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Biden victory means the end of an era for Netanyahu

With Trump soon out of the White House, Israel's right wing faces difficult days ahead. But this change likely won't translate to staunch US support for Palestinians
Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC on 28 January 2020 (AFP)
By Meron Rapoport in Tel Aviv, Israel

It is true, the polls predicted a victory for Joe Biden in the US presidential election. But when US television networks announced that he had indeed won on Saturday, some quarters of Israel's political right were in shock.

Many right-wing activists on Hebrew-language social media are now busy repeating statements from President Donald Trump and his loyalists about the election having been stolen. And they continue to believe that some kind of miracle will leave Trump in the White House after all.

On Israel's independent national Channel 13, newscaster Avri Gilad, who identifies with the radical right, rebuked another journalist who referred to Biden as the "president-elect".

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"You can't say 'president-elect'," intoned Gilad, berating his embarrassed colleague. "The process isn't over yet."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who repeatedly described Trump as "the best-ever American president for Israel," was naturally happy to stand with Gilad. But 12 hours after US news channels called the election, Netanyahu tweeted his good wishes to Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris: "Joe, we've had a long and warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years, and I know you as a great friend of Israel. I look forward to working with both of you to further strengthen the special alliance between the US and Israel."

Netanyahu did not use the term "president-elect" in his message to Biden. It remains puzzling that he did not align himself with Russia's Vladimir Putin, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and other world leaders identified with the anti-liberal axis who thus far have not congratulated Biden on his win, arguing that they are waiting for the "final results".

Perhaps this is yet more proof that Netanyahu is quick to feel pressure, as acquaintances in Israel have claimed for years. It is also very possible that this is further evidence of Israel's substantial dependence on any US president. Russia and China can manage alright with a hostile president in the White House. Israel really cannot.

Bibi in jeopardy

It seems fairly clear that the end of the Trump era is liable to damage Netanyahu's political standing.

Over the course of three legislative elections in the last 18 months in Israel, Netanyahu presented his personal friendship with Trump - and, to a lesser extent with Putin - as proof that he is a leader "in a different league," as per the slogan on the campaign flyers in which he was pictured next to Trump. The implication was about how favourably he compared with novice players and would-be competitors like Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid, who lacked his more impressive international experience. 

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The knowledge that he can no longer utilise this asset for political purposes will likely influence Netanyahu's willingness to go through a fourth round of elections. Gantz and his Blue and White Party are threatening to head to another election if the 2021 budget is not approved by the end of December. Without Trump backing him up and with the criminal cases against him scheduled to move forward in court in early December, Netanyahu may well hesitate to bet on a vote.

He surely remembers that the first time he ran for the Knesset in 1992, the Likud, headed by Yitzhak Shamir, lost to Yitzhak Rabin. It is generally thought that one reason for that defeat was the open rift between the administration of George HW Bush and Shamir.

The US had demanded that the then-prime minister stop construction in settlements in occupied Palestinian territories in exchange for loan guarantees amounting to $10bn, which Israel needed to absorb the large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. Shamir refused, the guarantees were not forthcoming, and Israeli voters preferred Rabin, whose ties with the US administration were much better.

According to current polling in Israel, Netanyahu's main rival in the next elections will be radical right-winger Naftali Bennett, who has connections with the evangelicals in the US and zero ties with the Democratic Party - certainly not with its more progressive ranks. But Bennett has never presented himself as a leader of international stature who would have the ear of Trump or Putin, as Netanyahu has done. Thus the assumption is that Trump's defeat weakens Netanyahu further still. 

Return to the Obama era

A  question more interesting than that of Netanyahu's personal fate is how much Biden's win will impact Israel's position, especially with respect to its relations with the Palestinians.

It is still too early to know, of course. We don't know how, when, or even whether the reins will in fact pass from Trump to Biden; and we certainly do not know who Biden will name to the key positions of importance to Israel-Palestine, including secretary of state, national security adviser, United Nations ambassador, and so on. Nonetheless, even at this stage, one can assume that Israel's room to maneuver will shrink, whether in a government headed by Netanyahu, Bennett or even Gantz. 

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The first relevant issue relates to annexation. Although Trump himself said that, following the normalisation agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, annexation had been "taken off the table," Netanyahu continued to tell the Israeli public that annexation had merely been "postponed" and that what he had gotten from the UAE was "peace for peace". Biden's presidency would end annexation once and for all. Biden has said so explicitly, and there is no reason to think that he will behave differently as president. 

There are many who argue that Netanyahu never planned to annex the occupied West Bank or parts of it, and that he preferred the status quo with its creeping annexation. That may be so. But the fact that the option of annexation, even on a small scale, has been taken off the table is a considerable blow to Israel's right-wing.

During the last decade, the right has sold the public, and especially its own activists, on the idea of annexation as a political vision that would not only be beneficial to Jews in Israel but would be acceptable in the rest of the world, too. Now that vision has been snatched away with finality. The impact may not be immediate, but it is likely to sharpen the Israeli public's awareness that the right wing has no real political solution for Israel's relationship with Palestinians.

Another question relates to the expansion of settlements and creeping annexation. While former US president Barack Obama imposed a settlement freeze on Israel early in his first term, Trump favoured the opposite policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in November 2019 that the US government no longer considered settlements to violate international law and the "deal of the century" positioned all of them within the territory intended for Israel.

Biden's view is different. He was Obama's vice president when the US abstained at the UN Security Council, allowing for the adoption of Resolution 2234, which states that settlements are a "flagrant violation of international law" and have "no legal validity". Susan Rice, then-US ambassador to the UN, is now seen as a leading candidate for the position of secretary of state under Biden. 

This does not mean that a Biden administration would take any real steps to prevent the expansion of the settlements. The suggestion to condition American aid to Israel on a settlement freeze did not make it past the Democratic National Committee, but it is no longer considered a marginal idea. Biden will have to take into account the opinions of people like Bernie Sanders and others, who demand accountability from Israel regarding settlements.

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sit down for dinner at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on 9 March 2010 (AFP)
Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sit down for dinner at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on 9 March 2010 (AFP)

Even if making aid conditional is out of the question right now, one can reasonably assume that the US government will go back to denouncing the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and the demolition of Palestinian homes. This will not stop the settlements or end the demolitions, but quite likely it will lead Israel to slow the pace. After four years during which Israel felt immune from criticism, that too will be a novelty.

Progressive pressure in the US

But the big question is to what extent the Biden administration will promote a real political solution that would include an end to the occupation or Israeli apartheid in the West Bank. In his congratulatory message to Biden, Meretz party chairman Nitzan Horowitz called on Biden to "work toward the resumption of the peace process". 

This is precisely what frightens many Palestinians, and rightly so, along with the radical left in Israel. They are afraid that Biden will resume that same barren peace process that has been going on now for 30 years and has thus far led to the worsening of the occupation instead of its end. 

Biden is likely to revoke the boycott imposed by the Trump administration on the Palestinian Authority (PA). Vice President-elect Harris has already stated that the Biden administration will reopen the Palestinian representative office in Washington, renew financial aid to Palestinians and restore contacts with the PA.

For Israel, these are by no means bad tidings. Israel always wanted the PA to survive and won't be troubled if the US rescues it again. While Israel will not be able to completely ignore the Palestinian leadership as it has done for the last four years, the price from Israel's standpoint will be tolerable.

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Biden, of course, will resume talking about a two-state solution. But it is very likely that this will remain just talk. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians might resume, but the chances that Biden will pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and dismantle the settlements are virtually nil. He has, after all, declared himself a "Zionist".

Biden wants an independent Palestinian state, not because the Palestinians are entitled to liberty or because he wants to end the colonisation of Palestine, but because an independent Palestinian state, in his view, would make Israel stronger.

Yet Israel will find itself in a weaker position vis-a-vis the new US administration. The progressives in the Democratic Party have not yet had their final say, and they are likely to pressure Biden to accomplish things for the Palestinians. The fact that Biden will have a hard time achieving reforms in Congress, assuming Republican control of the Senate, should lead him to be active in the international arena where he does not need Congressional approval.

Additionally, the pro-Palestinian lobby in the US is in a more influential position than ever before. The decision by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not to participate in the Rabin memorial ceremony organized by Americans for Peace Now can attest to that. 

And this is the main problem Israel will be facing with a Biden administration. If there is pressure coming from Washington, the Israeli right wing will have almost no leverage on the administration there. Biden does not count on the evangelicals, the House of Representatives will have a Democratic majority with a considerable presence of progressives, and more than 75 percent of the Jewish community in the US voted for Biden.

It's not reasonable that this community - so disparaged in recent years by the political right in Israel, which liked the evangelicals better and sometimes preferred even antisemites - would suddenly agree to function as an ambassador for Netanyahu or Bennett. The drama of Netanyahu challenging Obama's policies when speaking at a joint session of Congress will not be replayed during the Biden era, and most certainly not during the first two years of his administration.

Netanyahu and the Israeli right have not simply lost a friend in the White House. They have also lost their almost unlimited room to manoeuvre things, afforded to them by Trump. It remains to be seen what the actual results of this change will be.

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