There was little daylight between Washington and Jerusalem during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump viewed close relations with Israel as a means to differentiate himself from his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who oversaw a period of considerable tension in the bilateral relationship. This is not to say that during Obama’s tenure cooperation between security and intelligence agencies of the two countries was suspended or disrupted. In fact, coordination and information sharing between the U.S. and Israel was as close, if not closer, than it had ever been until that point. Rather, the major issue was an erosion of trust and goodwill on the personal and political levels between the two countries’ top decision-makers — making conversations about sensitive and important bilateral issues even more difficult. In addition, the crisis between the two leaders caused concern that over the long term continued frictions could trickle down and poison even the durable-seeming institutional partnerships.
The U.S.-Israel relationship was especially salient for Trump in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential elections given the weight assigned to bilateral ties in the American political arena, and in particular within the Republican Party. The desire for a close bilateral relationship translated into a very warm and public friendship between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ties were likely reinforced by key White House advisers on Middle East issues who assumed their roles in the Trump administration holding views on Israel that were reasonably well-aligned with the positions of Netanyahu’s Likud government.
The new U.S. administration under President Joe Biden appears poised — based on staffing decisions and declared policies — to revert to a U.S. policy in the Middle East that more closely resembles that of Obama. Meanwhile, Netanyahu, who fought bitterly and publicly against Obama’s policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iran nuclear issue, remains at the helm in Israel. The month that it took Biden after settling into the Oval Office to call Netanyahu fed speculation that the Israeli premier was being snubbed. The stage may be set for a sequel of the acrimonious relationship between Jerusalem and Washington.
Maintaining and strengthening the U.S.-Israeli alliance is in both country’s national interests. The United States is Israel’s most important ally, and Israel is America’s essential security partner in the Middle East. In that spirit, the Biden administration should accept Israel’s right to respectfully disagree on policy issues, and ought to consider where it can make policy adjustments to better account for its top Middle Eastern ally’s interests. For its part, the Netanyahu government should avoid turning differences into acerbic confrontations, but instead it should present constructive alternatives that better align with U.S. and Israeli interests. Managing potential disagreements over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear activities, Israeli-Palestinian ties, and China’s investments in Israel will be a major test for American and Israeli diplomacy.
Trump, Biden, and Israel
Despite Trump’s disdain for many traditional alliances such as NATO, he was almost unconditionally supportive of Israel. The Trump administration moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and published an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that was far more favorable to Israel than any U.S. initiative that preceded it. Beyond their direct consequences these gestures of support also had important follow-on effects, as many other countries around the world followed America’s lead and adopted more favorable approaches to Israel. The 2020 Abraham Accords — which formalized the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan — is case in point.
Biden is undoubtedly pro-Israel, too. Throughout his four-decade-long career in government he has expressed strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself and has declared himself a “Zionist.” His closest advisors, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, seek to promote “America's ironclad commitment to Israel's future as secure, democratic, prosperous, Jewish state.” These aims are in line with what Israeli security experts believe should be the overarching goals of an Israeli grand strategy, though they may differ with the current government in Israel regarding the means to achieve that and the particular details of a desired end-state. On an interpersonal level, Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for decades, but given the tensions between the Obama and Netanyahu governments when Biden was vice president that will not necessarily work in the relationship’s favor.
Over the next four years, the expected points of contention in the U.S.-Israeli relationship are the Iran nuclear issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the technological competition with China. While the first two are particular to Israel, the third will likely be a complicating feature of U.S. relations with many other countries, including European allies. Through deft diplomacy, compromise, and capitalizing on its relative advantages, Jerusalem can avoid frictions or even a potential diplomatic crisis with the United States. Navigating this successfully will be critical to buttress Israel’s bipartisan standing in Washington following a sequence of two U.S. administrations in which Netanyahu has very publicly battled against the policies of a Democratic president and enthusiastically supported a very divisive Republican president. Taking steps to shore up enduring support in Washington is a strategic imperative for Jerusalem.
Israel’s approach to three key issues
There is a considerable gap between how the Israeli government and leading members of the Democratic Party view the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Biden has pledged to return to compliance with the agreement if Iran does, in the hopes that it will defuse the looming nuclear crisis and provide a basis to negotiate follow-on agreements. According to Secretary of State Blinken, negotiations after a return to the JCPOA would aim to achieve “a longer and stronger agreement, and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran.” To be more precise, such talks would presumably seek to shore up the original agreement’s weaknesses regarding sunset provisions, impediments to effective nuclear inspections, the deal’s narrow scope that neglects Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional activity, as well as limited restrictions on nuclear research and development.
However, Jerusalem fears that a return to the nuclear agreement would be both the beginning and the end of nuclear diplomacy with Iran rather than the basis for follow-on agreements. In such a scenario, Israel would be left to face the Iran challenge, particularly the expiration of nuclear constraints, on its own. Budding relations with the Gulf states may generally provide Israel with important political, economic, and security advantages, but it is doubtful that those countries have the political will or capabilities to contribute meaningfully to a last-resort military operation against Iran’s nuclear program should it become necessary for preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Israel, however, remains determined that it cannot accept Iran reaching the nuclear threshold due to the regime’s frequent calls for Israel’s destruction.
Rather than openly confronting Biden on the Iran nuclear issue, the prime minister should explain through discreet channels that he sees the return to the 2015 nuclear deal as a mistake, and is committed to working with the new administration toward the shared goal of preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, Jerusalem has taken a different approach, thus far. By publicly lambasting the prospective return to the agreement without offering realistic alternatives that satisfy the president’s objectives, the prime minister and the Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff have already positioned themselves as “spoilers” rather than constructive partners.
There are policy options that Israel could advocate for as alternatives to returning to the nuclear deal. Netanyahu could promote an approach in which limited concessions are made by Iran and the U.S. to reach an interim agreement that temporarily prevents the escalation of an Iranian nuclear crisis. The narrow scope of such a stopgap measure would serve to keep both sides interested in negotiating a follow-on agreement, thereby providing an opportunity to close the 2015 deal’s loopholes. In our assessment, an improved nuclear agreement should seek to extend the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment by 30 years, allow for “anytime, anywhere” nuclear inspections, and restrict Iran’s nuclear R&D to the greatest extent possible. The proposed approach would mitigate the risk of being ensnared permanently in the JCPOA without follow-on measures, a scenario which would provide Iran the right to develop a full-scale nuclear program within the next decade.
In parallel, but untethered to its work on the nuclear negotiations, the Biden administration should push back firmly and extensively on Iran’s malign activity throughout the region. These efforts should include increasing assistance to regional partners for mitigating the threats posed by Iran-backed terror organizations such as Hezbollah and the Houthis, particularly the groups’ precision guided munitions. Doing so could provide Washington additional leverage by offsetting some pressures on Iran that were relieved by the lifting of nuclear sanctions, and it would also signal to U.S. allies that the White House takes their security concerns into account and will not shy away from confronting Iran’s regional activity for the sake of nuclear diplomacy.
In what might best be described as a “you can’t fire me, I quit” approach, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. recently volunteered that Israel “will not be able to be part of such a process if the new administration returns to [the JCPOA].” If it becomes apparent that the United States cannot be dissuaded from returning to the 2015 agreement, a more effective approach would be to advocate policies that mitigate the risks of doing so. As had been recommended when the deal was initially signed, Israel could propose a parallel agreement between the Washington and its Middle Eastern allies. By demarcating nuclear redlines for Tehran as well as actionable plans for a military option, such a treaty would aim to negate the JCPOA’s weaknesses in the event a “long and stronger [nuclear] agreement” is not reached. Confronting the Biden administration publicly is unlikely to lead to a better short-term outcome in terms of positively influencing U.S. policy — it is worth recalling that such tactics did not torpedo the nuclear deal in 2015 — and its cost in terms of aggravating Washington’s already worrying partisan divide on Israel could erode the foundations of the bilateral relationship over the long term.
As for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Blinken has already clarified that he does not foresee major diplomatic breakthroughs toward achieving a two-state solution in the near term. During her confirmation hearing for the role of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield expressed strong support for Israel and for restoring foreign assistance to the Palestinians. However, she noticeably did not mention a two-state solution, suggesting that no grand bargain is in the offing. This is an important acknowledgement of the reality on the ground, in which three decades of U.S.-led peace efforts have achieved little progress toward a permanent agreement.
Rather than viewing the wave of normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states as a means to sidestep the Palestinian issue, the Biden administration should coordinate with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to leverage future normalization toward advancing steps that reduce Israeli-Palestinian frictions on the ground, improve the standard of living for both parties, and prevent the slide toward inextricable entanglement that would render a two-state solution impossible in the future. Recent statements by U.S. Acting Representative at the U.N. Ambassador Richard Mills implied that these aims are aligned with the Biden administration’s goals. Some practical possibilities for how this might be done include a “matching” campaign by Arab states normalizing relations with Israel and then allocating equal amounts of investment to both Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, or normalization by Arab states in exchange for additional steps by Israel to limit settlement activity and facilitate endogenous Palestinian economic activity.
On China, there is a clear gap in threat perceptions between Jerusalem and Washington, which has the potential to create considerable tensions in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The United States increasingly views China as the central challenge to its national security. Indeed, the Defense Department considers the People’s Liberation Army its “pacing threat.” Israel, by contrast, sees China as a minor irritant due to its provision of military, economic, and diplomatic support to Israel’s foes including Iran and Syria, but hardly a direct or immediate military threat to Israel comparable to the dangers posed by Hezbollah or Iran. At the same time, Jerusalem has long viewed China as an economic opportunity due to Beijing’s enormous market, interest in investing abroad, and particular keenness for Israeli high-tech and innovation.
Biden may seek to more clearly define U.S. competition with China, shifting from the Trump administration’s all-encompassing approach toward Beijing to a position of more clearly delimited areas of competition as well as narrow venues for cooperation on transnational issues. However, whether or not the Biden administration should course correct on China, the center of gravity of U.S.-Chinese competition will remain dual-use “strategic technologies,” including AI and quantum computing.
Instead of seeking to convince the U.S. that China is not a strategic threat, Israel should use its relative advantage as a technological powerhouse to work with America and its allies to win this scientific competition with major economic and military implications; Jerusalem would be well served to do so as U.S. global pre-eminence is an Israeli interest. Despite China’s considerable investments in Israel, Beijing has never indicated that it would provide Israel anything comparable to the foreign assistance or political support (especially in international fora) that Washington has. Therefore, we would recommend a U.S.-Israeli “innovation agreement” in which both countries commit to jointly funding extensive collaborative research on AI and quantum computing while maintaining an ongoing channel for bilateral coordination regarding policy on China with a particular focus on the issue of technology transfers. Also, given the Biden administration’s high prioritization of tackling the threat of climate change, which the president has called “the existential threat of our time,” cooperation on clean energy technology should be considered as an annex to the innovation treaty.
A bilateral channel for discussing China policy would facilitate regular conversations on how to reinforce Israel’s existing investment screening mechanism in a manner which more effectively targets the specific areas of Sino-Israeli economic and technological cooperation that ought to be rolled back. Although there is momentum in Washington toward “decoupling” from China, it would be unreasonable (and hypocritical) to ask Israel to sever all commercial ties with Beijing given the tremendous economic relationship between the United State and China. Instead, the United States should provide clearer directions to Israel on what interactions with China are antithetical to U.S. interests and are therefore off-limits.
Policy differences between the United States and Israel should be kept in perspective. While Washington and Jerusalem seek to maximize the distance between Iran and nuclear weapons, the primary point of contention will be disagreements over the methods for coping with the threat rather than the desired goal. The Biden administration should also recognize the fact that honest and respectful public expressions of concern regarding its policies do not necessarily indicate an intention to thwart them. Instead, they are an attempt to influence U.S. policy to more fully account for allies’ interests. That said, publicity stunts in which Israel dives headfirst into U.S. political skirmishes, such as Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in 2015 or actions that can be interpreted as endorsements of particular American political candidates, should be foresworn by Jerusalem as they proved ineffective in a narrow sense and could contaminate the broader bilateral relationship.
In addition to attempting to inform Washington’s decision-making, regional allies also seek to remain informed of ongoing developments. The Israeli government was deeply shaken by the secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations that began in 2012 in Oman and culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal. Therefore, it is imperative that the United States follow through on Blinken’s pledge to act with transparency and include allies in processes of considering and planning policy. While the Biden administration will have a different approach to the region than its predecessors, that need not prevent close cooperation on the broad swath of shared goals that remain.
In addition, the United States should make clear that it is committed to advancing security and stability in the Middle East, even as it seeks to scale down its military presence in the region. A credible U.S. affirmation of its commitment to the defense of its allies will have a direct and positive impact on their perception of their own security. America’s defense posture is major component in how Israel assesses the severity of the threats it faces and how to cope with them. In addition, adversaries’ understanding of Washington’s intentions will directly influence the degree to which they challenge U.S. allies. While it is most likely that the U.S. military drawdown in the region that began under Obama and continued under Trump will proceed in some form or another, it is nevertheless important that Washington clarifies that it has not lost interest in the region and does not intend to leave a power vacuum to be filled by revisionist forces such as Iran, Turkey, or jihadist groups.
As it stands, for the fourth time in less than two years, Israel is in the midst of an election season. In the period leading up to the March 23 elections, as well as the month or two that follow in which the different parties will wheel-and-deal in order to reach a coalition agreement, the government’s decision-making process is especially fraught due to domestic political considerations. Washington should take into account that Israel’s competitive democratic system is at times messy and unstable, though both countries will be well-served if after this next round of elections it is possible to establish a stable governing coalition in Jerusalem capable of designing coherent policies and making decisions accordingly.
The new U.S. administration’s approach to Israel may prove disappointing in Jerusalem, where over the past four years decision-makers received a bonanza of concessions from the Trump administration without making compromises. That era was likely an aberration rather than the start of a new trend in bilateral relations. Successfully navigating the daylight between U.S. and Israeli conceptions of how to cope with the challenges posed by Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and China could prove decisive for the long-term future of U.S.-Israel relations.
Ari Heistein is a Research Fellow and Chief of Staff to the Director at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Eldad Shavit is a Senior Researcher at the INSS and previously served in senior roles in Israeli Defense Intelligence and the Mossad. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo by DEBBIE HILL/AFP via Getty Images
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