It’s risky to predict how any new president might interact with Israel. Will President-elect Joe Biden follow in the footsteps of Barak Obama, his revered leader under whom Biden served as vice president? That is a question of consequence for Israel since Obama easily qualifies as the least friendly president to Israel since its Proclamation of Independence on May 14, 1948. That evening, just 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion, Israeli founding father and its first prime minister, declared independence, U.S. President Harry S. Truman recognized the first Jewish state in more than two millennia. That set the presidential standard for an official American embrace of Israel.
Liberal Jews may cringe at the reality that the president who has followed most closely in Truman’s footsteps is Donald Trump. Under his administration, Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights was recognized and the U.S. embassy was relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, implicitly reaffirming the ancient Jewish holy city as Israel’s capital. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in his forthcoming trip to Israel, may visit the settlement of Psagot, near Ramallah. If he does, he will be the first top American official to have set foot in an Israeli settlement. in fact, it would not be surprising if Trump, in a farewell gift, recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the settlements, home to 430,000 Israelis living in their biblical homeland.
But what about Biden and Israel? Will he embrace or reject the palpable hostility of Obama, his political idol? Clearly, Israelis are not optimistic. Anticipating the recent election, they favored Trump over Biden by a 2:1 majority. History is on their side.
Biden has frequently retold the story of his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973. Showing him maps of the region, she described Israel’s precarious position. Noting his discomfort, she reassured him that Israelis had a secret weapon against hostile Arab states: They had nowhere else to go.
Nearly a decade later, Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with senators at the U.S. Capitol. Biden advised him that the expansion of settlements would endanger American support for aid to Israel. Begin sharply responded: “Don’t threaten us with slashing aid. Do you think that because the U.S. lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do,” adding: “I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats.”
Biden backed off, over time showing signs of warming towards Israel. At the 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference, he dated his affection towards Israel from when he first heard the phrase “Never Again.” It taught him that “the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish state of Israel.”
But Biden continued to waffle, especially as Obama’s loyal vice president. At an Israeli Independence Day celebration in 2015, he promised that “if you were attacked and overwhelmed, we would fight for you.” But Obama’s support for a settlement freeze and a two-state solution based on pre-1967 lines, with a state of Palestine occupying biblical Judea and Samaria, commanded Biden’s approval.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, Biden promoted U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 declaring that settlements in “occupied Palestinian territory” are illegal. In a 2016 speech to left-wing J Street, he condemned “the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures that are moving us toward a one-state reality, and that reality is dangerous.” Biden declared: “We have an overwhelming obligation … to push [Israelis] as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only ultimate solution—a two-state solution.” He ignored decades of unrelenting Palestinian obduracy to that solution.
Although Joe Biden has often touted himself as a “friend” of Israel, it has been, at best, an ambivalent friendship. He has promised to reverse the Trump administration’s “destructive cut-off of diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority,” while promising to reaffirm the demand of the Obama/Biden administration that Israel prohibit Jews from asserting their right to build homes in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Biden has also promised to reopen the PLO office in Washington closed by Trump and reinstate funding to the Palestinian Authority that Trump ended because it would not halt payments to terrorists.
In his waning days in office, Trump may yet have a farewell gift for Israel: recognition of its sovereignty over Jewish settlements. If delivered, it will be revealing to see whether President Biden resolves his ambivalent relationship with Israel. Will he embrace Barack Obama’s hostility or Donald Trump’s generosity? Time will tell.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.