Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Frustrated by the lecture he’d received on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict during his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, President Bill Clinton exploded to aides afterward – “Who’s the f***ing superpower here?”
Fast forward to May 2011. This time, Netanyahu lectured President Barack Obama (or so it was characterized by PBS) about the Middle East peace process, stunning aides and the press corps with the fact that an Israeli prime minister would talk to a US president in such fashion. But Netanyahu was so impressed with the encounter that he turned it into a campaign ad.
Two American presidents, one Israeli prime minister and a level of diplomatic chutzpah unprecedented in the history of the US-Israeli relationship.
And yet, despite the tensions of the Clinton and particularly the Obama years, Netanyahu emerged unscathed, giving up very little to Palestinians or restricting settlements – and gaining much, especially on US military assistance. Indeed, by 2015, blatantly casting his lot with Republicans in opposing the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu had already set the stage for his four-year honeymoon with Donald Trump.
So, why should Netanyahu be afraid of Joe Biden?
The short answer is he shouldn’t.
Sure, Netanyahu is going to miss the Trump years and the gifts that Trump bestowed. For Netanyahu, facing an ongoing corruption trial and under pressure to protect Israeli lives and livelihoods, the unwavering support of Israel’s closest ally was important to his aura of invincibility and indispensability.
The advent of the Biden administration will certainly reflect a change. Indeed, as Biden will likely seek to undo much of what Trump has done on the issue of the Palestinians, and almost certainly tries to engage with Iran, the road he and Netanyahu will travel is bound to get bumpier.
But anyone who believes that the Biden-Netanyahu relationship is headed for a train wreck ought to lie down and wait quietly until the feeling passes. And here’s why.
First, Biden will be very busy. Faced with the greatest challenge of national recovery perhaps of any president since Franklin Roosevelt, he’ll need to pick his issues – and especially his fights – carefully. He’ll have limited bandwidth for any foreign policy issue that isn’t critically important to America’s security. His presidency will be shaped by whether he can beat Covid-19 and restore prosperity, not by Middle East diplomacy. And he’ll more than likely have a Republican Senate filled with Israel-firsters to remind him that he’s not an entirely free agent. The last thing Biden will want or need is a blowup with a close ally likely to distract, waste political capital or give Republicans an easy point of attack.
Second, fighting with Israel only makes sense if the fight is productive. Why would a president fight with a close ally otherwise? Unlike Obama, Biden will probably not corner Netanyahu by pressing for a comprehensive freeze on settlements or an unrealistic timetable for an agreement on a Palestinian state. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is about as close to ready for prime time as Earth is from Mars. And unless Netanyahu pushes the envelope through massive settlement activity or the annexation of parts of the West Bank, Biden is unlikely to press him.
It may well be that the Palestinians’ lack of options and Netanyahu’s desire to keep Arab states moving on normalizing relations with Israel will restrain both Palestinians and Israelis, and actually create a basis for some very modest cooperation. And Biden – eager to maintain the historic and stabilizing character of normalization between Israel and the Arab states – will want to be very supportive of the emerging rapprochement between Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to promote stability in the region.
Third, if there’s any issue that will roil US-Israeli waters, it’s Iran. But finding a way back into a nuclear deal – original or improved – is strewn with obstacles, including Iran’s own presidential election in June 2021; Tehran’s demands for US compensation; some of the lapsing deadlines in the original nuclear deal; and what to do about the non-nuclear issues unaddressed in the original accord, such as Iran’s ballistic missiles and its regional activities.
Biden may well find himself arguing far more with Iran than with Netanyahu. And if he coordinates closely with Israel and sticks to his objective to “strengthen and extend (the Iran nuclear deal) while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities,” Biden might defuse some of Netanyahu’s objections.
Nonetheless, as long as Netanyahu remains Prime Minister, Iran is at best a fraught issue in the US-Israeli relationship that will need to be very carefully managed.
If anyone can do it, it’s Joe Biden. When it comes to Israel, Biden isn’t Obama; he’s much closer to Bill Clinton. Both Clinton and Biden are politicians whose regard – even love – for Israel are rooted deep in their political DNA. Neither can be painted as hostile to Israel, and both will tend to give it the benefit of the doubt on security and will steer clear – as Clinton put it – of jamming the Israelis.
Netanyahu will have a very hard time trying to depict Biden as a president who doesn’t care about Israel’s security, let alone one who’s hostile to it. Indeed, if the fight comes, it won’t be because of Biden; it’ll be the result of the missteps and antics of a weakened Prime Minister who somehow overplayed his hand, pushed too hard and brought the fight on himself.