

The relationship then became even more strained when Netanyahu was re-elected in early 2009, after ten years in the political wilderness, just as Obama became president. When the two first met, Netanyahu insisted on giving the young American president a short lesson on the history of the Middle East in front of the media cameras. Evidently, it was an insult Obama had taken note of. Later on, the Israeli premier intentionally eroded the basis of the bipartisan support for Israel in Congress, as he systematically sided with the Republicans.

Things arrived at an almost expected showdown as Netanyahu spoke in Congress in September 2015, shortly after the JCPOA — the nuclear agreement with Iran — had been signed. The PM received multiple standing ovations from Republican senators and members of the house. Netanyahu didn’t succeed, however, in persuading Congress to cancel the agreement, yet Democrats never forgave or forgot. As for the Israeli prime minister, he still sees that speech as his greatest historical moment: he stood up and defended Israeli interests publicly, even if the world’s greatest power didn’t like it one bit.

Netanyahu’s American Dilemma

Netanyahu’s main problem right now is that the new administration has been heavily populated with former Obama advisors and officials, led by President Biden himself. The new US envoy, appointed to lead the soon-to-be resumed negotiations with Iran, is Robert Malley, an Obama administration veteran who some Netanyahu advisors consider to be “too soft on Iran”. The fear in Jerusalem is that the Obama veterans remain obligated to the former president’s legacy and would rush to reaffirm what Obama saw as the crown jewel of his foreign policy in the region.

Netanyahu’s approach to the problem has been clear from the beginning. On January 20, as Biden was sworn-in in Washington, an Israeli TV channel quoted a “senior source in Jerusalem” claiming that “if Biden sticks to the Obama template, we will have nothing to talk about with him.” A week later, Israeli army Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Aviv Kochavy, gave a rather rare speech at a think tank, the Institute for National Security.

Kochavy directly advised the US not to sign a “slightly improved” agreement with Iran, warning that this would not prevent the danger of Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon in the future and greatly endanger Israel’s strategic interest. He also found it necessary to tell the Israeli public that he had ordered the IDF to update its operational plans against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The military option, long forgotten, is apparently discussed again, though the chances of such a scenario materializing against deep American objections seem to be extremely low. The Chief of Staff’s remarks created a short political storm in Israel, considering both the delicate timing and the fact that the United States gives Israel $3.8 billion dollars annually, as defense support.

It’s Not Just About Iran

Netanyahu’s disagreements with the new administration aren’t necessarily limited to Iran, either.

Trump’s heavily Israeli influenced “deal of the century” with the Palestinians is clearly off the table, but what would replace it? It is evident that the Biden White House wouldn’t see the Palestinian conflict as top priority. Yet, one could assume that the new administration would not automatically side with Israel in every debate, like its predecessor did.

Later on, Netanyahu may expect rising tensions on settlement expansion in the West Bank, an issue Trump has deliberately ignored for the last four years. On the Syrian-Lebanese front it is assumed that Israel will continue its “Campaign between Wars”, attacking Iranian and Hezbollah convoys and bases. The question is whether the Biden administration will provide full support or express growing reservations, as US-Iran negotiations resume and the develop.

Israel will remain a close ally of the United States. It will also continue to be viewed in Washington as a great strategic asset in the Middle East. Yet it is becoming rather clear that Netanyahu is about to experience a period of tough love in his relationship with our most strategically important friend.