The Biden Administration and Israel
by Mitchell Bard
(2021 - 2022)
Joe Biden previewed 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, Biden 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 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.
Foreign Aid and Strategic Cooperation
The Abraham Accords
International Criminal Court
Reaffirming Democratic Support For Israel
A Visit and a Provocation
Biden In Israel
Shireen Abu Akleh Killing
The “Biden Doctrine”
Biden and Bibi
Not surprisingly, Biden hired many former officials from the Obama administration and 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 appointments, 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 the cabinet and senior positions. Those 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 appointed Jews as ambassadors of Argentina, Japan, Singapore, Belgium, the EU, Canada, and India. Most importantly, 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 and 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 choices include:
- Reema Dodin as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. She will be the most senior Palestinian-American woman ever serving in the executive branch. Her past involvement as a Palestinian student activist alarmed some Israel supporters.
- 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 was appointed 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 President Barack 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
occupationand 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.
- In May 2022, Karine Jean-Pierre was appointed as press secretary. She raised concerns because of her 2019 call for Democratic Party presidential candidates to boycott the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
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 unshakeable 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, urged him to quickly ease sanctions on Iran and rejoin the JCPOA. Critics, including the Israeli government, cautioned against concessions to Iran. Instead of returning to what they consider a loophole-filled agreement Iran never complied with, they insisted Biden 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 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 discussed 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 it supplies funds to Hezbollah and Hamas. Nevertheless, reports indicated the administration was considering lifting sanctions on all three and those on steel, aluminum, textiles, autos, shipping, and insurance.
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 news is that “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. It 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 significant 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.”
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.”
Negotiations for the U.S. to return to the nuclear deal continued into February 2022 without any indication Iran was prepared to comply with the terms of the agreement. Nevertheless, on February 4, the Biden administration agreed to restore waivers that will exempt Chinese, Russian, and European companies that work on civilian projects at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, its Arak heavy water plant, and the Tehran Research Reactor from American penalties. The Trump administration originally approved the waivers but rescinded them in May 2020.
State Department spokesman Ned Price claimed this was not “sanctions relief.” He tweeted the U.S. will not provide relief “until/unless Tehran returns to its commitments under the JCPOA.” He added, “We did precisely what the last administration did: permit our international partners to address growing nuclear nonproliferation and safety risks in Iran.”
In a phone call two days later, Biden sought to reassure Prime Minister Bennett that he was committed to Israel’s security and recognized the regional threat posed by Iran and its proxies. While Bennett thanked the president for his support, he later told the Israeli cabinet the agreement being negotiated in Vienna “will damage the ability to deal with the nuclear program. Whoever thinks that an agreement will increase stability – is mistaken. It will temporarily delay enrichment, but all of us in the region will pay a heavy, disproportionate price for it.”
By early 2023, the Biden administration indicated a deal with Iran was off the table. At the same time, the United States was holding joint military exercises with Israel to send a message to Iran about the capabilities of the two countries together and individually.
The urgency of preparing for a potential military operation was highlighted by the revelation in February 2023 that Iran had uranium enriched to 84%, just below the 90% needed for a weapon. Iran now has sufficient uranium to fuel multiple bombs and could produce enough fissile material for a bomb in about 12 days. Even more alarming, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on March 23, 2023, “From the time of an Iranian decision…Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, and would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.” This estimate for the time to build a weapon was alarming as others have consistently said it could take a year or more.
In testimony before Congress in March 2023, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen acknowledged “the toughest possible sanctions on Iran” had not changed its behavior. “Sometimes a regime is so committed to a program, that even when the population of that country is suffering immensely because of sanctions we’ve imposed, they continue to prioritize activities that are the ones we’re trying to stop,” she explained.
Meanwhile, tensions escalated when an Iranian suicide drone hit a coalition base in northeast Syria on March 23, 2023, killing a U.S. contractor, and wounding five U.S. service members and one U.S. contractor. The U.S. responded with airstrikes in eastern Syria against facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
See also Biden Contemplates New Iran Deal and Iran Continues to Advance Nuclear Program.
Foreign Aid and Strategic Cooperation
Fulfilling a campaign promise to restore aid to the Palestinians cut off by President Trump, President Biden announced plans to provide the Palestinians with $290 million in assistance.
At the end of March 2021, the administration announced it was providing $15 million in coronavirus assistance and another $75 million in aid 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 the 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 policy reversal 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. 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 became 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 adequately vetted all of its Palestinian funding recipients for U.S. anti-terrorism 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 “dumb” bombs into precision-guided missiles. Boeing will provide the weapons.
In November 2021, the Department of Defense established the U.S.-Israel Operations Technology Working Group (OTWG) to strengthen defense, science, and tech cooperation between the department and Israel’s Ministry of Defense to address mission challenges.
A month later, the U.S. and Israel signed a $2 billion deal to purchase 12 Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky helicopters to replace the Yasur helicopters currently in operation. Under a second agreement worth $1 billion, Israel will acquire two Boeing KC-46 refueling aircraft.
In addition to military hardware, the United States has been expanding joint military exercises with Israel.
In August 2022, the Department of the Treasury and the Israeli Ministry of Finance of the State of Israel announced the finalization of a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding on Cybersecurity Cooperation to deepen cooperation on cybersecurity to protect the integrity of the international financial system.
If the Palestinians and peace process advocates hoped the resumption of aid was an indication of 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 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.
It was 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. When he restored the aid programs, the Palestinians and their supporters were upset that he did not reopen the consulate in Jerusalem that had served essentially as the U.S. embassy to the Palestinian Authorityconsulate 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.”
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, have introduced legislation to prevent the move. By November 2021, the Senate bill had 38 cosponsors, and more than 100 had signed onto a similar House bill. Earlier, all but five House Republicans signed a letter to the president opposing the consulate’s reopening.
He also did not meet their expectation that he would reopen the PLO office in Washington, a move facing legal obstacles because of congressional legislation exposing 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 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 his campaign that opposed any expansion of settlements or
annexation of territory.
The first confrontation over settlements occurred in October 2021 after Israel invited bids to construct 1,355 housing units in the West Bank. “We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government’s plan to advance thousands of settlement units, many of them deep in the West Bank,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution…. We also view plans for the retroactive legalization of illegal outposts as unacceptable.”
Reporters at State Department briefings have tried 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 the 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. The administration was angered several weeks later when Abbas met with Vladimir Putin and told the Russian president the Palestinians do not trust America and that the U.S. can’t mediate on its own between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. His comment came a week after Hussein al-Sheikh was hosted at the White House by national security adviser Jake Sullivan. According to Barak Ravid, “It was the first official visit by a Palestinian official to Washington since December 2017 when the Palestinian president decided to boycott the White House after Trump announced he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”
The Abraham Accords
One concern of Biden’s critics was that he was not enthusiastic about building on the Abraham Accords negotiated by his predecessor. The biggest “prize” would be establishing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, Biden’s decision to recalibrate U.S. ties with the kingdom 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 several steps would have to be taken first, including improving U.S.-Saudi bilateral relations. Previously, the Saudis had said progress would have first to be made toward creating 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 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’s commitment to building 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’s commitment to the agreement, a ceremony was held on September 17, 2021, to mark the first 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 Ambassador 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.
In November 2021, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry reportedly worked with the UAE to facilitate an agreement between Jordan, Israel, and the UAE to construct a solar power plant in Jordan by a UAE company. Israel agreed to purchase electricity from the plant for a new Israeli desalination plant that will send water to Jordan.
The United States fiercely defended Israel throughout Trump’s term and did not allow 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 that the Biden administration would stand by Israel, especially if it was singled out, and said the Security Council should discuss threats to international peace and security. She reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution and, returning to a pre-Trump policy of evenhandedness, declared that both sides should take concrete steps toward the two-state formula and avoid unilateral actions, including settlement construction, 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 initially announced its intent to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council 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 policy change: “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.”
In November 2021, the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee passed draft resolutions adopted annually to condemn Israel. U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills said: “We are disappointed that Member States continue to disproportionally single out Israel. For this reason, the United States strongly opposes the annual submission of a package of resolutions biased against Israel…. One-sided resolutions like those introduced here today only distract from the real efforts to achieve peace. This effort will only be strengthened when the bias of the United Nations against Israel ends.”
In a reversal of the previous administration’s position, the United States abstained on a resolution regarding assistance to Palestinian refugees that affirms the
right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel. This had been Obama’s position as well. Mills explained that the United States believes UNRWA provides “a vital lifeline to millions of Palestinians across the region” and had already provided more than $318 million to the agency. He said, “We were pleased to see language included in several of the resolutions that reflect our priorities in line with strengthening UNRWA. This language puts a stronger onus on the Agency and on UN leadership to demonstrate a renewed commitment to the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality, as well as provides a basis for strengthened agency oversight.”
International Criminal Court
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 unclear whether 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 Foundation for the Defense of Democracies report 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 expressed opposition to boycotts directed 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 anti-Semitism,” 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.
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at an ADL conference in November 2021. She said, “I want to be very clear about this: When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred: that is anti-Semitism, and that is unacceptable.”
Her comments came after she had generated controversy several weeks earlier when she failed to challenge a student who accused Israel of “ethnic genocide.” She responded to the student by saying, “your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth should not be suppressed.” After the comment touched off a firestorm, her office said Harris “strongly disagrees with the student’s characterization of Israel.”
She told the ADL audience, “President Joe Biden and I are fully committed to fighting anti-Semitism. We know a harm against one of us is a harm against all.”
In December 2022, the administration announced a new interagency group charged with developing a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism. The decision came at a time of increasing physical and verbal attacks on Jews. The White House said the group will be
led by Domestic Policy Council staff and National Security Council staff to increase and better coordinate U.S. Government efforts to counter anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination within the United States. The first priority will be
to develop a national strategy to counter anti-Semitism....raise understanding about anti-Semitism and the threat it poses to the Jewish community and all Americans, address anti-Semitic harassment and abuse both online and offline, seek to prevent anti-Semitic attacks and incidents, and encourage whole-of-society efforts to counter anti-Semitism and build a more inclusive nation.
A few days later, the president spoke at a White House Chanukah reception and referenced the rise in anti-Semitism at home and abroad. “I recognize your fear, your hurt, your worry that this vile and venom is becoming too normal,” he said. “As your President, I want to make this clear – as my dad would say, and many of you have said: Silence is complicity. We must not remain silent. And I made no bones about it from the very beginning: I will not be silent. America will not be silent….Today, we must all say clearly and forcefully: Anti-Semitism and all forms of hate and violence in this country can have no safe harbor in America.”
On May 25, 2023, the administration released its much anticipated National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. In the weeks leading up to its release, a debate raged over whether it would include the IHRA Working Definition, with most Jewish organizations arguing it was essential and more left-wing groups and non-Jewish progressives fighting for its exclusion because of their opposition to its examples of anti-Semitism related to the demonization of Israel. The final document tried to mollify both sides by saying:
This allowed both sides to claim victory. Establishment groups said it confirmed the IHRA is the most valuable tool for determining anti-Semitism, while critics insisted the strategy did not codify any specific standard. There was also some dissension over the fact that the strategy did not address the anti-Semitic BDS movement and included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization that routinely defends anti-Semites and whose director made anti-Semitic remarks, among the organizations the administration says committed to countering anti-Semitism.
Overall, the decision to make fighting anti-Semitism a government priority was applauded even though the administration committed no funds for implementation.
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 started 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 that 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 a 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 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.
Reaffirming Democratic Support For Israel
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 arms 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 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 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 U.S., and 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 with $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 were 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 because it undermines Jerusalem’s sovereignty. It is unclear 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 vaccinating 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 deepen further 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.”
The warm feelings between the administration and Israel dissipated somewhat during October and November 2021 over Biden’s insistence on reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem over Israeli objections, the Israeli announcement of plans to build additional housing in the settlements, and Israel’s designation of six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations because of their relationship to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist organization.
“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important for responsible and responsive governance,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said about the NGO issue. He added that the US will “be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations.”
Biden spoke to Bennett again on February 6, 2022, following disclosing that he had eased sanctions on Iran. The president sought to reassure the prime minister that he understood the threat posed by Iran and its proxies to the region. Biden also expressed support for the Abraham Accords and the “U.S. commitment to protect the American people and support the defense of its partners across the Middle East.” Furthermore, he “conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and freedom of action, emphasizing his administration’s full support for replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome system.” Bennett invited Biden to visit Israel, and the president said he would do so later in the year.
Bennett thanked Biden “for his steadfast support of Israel as well as the support of his entire administration, especially with regards to American assistance towards the Iron Dome.”
A Visit and a Provocation
During a May phone call with Bennett, Biden agreed to visit Israel later in the year. Shortly thereafter, Israel planned to approve almost 4,000 new homes in the disputed territories. In what had become a standard response to most questions about Israel and the Palestinians, a State Department spokesperson said, “The Biden administration has been clear from the outset: We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which exacerbates tensions and undermines trust between the parties. Israel’s program of expanding settlements deeply damages the prospect for the two-state solution.” She added, “We have been clear about the need to avoid unilateral steps that would exacerbate tensions and make it more difficult to preserve the viability of a two-state solution.”
What may be more significant is that Biden has adopted President Clinton’s approach to Israel (so far) of not criticizing the government publicly. Obama would have condemned Israel for the settlement announcement, violence in Jerusalem, and the death of a Palestinian-American journalist who may have been accidentally killed by an Israeli soldier (or Palestinian terrorists) during an army raid in Jenin. Blinken reflects the president’s views, but there is a big difference in the impact on Israel and U.S. public opinion when the words come directly from the president.?
In May 2020, a group of Republican lawmakers called on Biden to cancel a program that offers nearly $1 million in grants to NGOs to
strengthen accountability and human rights in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza and to
collect, archive, and maintain human rights documentation to support justice and accountability and civil society-led advocacy efforts, which may include documentation of legal or security sector violations and housing, land, and property rights. The America First Legal Foundation (AFLF), a watchdog group investigating government malfeasance, filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the State Department to disclose who approved the grant and the names of any groups applying for it.
Even as plans were made for Biden to visit Israel, tensions appeared to rise over several issues. While the president was upset by the announcement of new settlements, Israel was angered by a U.S. leak saying that Israel assassinated an Iranian officer from the Republican Guards. Biden was also reportedly planning to meet during his visit with Palestinian officials and, in advance of that, seemed to circumvent Israel’s objection to reopening the Jerusalem consulate in the short run by appointing Hady Amr as a special envoy to the Palestinians who would report directly to the State Department, as was the case when the consulate was open, rather than to the ambassador to Israel as the Trump administration had insisted.
Another split occurred over a proposal by the administration for a summit between Israel, the PA, the U.S., Egypt. and Jordan. According to Barak Ravid, Israel’s national security adviser Eyal Hulata rejected the idea because conditions weren’t ripe. Israel wasn’t interested in an event that Hulata said would be nothing more than a photo-op that created an “expectation crisis.”
President Biden scheduled a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah from July 13-15. Barbara Leaf, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, and her deputy for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, visited both to prepare for the meetings. Leaf reportedly asked Israel to avoid measures such as home demolitions, evictions of Palestinians, and settlement announcements that could exacerbate relations with the Palestinians before the president’s arrival. Israeli officials understood but could not commit to specifics given the domestic political situation in which the government was teetering on the brink of collapse and Israel’s security requirements.
Biden also planned to reverse Trump’s decision to run Palestinian affairs through the U.S. embassy. Stymied by Israeli opposition to his desire to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem, the administration said it would change the name of the Palestinian Affairs Unit to the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs and reinstate the policy of having the head of the office report directly to the State Department rather than to the ambassador. Israel reportedly had no objection to the change. As of June 2022, however, no changes had been made. According to the State Department, the Palestinian unit continues to be led by George Noll, and it “operates administratively under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem,” and its “personnel remain under the authority and security responsibility of the Ambassador as Chief of Mission in Jerusalem.” The spokesperson added, “The new OPA reporting structure is designed to strengthen our diplomatic and public diplomacy engagement…. The United States maintains our recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and will keep our embassy to Israel in Jerusalem.”
Biden in Israel
Israeli politics intervened before the president left Washington as Bennett’s coalition government collapsed and new elections were called for November. Yair Lapid became acting prime minister and Biden’s principal interlocutor.
Biden received a warm welcome when Air Force One touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport on July 13, 2022. It was his first trip as president but his 10th visit.
In addition to Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Biden met with opposition leader Netanyahu, with whom he’s had a sometimes testy 30-year relationship. He also spent time with President Isaac Herzog, who awarded Biden with the Presidential Medal of Honor in recognition of his friendship with Israel and contributions to the U.S.-Israel relationship, as well as his fight against anti-Israel hatred and anti-Semitism.
From the moment he arrived, he repeatedly reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel. After stepping off the plane, Biden said, “Every chance to return to this great country, where the ancient roots of the Jewish people date back to biblical times, is a blessing. Because the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep. It’s bone deep.”
Israel and the United States continued to disagree on Iran, with Biden stressing diplomacy and a return to the JCPOA and Lapid declaring, “Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force.” Biden reiterated his previous commitment to block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but did tell an Israeli interviewer he would authorize the use of force “as a last resort.”
Broader agreement was reflected in the Jerusalem Document, which reiterates the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, the maintenance of its qualitative military edge, and its right to defend itself by itself. It mentions the U.S. position on a two-state solution and the shared commitment to initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve Palestinians’ quality of life. The countries agreed to “deepen the ties between Israel and all of its regional partners” and “to expand the circle of peace to include ever more Arab and Muslim States.” Biden also committed to fighting anti-Semitism, the boycott, and the delegitimization of Israel.
“I know that there’s a view that’s held by part of the public that says: The United States is always going to be there; the friendship is real,” Idan Roll, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, said. “But to have that ratified by a president, a Democratic president who has come to Israel with so much dedication, is very big news.”
Biden and Lapid also launched what the White House described as a “new Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology, tasked with establishing a U.S.-Israel technological partnership on critical and emerging technologies and solutions to global challenges: pandemic preparedness, climate change, implementation of artificial intelligence, and trusted technology ecosystems.”
In a TV interview, Biden said he rejected the view of “a few” Democrats who compare Israel to the racist South African regime. “I think they’re wrong. I think they’re making a mistake,” Biden said. “Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally. Israel is a friend.”
The president was given a demonstration of the Iron Dome and Iron Beam missile defense systems. “These technologies and advances are critical,” Biden said. “Every rocket that is intercepted is a potential life, maybe more, that is saved.”
Biden also participated in the first leaders’ summit among Israel, India, the United States, and the UAE held virtually from Jerusalem. This I2U2 group agreed to deepen the economic ties between the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific to create new partnerships to tackle global challenges, like food insecurity and clean energy technology.
Biden gave what had become his boilerplate comment calling for a “lasting negotiated peace between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people” based on a two-state solution. Israel “must remain an independent, democratic Jewish state,” Biden remarked. “The best way to achieve that remains a two-state solution.”
“Mr. President, you will meet with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Iraq,” Lapid told Biden. “I would like you to pass them all a message from us: Our hand is outstretched for peace.” He added, “We are ready to share our technology and experience, ready for our people to meet and learn about one another, ready for our scientists to collaborate and our businesses to cooperate.”
Biden also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He gave lip service to the two-state solution as expected but acknowledged that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations.” Biden also did not deliver on any of Abbas’s requests – no reopening of the Jerusalem consulate, no reopening of the PLO mission in Washington, and no removal of the PLO from the U.S. terrorist list.
While Abbas offered no concessions, Israel agreed to several, including increasing the efficiency and accessibility to the Allenby Bridge for the benefit of Palestinians and agreeing to consider steps to allow the PA a presence at the bridge while maintaining Israel’s security considerations. Israel also agreed to convene the Joint Economic Committee with the Palestinians to discuss issues such as wastewater and clean energy. Israel will also increase the permits for Gazans to work and do business in Israel. In addition, Israel agreed to approve the registration of 5,500 previously unregistered Palestinians on the Palestinian Population Register.
Biden did announce the U.S. would provide an additional $200 million to the UNRWA and an additional $100 million in support of healthcare services for Palestinians throughout the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. The United States will also provide $15 million in further humanitarian assistance for vulnerable Palestinians.
On July 15, Biden flew from Israel to Saudi Arabia, the first direct flight between the two countries. Before the trip, the Saudis agreed to open their airspace to Israeli aircraft in what was viewed as a small step toward normalizing relations. In exchange, Israel agreed to allow Saudi Arabia to take control of two islands in the Red Sea. The developments raised hopes the president might convince the Saudis to make additional gestures, if not join the Abraham Accords.
Less than three weeks later, Israel launched Operation Breaking Dawn to kill the commanders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. President Biden reiterated his support “for Israel’s security is long-standing and unwavering—including its right to defend itself against attacks.” He said, “the United States is proud of our support for Israel’s Iron-Dome, which intercepted hundreds of rockets and saved countless lives” and commended “Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his government’s steady leadership throughout the crisis.”
Shireen Abu Akleh Killing
On May 11, 2022, Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera, was killed. Her death occurred during an Israeli operation against Palestinian terrorists in Jenin following a spate of attacks that resulted in the death of 11 people. On July 4, the State Department released a statement: “After an extremely detailed forensic analysis, independent, third-party examiners, as part of a process overseen by the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC), could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh....the USSC concluded that gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional.”
The results of an IDF investigation subsequently concluded that it was “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire which hit and killed Ms. Abu Akleh.” The report acknowledged that “there is a high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen during an exchange of fire.” No criminal charges were pursued because the review found “no suspicion that a bullet was fired deliberately at anyone identified as a civilian and in particular at anyone identified as a journalist.”
The journalist’s family and a number of Democrats in Congress were dissatisfied with the conclusions and demanded the United States launch an independent investigation. In November, the FBI opened an investigation, which Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz called “a grave mistake.” The decision is likely to create tensions between the administration and the newly elected Israeli government, which does not plan to cooperate.
The “Biden Doctrine”
White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk laid out the elements of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy during a speech on February 14, 2023. It is based on five principles:
- Partnerships - Supporting and strengthening relations with countries that “subscribe to the rules-based international order.”
- Deterrence - Preventing interference in the “freedom of navigation through the Middle East waterways.”
- Diplomacy - Working to deter threats to regional stability, reduce tensions, and end conflicts through diplomacy.
- Integration - Building political, economic, and security connections between U.S. partners.
- Values - Promoting “human rights and the values enshrined in the UN Charter.”
Biden and Bibi
The Israeli election that returned Netanyahu to power was a disappointment for the Biden administration. Though he has a decades-long relationship with the prime minister, Biden was alarmed by the composition of the government, particularly its inclusion of far-right politicians Bezalel Smotrich as Minister of Finance and Itamar Ben Gvir as Minister for National Security. While the administration worked with other members of the government normally, those two were effectively persona non grata despite their positions.
Biden, meanwhile, upset Netanyahu by weighing in on the controversial issue of judicial reform, which brought tens of thousands of Israelis into the streets to protest what many saw as an assault on their democracy. In the vein of the old Arabist “America has to save Israel from itself” philosophy, Biden cast himself as standing up for Israeli democracy.
“I’m very concerned, and I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road.” Biden added, “Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen.”
Blinken reinforced the administration’s message, saying earlier, “One thing that we know from our own experience as democracies is that when you’re looking to make big changes — major reforms — in your laws, your institutions, consensus is maybe the most important thing.”
Responding to the criticism, Netanyahu stated, “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”
From Netanyahu’s perspective, the judicial reforms were being pursued democratically. The officials who were elected by the majority of the Israeli population were proposing legislation they believed was consistent with the mandate they received from their constituents. Any reform must be approved by a majority vote in the Knesset. It cannot be done by fiat.
Israelis also saw a double standard in the silence of the administration toward the undemocratic behavior of the president of France. Just as tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in opposition to the government’s position on judicial reform, even larger numbers of French citizens were protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s unilateral decision to raise the retirement age. The State Department did not call on Macron to compromise with the protesters or question French democracy. Instead of pausing to consider the change in the pension system and agreeing to negotiate like Netanyahu, Macron simply imposed his will through an executive order.
In a sign of his disapproval, Biden pointedly refused to invite Netanyahu to the White House, an unprecedented snub of a new Israeli leader.
Besides weighing in on the side of the critics in the contentious issue of reforming the judiciary, the administration also expressed dissatisfaction with the Knesset’s adoption of a law that reversed the prohibition on Jews residing in the area where four settlements were evacuated as part of the disengagement. Netanyahu released a statement saying the legislation “brings an end to a discriminatory and humiliating law that barred Jews from living in areas in northern Samaria, part of our historic homeland. It is no coincidence that senior figures in the opposition have supported this law over the years.” He added, “the government has no intention of establishing new communities in these areas.”
State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel claimed the repeal was inconsistent with commitments that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made to President George W. Bush and urged Israel to refrain from allowing settlers to return to the area. In addition, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog was summoned for a tongue-lashing from Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.
Israelis were angered because the outrage was coming from former Obama officials who pointedly rejected the contents of the exchange between Bush and Sharon because they did not like its recognition of the “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers” and its conclusion that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Some of the same people behind the reversal of U.S. policy under Obama blamed Israel for not meeting its obligations after they scuttled the understandings.
After Netanyahu agreed to delay a vote on the judicial reforms in response to internal opposition, his government managed to further aggravate relations with the administration. First, a proposal was floated to limit foreign funding to NGOs operating in Israel, which provoked anger in Europe as well as the United States. The legislation was intended to reduce foreign interference in Israeli affairs but was seen as primarily aimed at human rights organizations and other liberal groups. Reportedly, Biden agreed to a long-delayed invitation to the White House in exchange for shelving the proposal. The administration also was said to be willing to do more to encourage Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, though efforts in that direction predated the NGO bill.
Tensions also flared after the Israeli government allowed settlers to establish a Yeshiva on government land near the illegal outpost of Homesh, which was built on Palestinian-owned land. Just a few days earlier, Israel had assured the administration it would not turn Homesh into a new settlement. Nevertheless, Jews were allowed to return because of the law rescinding the prohibition on Jews residing in the area evacuated during the disengagement.
“We are deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s recent order that allows its citizens to establish a permanent presence in the Homesh outpost in the northern West Bank,” a State Department spokesperson said.
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Photos: Portrait Public Domain.
Biden-Bennett - Sarahbeth Maney / Pool via CNP.