OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Don’t count on Joe Biden being a Clinton-era pro-Israel Democrat

It is of utmost important to note who would be surrounding him as he determines Middle East policy. Will his advisers be the same ones who forged former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy?

Former U.S. Vice President and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Credit: Flickr.
Former U.S. Vice President and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Credit: Flickr.
Gideon Israel
Gideon Israel
Gideon Israel is the founder and president of the Jerusalem-Washington Center, which works to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel.  

Another day, another anonymous report saying that U.S. President Donald Trump hates a certain group of people. It just so happens, however, that the people he is accused of hating usually are among his greatest supporters or potentially emerging ones.

Given the president’s impressive record on so many issues, the only way to combat that record and dampen voters’ enthusiasm is to say that he has disdain for such groups. So it is with Israel. Trump’s record on Israel is phenomenally positive, and he has proven that new approaches can actually yield better results.

Critics say that all will change in his second term, when he is not beholden to his Israel-supporting voters. However, there is no reason to believe that this is the case.

But even if we were to ignore his track record, it would still be prudent to ask what a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration Israel policy would look like. Some may solace in the fact that they see Biden as a classical 1990s pro-Israel Clinton-era Democrat and assume that his administration’s policy would reflect that. They might also focus on his strong opposition to leveraging aid to Israel based on its policy in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) and his strong ties to the Jewish community.

Others, however, point out that he served as vice president for the two terms of former U.S. President Barack Obama, whose policy was openly hostile towards Israel. Furthermore, he has promoted re-entering the Iran deal and putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the forefront of efforts to achieve Middle East peace. The former is seen as dangerous to Israel, and the latter appears to have been discredited in light of recent events.

Beyond trying to decipher which Biden would arrive at the White House as president—the classical 1990s pro-Israel Clinton-era Democrat or Obama’s V.P.—it is even more important to note who would be surrounding him as he determines Middle East policy. Will his advisers be the same ones who forged Obama’s Middle East policy?

In 2010, when the Obama administration was pressuring Israel about the settlements, construction in Jerusalem and the pace of negotiations with the Palestinians, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer was highly critical of the administration. He called the policy “counterproductive,” and criticized comments made by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley concerning a conversation between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Crowley had said that Clinton “made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.”

Schumer called these comments “terrible” and a “dagger.”

Aside from the critique of the policy, Schumer pointed out that there is a “battle going on inside of the administration” concerning Israel policy, with one side agreeing supporting Israel and the other taking a hardline position against it.

In his book Fight House, presidential historian Tevi Troy discusses this battle fought between the older Clintonite advisers and the younger, more liberal Obama advisers. In this case, the former group was much more sympathetic to Israel, while the latter was much more critical of Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinian argument.

This leads us to the question of who would be Biden’s policy advisers on the Middle East, and the answer apparently is a mix of supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders and former Obama advisers—neither of whom bode well for Israel. While they may not be making the final decisions on policies, such as whether to call Judea and Samaria “occupied territory,” or to leverage—or even perhaps discontinue—U.S. aid to Israel, their fingerprints will be evident in many aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and they will set its tone on a daily basis.

Another way of looking at the how the U.S.-Israel relationship would look under a Biden administration is by observing the evolution of the Democratic Party platform on the issue. While, by itself, the 2020 platform might not seem overly ominous towards Israel, the trend of Democratic platforms, as I have presented in my new book, Broken Values, puts the current one in an entirely different perspective.

In the book, I highlight how previous Democratic Party platforms had either referred to Israel as an ally or spoke of the United States having a “special relationship” with it. Such language was prominent in Democratic platforms spanning 30 years, until it was taken out in 2012. The statement that the U.S. had an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, inserted in 2012, was removed in the 2016 platform. The 2020 platform goes further, and also removes any mention of a strategic relationship.

Conversely, on the Palestinian issue, while previous platforms had discussed the need to reach a two-state solution as a security interest of Israel’s, in the 2020 platform, Palestinians are considered to have an independent right to a state, equal to Israel’s right, and that this right is not in any way linked to their attitudes or actions.

The 2020 platform also puts Israel and the Palestinians on equal footing when condemning incitement and terror, as if to imply that both sides are equally involved in these activities.

Opposition to BDS, which had already been watered down in the 2016 platform, has now been rendered meaningless. In the latter, there was concrete opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement—albeit only in places where it was deemed as delegitimizing Israel—in the former, opposition to BDS has been reduced to a statement in ambiguous language about not supporting any anti-BDS legislation.

No mention is made of Iran’s continued threats to destroy Israel and pursuit of that goal.

Finally, while previous platforms had a section devoted to Israel—or at least Israel was discussed at the beginning of the Middle East section—in the 2016 and 2020 platforms, Israel is at the end of that section, coming after mention of other issues, such as Syria and repairing Gulf alliances.

Even if Biden is still the Clinton-era Democrat who strongly supports Israel, he will be surrounded by a party apparatus that bears no resemblance to that of the 1990s. Just as he has evolved and drifted leftward with the party on other issues, there is no reason to think that on Israel he will be any different.

Gideon Israel is the author of the new book Broken Values: How The Democratic Party Platform Betrays Its Followers And America.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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