Joe Biden offered a preview of his Middle East policy throughout the 2020 campaign. He promised to reverse many of the policies adopted by his predecessor and, in his first 100 days as president, he began to make good on many of his pledges so there were no major surprises. Some advocates for Israel were leery of Biden’s commitment to Israel and worried he would revert to policies they found objectionable adopted by President Obama. Erstwhile allies like Peter Beinart had the opposite concern, calling Biden’s record on Israel “alarming” and worrying he would restore the pre-Obama pro-Israel Democratic consensus on Israel.
Not surprisingly, Biden hired many former officials from the Obama administration as well as other experienced foreign policy hands. Despite his pledge of bipartisanship, he appointed no Republicans to senior positions. Abe Silberstein noted that “Biden filled key foreign policy roles with people critical of both Israeli policy and certain American foreign policy principles that favor Israel” who are “all highly qualified to serve in their roles,” but many “are not particularly known for their background on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and “not expected to change the general policy direction of the administration, which is moderate and generally attentive to Israel’s concerns.” On the other hand, some of the appointment, he said, “sent an important signal to younger and more progressive generations of Democratic policy aides and advisors: Don’t be afraid that good faith advocacy for justice and human rights will be seen as a professional liability down the line.”
Biden has appointed several Jews, including at least two children of Holocaust survivors, to cabinet and senior positions. Those who are likely to have input on Middle East policy include Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellin, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and CIA Deputy Director David Cohen. He also appointed Jews to be ambassadors of Argentina, Japan, Singapore, Belgium, the EU, Canada, and India. Most important, he also chose a pro-Israel Jew, Thomas Nides, as ambassador to Israel.
One indication of the administration’s efforts to mend fences with Arabs and Muslims in the United States as well as abroad has been his appointment of Arabs, Muslims, and supporters of the Palestinians. He also chose individuals involved in negotiating and supporting the Iran nuclear deal. Several of his picks attracted criticism from the pro-Israel community, primarily from people and organizations to the right of the mainstream. The controversial picks include:
- Reema Dodin as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. She will be the most senior Palestinian-American woman to ever serve in the executive branch. Her past involvement as a Palestinian activist as a student alarmed some supporters of Israel.
- Hady Amr as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He served as a Fellow at the Brookings’ Doha Center for Qatar.
- Robert Malley as U.S. Special Envoy on Iran. He has been a frequent critic of Israel and a vocal supporter of the Iran nuclear deal.
- Colin Kahl appointed but not yet confirmed for Undersecretary of Defense. He is another supporter of the Iran deal.
- Samantha Power as head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Power was Obama’s ambassador to the UN and a harsh critic of Israel.
- Wendy Sherman as Deputy Secretary of State. Sherman negotiated and continues to support the Iran deal.
- Jake Sullivan as National Security adviser. Sullivan was involved in initiating secret talks with the Iranians.
- Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence. She signed a letter urging the Democratic Party to change its platform to include language opposing settlement expansion and
occupation,and supporting Palestinian rights.
- Maher Bitar as senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council. Bitar, a Palestinian American, was on the board of the anti-Zionist group Students for Justice for Palestine.
- Former Secretary of State John Kerry as White House special envoy on climate. Though not directly involved in Israel-related issues, he was a vitriolic critic of Israel and negotiator of the Iran deal in the Obama administration.
Perhaps as a reward for voting overwhelmingly for Biden, and a desire to demonstrate a new attitude toward Arabs following what some viewed as four years of hostility, the State Department declared April “Arab American Heritage Month.”
For Israel, the number one, two and three most important issues are the threats from Iran. Biden was unequivocal throughout his campaign that he intended to return to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), which was signed while he was vice president and which he has vigorously defended. He said, for example:
- “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.”
- “I will make an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
- “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the 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.”
- “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. But, I am ready to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran takes steps to show it is ready too.”
Supporters of the deal, especially progressive Democrats, were urging him to quickly ease sanctions on Iran and rejoin the JCPOA. Critics, including the Israeli government, cautioned against making any concessions to Iran and insisted that instead of returning to what they consider a loophole-filled agreement Iran never complied with, Biden should retain sanctions until Iran agrees to a tougher deal that would include restrictions on Iran’s sponsorship of terror, ballistic missile development, and malign regional activities.
As a first step, the P5+1, the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia agreed to convene a meeting in Vienna on April 6, 2021, to discuss how to bring both the United States and Iran back into compliance.
During the Vienna talks, the United States and Iran agreed through intermediaries to establish a working group to discuss the lifting of sanctions imposed by President Trump. A second working group will focus on how to get Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the news by noting that “history has taught us that agreements like this with extremist regimes are worth as much as garlic peel.” He also warned the negotiators that Israel would not be bound by “an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction.”
He added, “Today we have a state, we have the power to defend ourselves and we have the natural and full right as the sovereign state of the Jewish people to protect ourselves from our enemies.”
Early reports suggested that Robert Malley, who is leading the negotiations, is prepared to offer what Michael Hirsh called “a Goldilocks-style deal: just enough sanctions relief so Iran will return to the pact but not so much that it would leave Biden vulnerable to attacks from hard-liners at home, including those in his own party who oppose any concessions at all to Iran.”
The administration has talked about removing sanctions that went beyond those originally associated with the JCPOA, which, Hirsh says, Trump added as “poison pills” to prevent Biden from returning to the agreement.
Hirsh noted that the sanctions Trump imposed on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Co., and the National Iranian Tanker Co. “would invalidate the deal’s effects because these companies would be banned from international commerce” and deny the Iranians the revenues they need. Moreover, he said, removing sanctions on the central bank would be politically risky because of its supply of funds to Hezbollah and Hamas. Nevertheless, reports indicated the administration was considering lifting sanctions on all three as well as those on steel, aluminum, textiles, autos, shipping, and insurance.
Biden may feel pressured to reach a quick deal because on May 21, 2021, a deal will expire under which the IAEA allowed Iran to keep nuclear inspection data. After that date, Hirsh reported, “Tehran has said it will destroy the data, very possibly torpedoing the nuclear agreement.”
David Pollock of the Washington Institute observed that the good news is that “unlike the Obama administration that most of them were previously part of,” Biden’s team “seems focused almost as much on Iran’s non-nuclear activities as on its nuclear ones.” He said, the bad new is “their actual policy toward those non-nuclear challenges are mostly carrots with few sticks. “The result, no doubt unwittingly, is that the U.S. is emboldening and empowering Iran on the Mideast regional level, rather than containing it.”
On April 9, 2021, the intelligence community published its Annual Threat Assessment, and concluded that Iran “is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.” It also said:
Meanwhile, hostilities were escalating between Israel and Iran as they attacked each other’s ships and an explosion, widely blamed on Israel, occurred at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility. Afterward, Shane Harris noted, “in a sign of how rapidly intelligence may be overtaken by events, hours before the report’s public release, a senior Iranian official announced a major jump in the country’s enrichment of uranium, [from 20 percent] to 60 percent purity.
The disclosure of Israel’s attacks on Iranian ships was apparently the result of a leak from the administration. “In doing this,” Professor Eytan Gilboa argued, “Biden signaled that even if negotiations fail, he will not countenance an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and opposes an Israeli military strike. As it did in 2015, the U.S. administration is tacitly reassuring Iran that it need have no fear of a military attack. Because it has received this reassurance, Tehran will feel free to take tougher positions in the negotiations.”
In an effort to counter concerns the administration is contemplating easing sanctions before Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East, told Jewish American leaders on April 23, 2021, “Until we get somewhere and until we have a firm commitment, and it’s very clear that Iran’s nuclear program is going to be capped, the problematic aspects reversed and back in a box, we are not going to take any of the pressure off.” He said the administration is “not going to pay anything upfront just to get a process going. We have to see from the Iranians a fundamental commitment and agreement to put their nuclear program back in a box that we can fully inspect and observe.”
McGurk added: “We have worked with the Israelis every day in the security realm, in terms of their freedom of action - protecting themselves - as something fundamental to us.... There is no disagreement on where we want to go - Iran can never get a nuclear weapon, period. There’s some disagreement about the kind of tactics you might use to get there. But we agree on a lot more than we disagree.”
While negotiations continued, Iran upped the ante by enriching uranium to 63% purity.
After meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021, Blinken said, “We’ll continue to strengthen all aspects of our longstanding partnership. And that includes consulting closely with Israel, as we did today, on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna around a potential return to the Iran nuclear agreement, at the same time as we continue to work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.”
In his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Biden said the U.S. would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and that if diplomacy failed, he was “ready to turn to other options.”
Not long after, Blinken said time was running out for Iran to return to the nuclear accord. “I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved.”
Meanwhile, the IAEA said Iran still was not cooperating with the agency. It would not explain uranium traces found at undeclared sites or provide access to monitoring equipment. “Without such monitoring and so-called continuity of knowledge,” Reuters noted, “Iran could produce and hide unknown quantities of this equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons or reactor fuel.”
In his September 2021 speech to the UN, Biden reiterated, “The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.” He added, “We are working with the P5+1 to engage Iran diplomatically and seek a return to the JCPOA. We’re prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same.”
At the end of March 2021, the administration announced it was providing $15 million in coronavirus assistance and another $75 million in assistance for infrastructure, health, and civil society groups. At the beginning of April, the administration informed lawmakers that it would give the Palestinians $40 million for law enforcement and security and another $10 million for peacebuilding programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Some members of Congress said providing aid violated the Taylor Force Act which prohibits U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it ends its pay-to-slay policy of providing stipends to terrorists in Israeli jails and the families of suicide bombers. Secretary of State Tony Blinken denied this, “President Biden was actually in Israel about a mile and a half from Taylor Force when he was murdered,” Blinken said, “and he spoke out about that immediately and has been a forceful advocate for doing justice by Taylor Force and making sure that we are making good on the obligations that we have under the Taylor Force Act.”
The State Department also announced resumption of support for UNRWA. The department said the contribution of $150 million to the agency was needed for UNRWA services. It also justified the reversal of policy by stating “the United States needs to be at the table to ensure that the reforms advance efficiencies and are in accord with our interests and values.”
Contradicting the State Department’s claim that the aid aligns with the interests of our allies, Israel’s foreign ministry said of the aid to UNRWA, “Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution.” Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, was more explicit: “I have expressed my disappointment and objection to the decision to renew UNRWA’s funding without first ensuring that certain reforms, including stopping the incitement and removing anti-Semitic content from its educational curriculum, are carried out.”
An administration official subsequently said: “UNWRA has made clear their rock-solid commitments to the United States on the issues of transparency, accountability, and neutrality in all its operations.... And what neutrality means in the context of the United Nations is zero tolerance for racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.”
UNRWA has made, and failed to deliver on similar promises in the past and, as a result the European Parliament adopted a resolution in April 2021 condemning the organization for teaching hate and violence in PA schools. UNRWA ignored similar resolutions adopted the year before and, Norway becamse the first EU nation that voted to cut financial assistance to the agency because of the anti-Semitic and violent content of its educational materials.
In July 2021, UNRWA signed an agreement agreeing to American terms and the administration transferred $135 million to the agency.
The resumption of aid also came despite a Government Accountability Office report that found the U.S. government had not properly vetted all of its Palestinian funding recipients for U.S. antiterrorism criteria as required by law.
Following Operation Guardian of the Wall, Blinken announced $38 million in additional aid to the Palestinians, including $5.5 million in emergency assistance for Gaza and another $35 million for UNRWA. That brought total U.S. assistance to the Palestinians under the Biden administration to more than $360 million.
The Biden administration remained committed to providing aid to Israel as agreed to in the 10-year $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the United States and Israel in 2016. In May 2021, the administration agreed to a weapons transfer worth $735 million consisting mainly of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMS, kits that transform so-called “dumb” bombs into precision-guided missiles. Boeing will provide the weapons.
If the Palestinians and peace process advocates hoped the resumption of aid was an indication of an interest in quickly jumping into a new push for a two-state solution, they were disappointed. “Aside from taking a few small steps to reorient the U.S. position away from the heavily pro-Israel tilt it took under Trump — including restoring some modest aid to the Palestinians — Biden and his team are signaling that the conflict is simply not a priority,” Nahal Toosi observed in Politico.
Biden did not speak to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even though he had spoken to Netanyahu, until he began behind-the-scenes negotiations to bring about an end to fighting in May 2021. According to media reports, Abbas rejected an earlier offer of a call from Blinken, saying he wanted to hear from the U.S. president directly.
Lower-level officials are in contact with their Palestinian counterparts, but Biden has not named an assistant secretary of State for the Middle East yet. For now, Hady Amr, a deputy assistant secretary of state is the top official engaged on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Toosi noted the principal National Security Council officials responsible for the Middle East, Brett McGurk and Barbara Leaf, are specialists on the Gulf states.
It came as no surprise, since he also had telegraphed his position during the campaign, that Biden did not reverse Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Palestinians and their supporters were upset, however, that he did not reopen the consulate in Jerusalem that had served essentially as the U.S. embassy to the Palestinian Authority when he restored the aid programs.
In May 2021, Blinken said the consulate would reopen despite the objection of Israel, which opposed reopening it within sovereign Israel. Following a meeting with Abbas, he declared, “The aspirations of the Palestinian people are like those of people everywhere.” The United States is committed, he said, “to working with the Palestinian people to realize these aspirations.”
He also did not meet their expectation that he would reopen the PLO office in Washington, a move which faces legal obstacles because of congressional legislation that would expose Palestinian officials to U.S. anti-terror lawsuits. The law makes the Palestinians liable for $655.5 million in financial penalties against them in U.S. courts if they open an office in the United States.
The administration upset both Israelis and Palestinians with changes to the State Department’s annual human rights reports. Toosi noted, “Under Trump, that report’s references to the occupation were cut; Biden aides brought back the reference, but primarily in what were historical statements or statements attributable to entities other than the United States. The Biden administration also did not revert to the pre-Trump title of the Israeli-Palestinian section: “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” Instead, it stuck with “Israel, West Bank and Gaza.”
When asked about the language in the report, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “It is a historical fact that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war.”
This position is seen as problematic by Israel and its supporters because the more accurate description is that the West Bank and Gaza are disputed areas.
Another shift toward the Obama approach that Israel and its advocates feared is the renewed expressions of evenhandedness that equate the actions of a democratic state, Israel, with a non-state run by an authoritarian regime (there was an election, but PA President Abbas is now in the 16th year of his four-year term). This was typified by several statements urging Israelis and Palestinians to avoid actions that threaten the possibility of a two-state solution. This was a thinly veiled warning to Israel regarding settlements. Biden made no secret during the campaign of his opposition to any expansion of settlements or
One development beyond the administration’s control which could throw a wrench into the plan to restore ties with the Palestinians is the PA elections scheduled for June. Polls suggest that Hamas could win the election, as it did in 2006, and U.S. law prevents engagement with the PA, or financial assistance, if the terrorist group is part of the government. The U.S. and the Europeans have consistently said they would not negotiate with Hamas unless it meets three conditions which they have refused to meet: renouncing violence, publicly recognizing Israel, and committing to previous agreements with Israel. The Israelis have been equally insistent they will not negotiate with a government including members of Hamas. Hence, an election that brings Hamas to power would end administration hopes of returning to talks about a two-state solution.
Reporters at State Department briefings have also been trying to coax the spokesperson to indicate whether BIden supports policies implemented by President Trump. For example, a reporter asked if the administration regards Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, whether Americans born in Jerusalem can list Israel as their country of birth, whether a two-state solution would result in Palestinians having a capital in East Jerusalem, and whether the U.S. recognized the Golan Heights. Spokesperson Ned Price’s answer to all the questions was “there’s been no change on our position.”
In another briefing, Price was asked if the administration believes settlement activity hurts prospects for a two-state solution. “We believe when it comes to settlement activity that Israel should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. That includes the annexation of territory. That includes settlement activity.” Then, to reflect the new evenhandedness, he added, “We’ve been equally clear when it comes to the potential actions of the Palestinians, whether that is incitement to violence, providing compensation for individuals in prison for acts of terrorism. That, too, moves us further away from a two-state solution.”
While Price was justified in saying pursuit of a two-state solution is consistent with the interests of the United States, he went further and claimed it was also “consistent with the values and the interests of Israelis and also Palestinians.” This echoes the Arabist view that the United States, not the citizens of Israel, knows what’s best for Israel.
In a speech before the UN in September 2021, Biden said:
Notably, however, Biden refused to meet with Abbas when he was at the UN.
One concern of Biden critics was that he was not enthusiastic about building on the Abraham Accords negotiated by his predecessor. The biggest “prize” would be the establishment of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Biden’s decision to recalibrate U.S. ties with the kingdom, however, complicated the issue. The U.S. posture toward Saudi Arabia and Iran is also driving the Saudis and Israelis closer together, though not to the point of formal diplomatic relations.
In October 2021, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly discussed the possibility of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis said a number of steps would have to be taken first, including improving U.S.-Saudi bilateral relations. Previously, the Saudis had said progress would have to first be made toward the creation of a Palestinian state.
Biden’s decision to reconsider the sale of F-15s to the UAE also raised alarms and there was some concern a refusal to go through with the transfer might undermine the accords. In April 2021, the administration decided to go ahead with the sale but some members of Congress still hoped to block it.
The president was also being pressured to reverse Trump’s recognition of the Moroccan government’s claim to the Western Sahara, which was part of the negotiations that encouraged Morocco to restore ties with Israel. Critics like R. Joseph Huddleston, Harshana Ghoorhoo, and Daniela A. Maquera Sardon say Trump’s action was contrary to U.S. and international policy toward the longstanding conflict in the area and “demonstrates that U.S. foreign-policy now favors power over law and unilateral action over cooperation” and would allow other occupiers to expand their territories in contravention of international law.
According to Nicolas Niarchos, “Morocco has reportedly held off on implementing the deal with Israel, and is waiting to see whether the new Administration adheres to the Trump-era plan to open an American consulate in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla, viewing it as a bellwether of U.S. intentions.”
Blinken has tried to reassure Israel and its supporters of the administration commitment to build on the Abraham Accords, saying in April 2021, “The United States welcomes and supports the recent normalization agreements,” adding, “We will continue to urge more countries to normalize relations with Israel – and will look for other opportunities to expand cooperation among countries in the region. As a result, I expect Israel’s group of friends to grow even wider in the year ahead.”
To further reinforce the administration commitment to the agreement, a ceremony was held on September 17, 2021, to mark the one year anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Israeli foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash, and Bahraini Ambassaador Rashid bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa. A few weeks later, Blinken, Lapid, and new UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met and agreed to create trilateral working groups on religious coexistence and water and energy.
Meanwhile, the administration has reportedly been in touch with other countries regarding the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel.
The United States fiercely defended Israel throughout Trump’s term and did not allow any anti-Israel measures to be adopted in the Security Council. Critics worried that Biden might revert to Obama’s position which culminated in a controversial abstention on Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements.
Biden’s Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the Security Council in March 2021, the Biden administration would stand by Israel, especially if it was singled out, and said the Security Council should be discussing threats to international peace and security. She reiterated U.S. support for a two state solution and, in a return to a pre-Trump policy of evenhandedness, declared that both sides should take concrete steps towards the two-state formula and avoid unilateral actions, including settlement, demolition, violence and incitement. Thomas-Greenfield also announced the administration’s intent to reopen diplomatic channels with the Palestinians.
In another reversal of Trump policies, the administration announced its intent to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council, initially as an observer. The Trump team considered the HRC a “cesspool of political bias” where Israel is regularly condemned by council members who are among the worst human rights abusers, and whose own actions, along with those of other serial human rights violators are ignored. Mark Cassayre, Biden’s representative in Geneva explained the justification for the change in policy: “We know that this body has the potential to be an important forum for those fighting tyranny and injustice around the world. By being present at the table, we seek to ensure it can live up to that potential.”
In a first test of whether the U.S. would have any influence on the Council following Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Wall in Gaza, the HRC voted on May 27, 2021, 24 to 9, with 14 abstentions, to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate possible war crimes and other abuses committed in Israel and the disputed territories. No mention was made of Hamas, which precipitated the fighting, or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was also responsible for indiscriminately firing more than 4,000 rockets into Israel.
The U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva said: “The United States deeply regrets today’s decision by the Human Rights Council to establish an open-ended Commission of Inquiry into the recent violence between Israel and the Palestinians....We all should be working to find real solutions to help the Palestinian people and ensuring that terrorist organizations, including Hamas, do not exploit the situation on the ground, including by indiscriminate firing of rockets, to further their own destructive aims. The actions of the Human Rights Council today do not contribute to peace…. We will continue to advocate for Israel to be treated fairly in the Human Rights Council.”
The Trump administration imposed economic sanctions against International Criminal Court (ICC) officials “directly engaged in investigating U.S. personnel or allied personnel against their state’s consent, and against others who materially support such officials’ activities.” Though the Biden administration opposed the ICC decision to open an investigation of Israel, it also revoked the sanctions.
Meanwhile, the administration has been quietly pressuring the Palestinians to cease their effort to have Israel tried for war crimes at the ICC, which Israel views as one more example of their disinterest in peace.
Biden announced plans to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. More relevant to Israel, however, is his decision to remove some military capabilities and forces from the Gulf region as part of a shift in emphasis from the Middle East to other theaters, particularly Asia. The Pentagon has removed at least three Patriot antimissile batteries from the area meant primarily to protect U.S. forces, including one from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. An aircraft carrier and surveillance systems are also being moved.
As part of the reassessment of ties with Saudi Arabia, the United States is halting aid to support its war in Yemen and considering other moves to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
It is not yet clear if Biden will also reduce or remove American forces from Syria and Iraq. Any change in U.S. deployment in those countries could impact Israel’s security by emboldening Iran and providing Tehran with an opportunity to fill the vacuum and accomplish its goal of creating a land bridge across Syria and Iraq to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, which would facilitate its ability to transfer weapons and forces to southern Lebanon and the Golan front in Syria.
A report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies noted, “The U.S. and its local partners currently hold blocking positions that have closed two of the three potential land bridge routes across the Middle East. The U.S. garrison at al-Tanf in eastern Syria sits astride the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus, obstructing one route. In addition, U.S. forces and their local partners in northern Syria block the northernmost route.” The report emphasized the importance of disrupting this land bridge because “Tehran’s goal is to subvert the regional order, export its revolution, and displace the U.S. as the leading power in the region.”
Secretary Blinken restated the U.S. commitment to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Anti-Semitism, sending a message the administration will take the danger of anti-Semitism seriously and recognize certain criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
During the campaign, Biden also made clear his opposition to boycotts direct at Israel. “I’ve been clear: the calls here in the United States to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel are wrong. Period. The BDS movement singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — in a way that is inconsistent with the treatment of other nations, and it too often veers into anti-Semitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices.”
Unlike Trump, who took two years to appoint a Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism, Biden nominated Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt for the position in July 2021.
Anti-Semitic attacks on Jews increased during Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Wall. After five major Jewish organizations sent a letter asking the president to “use your bully pulpit to call out antisemitism,” Biden responded on May 24, 2021. “The recent attacks on the Jewish community are despicable, and they must stop,” Biden tweeted. “I condemn this hateful behavior at home and abroad — it’s up to all of us to give hate no safe harbor.”
Later that day, representatives of all five organizations – the Jewish Federations of North America, Orthodox Union, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah – were invited to a video conference call with top staffers at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to discuss their concerns. According to the JTA, these included nominating an anti-Semitism monitor at the State Department, naming a Jewish liaison in the White House, convening a summit on anti-Semitism, adding funds to secure nonprofits and keeping in place an executive order by President Donald Trump that combats anti-Semitism on campuses.
Tensions in Israel flared in early May as Palestinians rioted on the Temple Mount during Ramadan and other protests turned violent in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem over a decision to evict Palestinians illegally living on Jewish land. The violence escalated dramatically beginning May 10, 2021, when Hamas began to launch hundreds of missiles from Gaza into Israel, hitting not only areas near the border but reaching Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. On May 12, Biden spoke to Netanyahu and condemned the rocket attacks and
conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians. The secretaries of state and defense made similar remarks in conversations with their counterparts.
The United States blocked proposals for a UN Security Council joint statement on the violence three times because it would be “unhelpful” in de-escalating the situation. The statements focused on criticizing Israeli actions and failed to condemn the rioting by Palestinians or missile barrages by Hamas.
Critics of the Iran deal pointed to the Iranian role in the violence. A Palestinian Islamic Jihad official, Ramez Al-Halabi, admitted Iran’s role in supporting the violence:
Biden resisted pressure from some congressional Democrats to criticize Israel and demand a ceasefire. Publicly, the president reiterated U.S. support for Israel and its right to self-defense. In a call with Netanyahu on May 17, 2021, he said he supported a ceasefire but fighting continued without further comment from the White House.
The administration preferred to use quiet diplomacy with Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and others to push for an end to the fighting. In a series of additional phone calls with Netanyahu the president reportedly became increasingly concerned with the civilian toll and, after giving Israel 10 days to degrade the threat from Hamas, his sixth call, on May 20, was blunter and made clear he expected an imminent ceasefire. He also warned the prime minister Israel was losing support and would face increasing international pressure if the operation continued. That night, Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egyptian initiative for as ceasefire.
“In my conversation with President [Prime Minister] Netanyahu,” Biden said on May 20, 2021, “I commended him for the decision to bring the current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days. I also emphasized what I have said throughout this conflict: The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups that have taken the lives of innocent civilians in Israel.
Biden said the U.S. would replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system “to ensure its defenses and security in the future.” He also said the U.S. would provide aid to rebuild Gaza in “in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority — not Hamas, the Authority — in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal.”
“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” Biden said. “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that end.”
In the wake of the violence, critics of Israel in the Democratic Party introduced legislation to stop the $735 million arms sale to Israel. Blinken, however, reaffirmed the administration’s position: “We’re committed to giving Israel the means to defend itself, especially when it comes to these indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians.” Bernie Sanders, who planned to force a Senate vote on the sale withdrew his objection after learning it had already been finalized.
Following the ceasefire ending Operation Guardian of the Wall, and in light of the criticism of Israel and media reports of a change in U.S. attitudes toward Israel, Biden was asked at a press conference, “What is your message to Democrats who want you to be more confrontational with Israel, and — and, specifically, to those that are saying that there should be an end to arm sales? I mean, do you recognize that there’s been a shift, an evolution in your party, Mr. President, in the last 20 years on this issue?”
Biden replied, “There is no shift in my commitment and the commitment to the security of Israel, period. No shift. Not at all.”
Biden reiterated his support for a two-state solution and “renewed the security commitment as well as economic commitment to the people on the West Bank.”
Referring to the dispute over Sheikh Jarrah and violent clashes on the Temple Mount, the president said he told the Israelis the “inner-communal fighting that has extremes on both sides” had to stop. He also said that Netanyahu had given him his word that there would be a ceasefire and he kept his word. “He’s never broken his word to me,” Biden said.
Biden met without going Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on June 28, 2021. According to the White House, “President Biden conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and his commitment to deepening the cooperation between the two countries across all fields....The President emphasized that under his administration, Iran will never get a nuclear weapon. He also assured President Rivlin that the United States remains determined to counter Iran’s malign activity and support for terrorist proxies, which have destabilizing consequences for the region.”
On August 27, 2021, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met President Biden for the first time in Washington. During his visit, he also met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Bennett had four goals: creating a direct, personal connection with Biden; sharing his strategy on Iran; making progress on visa waivers for Israeli seeking to enter the US; replenishing Iron Dome missile defense stocks.
The first was easily accomplished. “There was a feeling that we’ve known each other for a long time. I found a leader who loves Israel, knows exactly what he wants, and is attentive to our needs,” Bennett said.
President Biden declared, “We’ve become close friends” and reiterated America’s “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security.
Bennett’s second goal was more complicated. Bennett emphasized Israel’s concern about Iran and the president assured the prime minister the U.S. would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and said that if diplomacy failed, he was “ready to turn to other options” (Iran then accused Biden of making illegal threats). Still, Biden left no doubt that he prefers to negotiate a return to the JCPOA even as his advisers have grown increasingly pessimistic because of Iran’s intransigent positions.
“I was happy to hear your clear words that Iran will never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon and that you emphasized that you’ll try the diplomatic route but that there [are] other options if that doesn’t work out,” Bennett said.
Bennett also reportedly suggested a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts” which would involve conducting a variety of small operations against Iran that would obviate the need for a largescale military attack and ensure that Iran would require no less than a year to acquire nuclear breakout capability.
“The immediate follow-up was to form a joint team based on the joint objectives of rolling Iran back into their box and preventing Iran from ever being able to break out a nuclear weapon,” Bennett said later in a call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations . “We set up a joint team with our national security advisor and America’s, and we’re working very hard, and the cooperation is great.”
Resolving the visa issue has been a longstanding desire of the Israelis. The United States has been unwilling to provide visa waivers to Israelis primarily because of Israel’s history of refusing entry on occasion to Americans, usually Palestinians who are denied entry on security grounds. There was no progress reported on the issue after the meeting.
Biden was more forthcoming about supporting the replenishment of Iron Dome missiles and is likely to support legislation to provide Israel $1 billion for that purpose.
The president also had several items on his agenda. One was reconstruction in Gaza. The U.S. has made this a priority but Bennett said he would agree on three conditions: no more rockets fired from Gaza at Israel; ending the smuggling of missiles into Gaza; and ending the crisis of the Israeli civilians and bodies of soldiers held captive by Hamas in Gaza.
A second issue was Biden’s desire to reopen the American consulate in Jerusalem as a gesture to the Palestinians. It was shut down in 2019 by President Trump and the responsibilities given to a Palestinian Affairs Unit within the U.S. Embassy though much of the staff continued to operate out of the mission on Agron Street. Bennett expressed Israel’s opposition to reopening the consulate on the grounds that it undermines the sovereignty of Jerusalem. It is not clear if Bennett suggested it during the meeting, but Israelis have argued it makes more sense for the consulate to be in Ramallah where the Palestinian Authority’s administration is headquartered.
Biden also expressed concern about the planned eviction of Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarrah.
A less controversial topic was COVID-19 booster shots. Israel had already begun to vaccinate its citizens and Bennett suggested the president begin the program sooner than the planned September rollout.
After the meeting, Bennett said, “I want to thank you for your warm words now and in our private meeting, which attest to your support of the state of Israel, but that’s not new. It’s been decades and you’ve always stood up for us, especially during tough times,” he said. “We trust in your support, Mr. President.”
As is often the case with Israeli prime ministers, Bennett also couldn’t resist giving the president a mini lecture: “We cannot lose sight for even one moment that we’re in the toughest neighborhood in the world. We’ve got ISIS on our southern border. Hezbollah on our northern border, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Iranian militias that surround us. All of them want to kill us, kill Israelis. They all want to annihilate the Jewish state. And that’s why Israel always has to be overwhelmingly stronger than any of our enemies, and indeed, of all our enemies combined.”
He then thanked the president for “helping yet again to fortify Israel’s strategic advantage.”
For his part, Biden said he and Bennett “have become close friends” and that the U.S.-Israel relationship is “as strong as can be.” He further praised Bennett for bringing together “the most diverse government in Israeli history.”
In the readout of the meeting later the White House reported, “The President conveyed his ironclad support for Israel’s security and right to self-defense. As part of this extraordinary bilateral defense and security cooperation, the President underscored his administration’s full support for replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome system.”
In addition, “The President expressed his full support for strong and expanding relations among Israel, its Arab neighbors, and Muslim states globally. The two leaders noted that Israel’s historic partnerships with Egypt and Jordan remain crucial to regional stability. They discussed ways to further deepen Israel’s relationships with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates, and their goal of identifying new opportunities to expand such partnerships.”
On peace, “The President underscored the importance of steps to improve the lives of Palestinians and support greater economic opportunities for them. He also noted the importance of refraining from actions that could exacerbate tensions, contribute to a sense of unfairness, and undermine efforts to build trust. President Biden reaffirmed his view that a negotiated two-state solution is the only viable path to achieving a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Biden acknowledged that Bennett holds more conservative views on the Middle East, but was aware of the precarious nature of Bennett’s coalition, which he preferred to see survive. As a vehement critic of Benjamin Netanyahu, the president did not want to do anything that might allow him to return to power. This is why, for example, he was unlikely to push the issue of the Jerusalem consulate because of the fear Netanyahu would exploit it to claim Bennett had reopened the possibility of dividing the city.
The president reiterated his support for Israel in a Rosh Hashanah message a few days later. “We never waver in our support for the State of Israel.”
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Photos: Portrait Public Domain.
Biden-Bennett - Sarahbeth Maney / Pool via CNP.