The 2020 presidential election last week between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was one of the closest and most contentious in American history. Because of the widespread use of mail-in ballots, the initial vote count in several states was seriously delayed. The Trump campaign has complained that insufficient security procedures for handling the huge number of late-arriving mail-in and absentee ballots, as well as reports of unsupervised vote counting procedures in cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee, has created doubts about the validity of the initial vote count in several of the key battleground states.
As a result, Trump and many of his supporters have rejected claims by news organizations, based upon the initial vote counts, that Biden has already won a narrow victory in the Electoral College. The Trump camp insists that the outcome of the election will not be resolved until the initial vote counts are verified in accordance with the laws in each state, and the courts have ruled on the legal challenges the Trump campaign has brought based on allegations of large-scale voting and vote count irregularities in several closely contested states.
This dispute is unlikely to be resolved for some time, but it is quite possible that Biden may have won the election. If so, it is important to consider what a Biden presidency for the next four years is likely to mean to Israel.
A LIFELONG FRIEND OF ISRAEL
Ever since he was first elected as a senator from Delaware in 1972, Joe Biden has acted as a friend of Israel, and he has remained one the most pro-Israel leaders of the Democrat party to this day. Biden’s positive attitude towards Israel stands in sharp contrast to liberal and progressive Democrats, including former president Barack Obama, Senator Bernie Sanders, and the progressive supporters of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortes. They have been highly outspoken in the criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and his policies, and would hold US aid to Israel hostage to meeting their demands for changes in those policies and further concessions to the Palestinians in negotiating a two-state solution.
During his eight years as Obama’s vice president, Biden served as the most effective White House goodwill ambassador to Israel when it needed Netanyahu’s cooperation. He was also a trusted political troubleshooter, soothing the ruffled feathers of friends of Israel in Congress and leaders of the organized American Jewish community whenever Obama’s pro-Palestinian, pro-Iranian and anti-Israel policies went too far.
Michael Oren, a Middle East historian who served as Israel’s ambassador to the US during Obama’s presidency, recalled that whenever there was a ticklish “good cop-bad cop” dispute between Netanyahu and Obama, Biden always served as the good cop, “but his good-copness was genuine.”
Oren has maintained a friendly personal relationship with Biden despite his disagreement with the former vice president’s continued support for the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal and the two-state solution, because, Oren said, “He has a deep feeling for Israel.”
“Biden is from a generation that remembers [Israel’s wars fought in] 1967 and 1973,” Oren said in an interview with the Times of Israel. “He has Israel in his heart. He actually gets it. He gets Israel.”
A LESSON FROM HIS PARENTS
Biden has attributed his lifelong support and respect for Israel to the moral and religious values he was taught by his Catholic parents as a young boy while growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In a 2013 speech Biden made to an Aipac conference, he recalled, “We gathered at my dinner table to have conversation. It was at that table I first heard the phrase ‘Never again.’” Biden said he also “learned that the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish state of Israel.” Biden’s father also once told him that one need not be Jewish to be a Zionist.
Biden recalled his father being baffled by the debate following World War II over whether or not to establish Israel as an independent state. “My father would say, were he a Jew, he would never, never entrust the security of his people to any individual nation, no matter how good and how noble it was, like the United States.”
In 2015, while he was Obama’s vice president, Biden said in another speech to American supporters of Israel, “You were blessed with one of the greatest generations of founding fathers and mothers of any nation in the history of the world—[David] Ben-Gurion, [Golda] Meir, [Menachem] Begin, [Ariel] Sharon, [Yitzchak] Rabin, [Shimon] Peres. They all fashioned Israel into a vibrant democracy.
“And in the process, you built one of the most innovative societies on Earth. In the process, you defended your homeland and became the most powerful military in the entire region. And all these years later, things have changed, but the danger still exists, and just to be an Israeli—it still demands uncommon courage.”
BIDEN AND ISRAEL’S EARLY LEADERS
Biden has had a friendly relationship with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, including Netanyahu. Biden has often retold the story of his initial meeting, while a young, first-term senator, with Golda Meir in the summer of 1973, a few months before the Yom Kippur War. After Mrs. Meir explained to him the serious military threats to Israel from its hostile Arab neighbors, she became concerned because Biden looked depressed. In an effort to cheer him up, Biden recalled, she told him that Israelis have a secret weapon against the Arabs: “We have nowhere else to go.” Biden still describes that encounter with Golda Meir as “one of the most consequential meetings I’ve ever had in my life.”
Biden also had what he described as a much more “emotional confrontation” with Meir’s successor as prime minister, Menachem Begin, in June 1982, a few days after the start of the first Lebanon War. Begin was in Washington, DC, meeting with members the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who gave him a tough time over Israel’s alleged disproportionate use of force against the Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists who started the war by launching attacks against civilian communities in Israel. When Begin recounted that meeting to Israeli reporters after his return to Yerushalayim, he said that at one point, “a young senator [Biden] rose and delivered a very impassioned speech—I must say that it’s been a while since I’ve heard such a talented speaker—and he actually supported Operation Peace for the Galilee [the Israeli army’s code name for the Lebanon invasion].”
Biden declared that if he were an Israeli, he would also fight off anyone who sought to invade his country, even if that meant killing women or children. That remark prompted Begin to raise an objection. “I disassociated myself from these remarks,” Begin recalled. “I said to him: No, sir; attention must be paid. According to our values, it is forbidden to hurt women and children, even in war… Sometimes there are casualties among the civilian population as well. But it is forbidden to aspire to this. This is a yardstick of human civilization, not to hurt civilians.”
However, during that same meeting in Washington, Begin said Biden had warned him that Israel “was losing support in this country because of the [West Bank] settlements policy. He hinted—more than hinted—that if we continue with this policy, it is possible that he [Biden] will propose cutting our financial aid,” Begin recalled. “And to this I gave him a clear answer: ‘Sir, do not threaten us with cutting aid. First of all, you should know that this is not a one-way street. You help us, and we are very grateful for your help; but this is a two-way street. We do a lot for you. And also in recent battles we did a lot for the United States.”
Begin refused to be intimidated by Biden’s threat, according to a report on that meeting published in the New York Times. “If at any time you demand of us to yield on a principle in which we believe, while threatening to cut aid, we will not abandon the principle in which we believe,” the prime minister declared. According to a slightly different version of the same story, Begin responded to Biden, “I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats.”
In conclusion, Begin told the Israeli reporters he thought that his “lively discussion” with the young Biden was “very helpful.”
Apparently, Begin’s firm response made a lasting impression on Biden. Throughout his subsequent years in Washington, Biden was never again heard proposing to cut US aid to Israel if it resisted US policy demands.
BIDEN’S SUPPORT FOR AID TO ISRAEL
During a June 1986 speech in the Senate, Biden said, “It’s about time we stop apologizing for our support for Israel. There’s no apology to be made, none. It is the best $3-billion investment we make. If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”
Speaking at a party in 2015 celebrating Israel’s Independence Day, Biden declared, “Israel is absolutely essential [for the] security of Jews around the world. And that’s why you have never farmed out your security. You’ve accepted all the help we could give. The most admirable thing about you is you’ve never asked us to fight for you. But I promise you, if you were attacked and overwhelmed, we would fight for you, in my view.”
During the 2020 primary campaign, Biden was one of the few Democrat presidential candidates who said he would never use American aid as a means of pressuring Israel for concessions. When asked about the different position taken by his rivals, Biden answered, “I have been on record from very early on opposed to the settlements, and I think it’s a mistake. And Netanyahu knows my position. But the idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel, on the condition that they change a specific policy, I find to be absolutely outrageous.”
BIDEN’S TIES TO THE LEFT-WING J STREET LOBBY
But Biden has also been supportive of J Street, a left-wing American Jewish group which claims to be pro-Israel but which has consistently opposed the policies of the Netanyahu government towards the Palestinians.
The Obama administration actively sought to promote J Street as a preferred alternative spokesman for American Jewry to Aipac, because J Street vigorously opposes Israel’s settlement policy. In 2013, then-Vice President Biden told a J Street event that “there is no contradiction between being progressive and being a supporter of Israel.” In a 2016 address to J Street, Biden declared, “I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past several years—the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures—are moving Israel in the wrong direction. They are moving us toward a one-state reality, and that reality is dangerous.
“So we have an overwhelming obligation, notwithstanding our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government. . . to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only ultimate solution—a two-state solution.”
BIDEN AND BIBI
Biden and Netanyahu have been personal friends since they first met in the 1970s, even though they often have often disagreed strongly over Israel’s settlement policy.
During a 2016 meeting in Netanyahu’s office in Yerushalayim, the prime minister told then-Vice President Biden, “I hope you feel at home here in Israel, because the people of Israel consider the Biden family part of our family. You’re part of our mishpocha.”
“It’s true that Prime Minister Bibi and I go back a long way,” Biden replied.
“A long time ago when you were at the Israeli consulate, we met outside in a parking lot outside of a restaurant where I was meeting with some American Jewish leaders,” Biden recalled, “and we became close friends. I later signed a picture for you that I, as a joke, said, ‘Bibi, I don’t agree with a thing you say, but I love you.’”
Over the past four years, Netanyahu has benefitted politically among Israeli voters from his close personal relationship with Trump, who agreed to almost all his requests. With Biden in the White House, Netanyahu can expect a lot more pushback against his efforts to grow and strengthen the West Bank settlements.
As vice president, Biden became a central figure in a nasty dispute between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration. It began during Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010, to work on reviving stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. When a low-level Israeli government housing commission announced its approval for the construction of 1,600 new apartments for Jews in East Yerushalayim, Netanyahu insisted he was unaware that such an announcement was going to be made, but Biden was embarrassed and furious, and publicly condemned the decision as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”
Before Biden flew home, Netanyahu apologized to him for the unfortunate timing of the announcement and promised to prevent such statements from being released in the future without his explicit approval. Netanyahu believed that Biden accepted what he said, and that the issue was resolved, but upon Biden’s return to Washington, the Obama White House launched a campaign to embarrass the prime minister over the incident. The State Department spokesman told reporters about a 45-minute phone call by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she harshly rebuked Netanyahu for harming “the bilateral relationship” between the US and Israel. She also called in Israeli ambassador Michael Oren to formally complain about the incident, which accelerated the deterioration of relations and growing distrust between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.
Throughout Biden’s 36-year career as a senator, he assumed that all his fellow Democrats shared his unquestioned support for Israel. In 2006, he declared, “The Democrats’ support for Israel “comes from our gut, moves through our heart, and ends up in our head. It’s almost genetic.” But that was no longer the case when Biden announced last year that he was running for president. Party leaders declined to rebuke progressive Democrats for issuing harsh criticisms of Israel with clearly anti-Semitic overtones. Biden was considered to be, by far, the most pro-Israel member of a large Democrat field of far-left presidential candidates, including Senator Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish by birth.
BIDEN’S COMMITMENT TO ISRAEL’S SECURITY
Biden remains committed to strengthening the US-Israel alliance for the mutual benefit of both countries. Earlier this year, he told Foreign Affairs magazine, “We need to sustain our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.”
The Biden campaign website reiterated that pledge in greater detail. It promises he would:
“Sustain our unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security—including the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation pioneered during the Obama-Biden administration, and the guarantee that Israel will always maintain its qualitative military edge.
“Ensure that support for the US-Israel alliance remains bipartisan, reversing Trump’s exploitation of US support for Israel as a political football, which harms both countries’ interests.
“Support the critical economic and technological partnership between the United States and Israel, and further expand scientific collaborations and increase commercial opportunities.”
Biden also promised to continue the joint US-Israeli development program for advanced anti-missile technology to protect Israel’s civilian population from terrorist missile attacks. “Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorist threats. It is intolerable that Israeli civilians live their lives under the constant fear of rocket attacks. That’s why our administration was such a strong supporter of Israel’s life-saving Iron Dome,” Biden declared last November.
BIDEN STILL BELIEVES IN THE TWO-STATE SOLUTION
The website also says that as president, Biden would “urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to take steps to keep the prospect of a negotiated two-state outcome alive and avoid actions, such as unilateral annexation of territory and settlement activity, or support for incitement and violence, that undercut prospects for peace between the parties.”
It also promised that Biden would “reverse the Trump administration’s destructive cutoff of diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and cancelation of assistance programs that support Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, economic development, and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.” In May, Biden said, “I will reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, and find a way to re-open the PLO’s diplomatic mission in Washington.” Before Trump moved the US Embassy to West Yerushalayim, the consulate located in an Arab section of East Yerushalayim functioned as a quasi-American embassy to the Palestinians.
In September, Biden declared, “I’ve made clear that I’m going to oppose annexation as president. . . A two-state solution is the only way to ensure Israel’s long-term security while sustaining its Jewish and democratic identity. I don’t know how they do it without a two-state solution. And it’s also the only way to ensure Palestinian rights to a state of their own.” The former vice president also blasted the Netanyahu for “undercutting hope for a viable two-state solution any chance that he gets.”
Speaking to the Aipac conference in March, Biden warned that Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank and continue settlement activity will “choke off any hope for peace. And to be frank, those moves are taking Israel further from its democratic values, undermining support for Israel in the United States especially among young people in both political parties.”
“That’s dangerous,” he added. “We can’t let that happen. We can’t let Israel become another issue that divides Republicans and Democrats. We can’t let anything undermine the partnership.”
Last December, Biden provided more detail about the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement he has in mind. He said the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants “must be agreed by both parties.” He also supports the establishment of a Palestinian state that includes West Bank land as demarcated by the pre-1967 borders, “except for longtime Israeli settlements or other land swaps and arrangements negotiated by the parties.”
In a recent conversation with Jewish donors to his campaign, Biden added, “the Palestinians need to end incitement in the West Bank and rocket attacks in Gaza. What they are teaching in their schools is still in the schoolbooks. No matter what legitimate disagreement they may have with Israel, it’s never a justification for terrorism, and no leader should fail to condemn as terrorists those who commit these brutalities.
“The Palestinians needs to accept once and for all reality and Israel’s right to have a secure democratic Jewish state in the Middle East,” he said, adding that the PA should “acknowledge, flat-out, Israel’s right to exist—period—as an independent Jewish state and guarantee the borders.”
BIDEN WOULD LEAVE THE US EMBASSY IN YERUSHALAYIM
In April, answering a question about Trump’s 2017 decision to move the US embassy to Yerushalayim, Biden said, “The move shouldn’t have happened in the context as it did; it should happen in the context of a larger deal to help us achieve important concessions for peace in the process. But now that is done, I would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv.”
The Biden website declares that the former vice president, “Firmly rejects the BDS movement—which singles out Israel and too often veers into anti-Semitism—and will fight other efforts to delegitimize Israel on the global stage.”
In a 2016 address to Aipac, Biden recalled that when he was the ranking Democrat member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee during the 1990s, “I insisted on holding hearings on anti-Semitism in Europe and Russia. You may have recalled in the popular press I was criticized for doing it. People questioned if it was necessary or if we were going to legislate European values. I made no apologies and I make none now. It was absolutely necessary then and it’s absolutely necessary now, because quite frankly, silence too quickly becomes complicity. We must speak out where we find it.
“I’m going to continue to speak out here today and for the rest of my life. We have to stand up against the attempts to delegitimize Israel in the world. No nation, including Israel is immune to legitimate criticism, but it should not be unfairly singled out. So we’ll continue to stand against the biased resolutions and attempts to delegitimize Israel at the United Nations.”
In that same address, Biden praised the courage of the Israeli people in the face of terrorist attacks. “The conditions under which Israeli people live, the sense of vulnerability, the constant fear of attack is real, it is not imagined, and the people of Israel have lived under siege since the beginning. They built a nation in defiance of relentless threats from their neighbors. They sustained that nation in the face of rocket attacks, terrorist tunnels and now this unconscionable spate of [terrorist] stabbings.”
BIDEN’S VIEW OF THE PEACE PROCESS
But at the same time, Biden acknowledged that “after extensive meetings with leaders on all sides, including the different parties within Israel. . . the current prospects for peace are not heartening [because] there is no political will among Israelis or Palestinians to move forward at this moment with serious negotiations and that’s incredibly disappointing.”
Biden has also promised that as president he would “re-engage” with the Palestinians, and press Mahmoud Abbas and the PA to stop paying stipends to Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons. In September, Biden said, “[The Palestinians] have to be prepared to stop what’s going on in terms of their education system, railing against Israel in their schools. They’ve got to stop inciting violence and supporting it when it happens.”
The Palestinians welcomed the apparent defeat of President Trump in last week’s election. They viewed him as much too pro-Israel to serve as a fair mediator for peace negotiations. They broke off formal diplomatic contacts with the Trump administration completely after he recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and refused its invitations to participate in the effort led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to develop a new approach to Israeli-Arab peacemaking.
But they are also aware of Biden’s long record of support for Israel, and are not optimistic that he will treat them as favorably as President Obama did. Veteran Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said she still expects American policy under Biden to favor the Israelis, albeit not as heavily as it has under Trump, adding, “I don’t think we’re so naïve as to see Biden as our savior.”
Biden has recognized that the recent peace agreements that the Trump administration has successfully brokered between Israel and at least three Sunni Arab states—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan—represent real progress, compared to the failure over the past 20 years of the peace talks between Israel and the PA. Biden has also acknowledged that neither the current Israeli or Palestinian leaderships seem willing to revive their negotiations at this time.
As a result, the immediate concern expressed by friends of Israel over the policies of a Biden administration are focused on the likelihood that he will try to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and relax the tough sanctions that the Trump administration has re-imposed on the Iranian economy.
BIDEN WOULD END TRUMP’S SANCTIONS ON IRAN
According to former ambassador Oren, “The Palestinian issues are mostly symbolic. But Iran poses a strategic threat.”
Oren said that if and when Biden takes office, “he’s going to have his plate very, very full. I don’t think that [Israel’s] issues will be at the top of his agenda, certainly not the Palestinian issue.” However, Oren predicted that the Iranian nuclear issue will be a priority for Biden because he has “been under a significant amount of pressure from former Obama administration officials to renew that agreement.” That is because for Obama, “the issues of Israel-Palestine, the Iran nuclear issue were deeply held ideological issues,” whereas Biden, according to Oren, is “not that type of ideologue.
Biden laid out his current intentions regarding Iran in a September interview with CNN:
“I have no illusions about the challenges the regime in Iran poses to America’s security interests, to our friends and partners and to its own people. But there is a smart way to be tough on Iran.
“Five years ago, American-led diplomacy produced a deal that ensured it would take Iran at least a year to produce enough fissile material for one [nuclear] bomb. Now, because Trump let Iran off the hook from its obligations under the nuclear deal, Tehran’s ‘breakout time’ is down to just a few months.
“Here’s what I would do as president. First, I will make an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“Second, I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the [2015 nuclear] agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern….
“Third, we will continue to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region… America will also work closely with Israel to ensure it can defend itself against Iran and its proxies. We will continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran’s human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.
“If Iran chooses confrontation, I am prepared to defend our vital interests and our troops,” Biden declared. “But, I am ready to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran takes steps to show it is ready too.”
Biden’s desire to relax the tough economic sanctions Trump has placed on Iran and revive the deeply flawed 2015 Iran nuclear deal would pose a serious long-term threat to Israel’s survival. Despite Biden’s inherent friendship and goodwill towards Israel, it is the one issue most likely to put a Biden White House on a collision course with Israel and its supporters.