Biden's win means a demotion for Netanyahu and less focus on Israel

David M. Halbfinger, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 10 2020 08:38 AM

Biden's win means a demotion for Netanyahu and less focus on Israel 1
The Jewish settlement of Efrat, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sept. 8, 2019. Israeli officials say they also expect President-elect Joe Biden to work to preserve the viability of a future Palestinian state, which is at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s moves to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank or even annex them. Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

JERUSALEM — President Donald Trump’s defeat has left Israel and its longtime prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the receiving end of an abrupt demotion.

Overnight, President-elect Joe Biden’s victory effectively downgraded Israel’s ranking on the list of U.S. foreign-policy priorities, diminished Netanyahu’s stature on the global stage and undercut his argument to restive Israeli voters that he remains their indispensable leader.

After four years of doting treatment by Trump, who lavished Israel with diplomatic prizes and indulged Netanyahu with geopolitical backing, the credits are rolling on the buddy movie he promoted endlessly to Israeli audiences.

“He’s gone from Trump’s wingman to the guy who polishes the canopy of the F-16,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Netanyahu biographer.

The stark comedown threatens to weaken Netanyahu further as he endures abysmal approval ratings, struggles to avoid a third wave of the coronavirus and put Israelis back to work, prepares for trial early next year on felony corruption charges, and contends with an emboldened opposition and embittered allies who have openly talked of joining forces to oust him.

Netanyahu seemed unusually flummoxed by Biden’s win: It took him 12 hours after the race was called to offer perfunctory congratulations on Twitter, without naming the office Biden had won, followed quickly by an effusive expression of gratitude to Trump. There was speculation across the Israeli political spectrum that Netanyahu feared retribution from Trump if he complimented Biden more wholeheartedly.

Shimrit Meir, an Israeli analyst who is well-sourced in Netanyahu’s circle, said the prime minister and his allies were in “deep denial.”

“The psychological and mental leap that people will have to take is huge,” she said. “And they didn’t prepare themselves. Two weeks ago I wrote an op-ed about how Cabinet members were describing in detail all the ways in which Trump was going to win and why Nate Silver was an idiot.”

Most immediately, analysts and officials said, Israel will feel the transition to a Biden administration as a shift of focus away from the conflict with the Palestinians. With a pandemic, a battered economy and deep societal fissures demanding his attention, Biden, to the extent he looks abroad, is expected to place greater emphasis on tensions with China and Russia, climate change, and repairing the frayed trans-Atlantic alliance.

Looming large, however, are questions about Iran. Biden has spoken of showing Tehran a “path back to diplomacy,” offering to reenter the Obama administration’s nuclear deal if Iran returns to strict compliance. Netanyahu crusaded against the agreement and cheered Trump’s withdrawal from it.

In contrast to Trump’s favoritism toward Israel, Biden has promised a return to a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That could mean, analysts and former officials suggested, that if Arab states like Morocco, Oman or Saudi Arabia express willingness to normalize ties with Israel, a Biden administration might encourage them to insist on Israeli concessions to the Palestinians in return.

Still, Biden is under few illusions, his advisers say, that a settlement is achievable with Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the longtime Palestinian president, still in their jobs.

Instead, the new administration is expected to exert a calming influence. That could mean reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which Trump disbanded, as a quasi-embassy to the Palestinians; reopening a Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington; and restoring U.S. funding for East Jerusalem hospitals, aid projects on the West Bank and Palestinian refugees.

Israeli officials say they also expect Biden to work to preserve the viability of a future Palestinian state, which is at odds with Netanyahu’s moves to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank or even annex them.

None of those steps is uncomplicated, however, and any of them could create friction with Netanyahu’s right-wing government and its allies in Congress.

While Palestinians cheered the defeat of Trump, whom they see as a singular nemesis, they expressed more relief than joy.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, said she still expected U.S. policy to tilt heavily in Israel’s favor. “I don’t think we’re so naive as to see Biden as our savior,” she said.

Left-leaning Israelis said they expected the Biden administration to seek Palestinian concessions for rolling back Trump’s punitive diplomatic moves, like changing the practice of compensating Palestinians who serve time in Israeli prisons, including for violent attacks — financial benefits that Israel assails as “pay to slay.”

A Democratic presidency will be a familiar challenge for Netanyahu, who was prime minister during Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s administrations. But his own standing is much weaker now. And after assuring Israelis he was in “a different league” because of his ties to Trump, mere diffidence from Biden could be deeply wounding to Netanyahu now, analysts said.

Pfeffer imagined a Biden White House inviting Netanyahu’s rivals, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, to Washington for high-profile meetings while snubbing the prime minister.

“Washington is now holding all the cards,” Pfeffer said. “They don’t have to pick a fight on settlements or Iran. They can do a lot of damage just by ignoring Bibi. The real question is, do Biden and his team have any interest in making Bibi’s life hell?”

There is certainly ample motive: Netanyahu made enemies of much of the Democratic establishment during the Obama administration, most famously by addressing a joint session of Congress to attack Obama’s nuclear deal — a speech that Biden, then vice president, did not attend.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote acidly on Twitter that while Netanyahu had indeed known Biden for nearly 40 years, “it’s also true that @JoeBiden has known @netanyahu for nearly forty years.”

Through allies in right-wing Israeli media, Netanyahu has portrayed Biden as beholden to left-wing Democrats who want to punish Israel for its West Bank occupation. But even right-wing Israeli lawmakers say that Biden cannot be demonized as readily as Obama, who had little track record in the region and confronted Netanyahu early on.

Biden enjoys a decades-old reputation as pro-Israel, and his tales of meeting Golda Meir in the 1970s, and being told by his father that one need not be a Jew to be a Zionist, were long ago committed to memory by Israeli officials.

At the height of tensions with the Obama administration, said Michael Oren, then the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Biden was Israel’s point of contact in the White House. “He was the good cop, but his good-copness was genuine,” Oren said.

Nimrod Novik, who was a senior adviser to Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister, and is now a senior fellow of the Israel Policy Forum, said he hoped that Biden would quietly move to reset relations with Netanyahu in a productive way.

A discreet emissary, Novik suggested, could give the Israeli leader a stern message: “The party’s over. I don’t want to fight with you, but I intend to stabilize the situation, and you’re going to help me. Forget about annexation. No surprises. No unilateral anything. And I need something constructive from you as well: Make it easier to shore up the Palestinian Authority before it collapses, and Gaza before it explodes. And I promise you I’ll bring you into the room when I’m discussing Iran.”

The Trump-Netanyahu relationship has been an extraordinary duet between nationalist leaders whose similarities — divisive political tactics, denunciations of “fake news” and playing to working-class voters’ resentments, among other things — have drawn countless comparisons.

But without Trump performing under the big top, Netanyahu’s Trumpian behavior could begin to stick out.

On Saturday night, as blue-state Americans danced in the streets, the street outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence was mobbed, as usual, with protesters demanding his resignation.

Ayala Colle, 53, a farmer from the Negev Desert, said she hoped that “less legitimacy for the craziness in the United States means there’s less legitimacy for the craziness here.”

And Uri Yaakov, 59, said he was tired of Netanyahu’s pointing to Trump “to claim that the United States is in his pocket.” He added: “That illusion is over.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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