Israeli leaders welcome President Biden

What happened: Israel’s political leaders have congratulated President Joe Biden entering the White House as Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, started the role of ambassador to the US yesterday.

  • Erdan welcomed US President Biden’s executive action to return the US to the Paris Climate Agreement. He wrote on Twitter: “Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing our planet and we must all fight this together.”
  • He plans to share Israeli innovation and environmental technology that addresses climate change, as well as promote the efforts of Israel’s Agency for International Development.
  • The last Israeli to hold both roles was Abba Eban 50 years ago.
  • Shortly after the inauguration ceremony on Wednesday Prime Minister Netanyahu released a video, in which he said: “President Biden, you and I have had a warm personal friendship going back many decades. I look forward to working with you to further strengthen the US-Israel alliance, to continue expanding peace between Israel and the Arab world and to confront common challenges — chief among them the threat posed by Iran.”
  • In a similar video message, Defence Minister Benny Gantz said: “There are so many challenges that face us all: containing Iranian regional aggression and nuclear aspirations, fighting terror groups and destabilising forces, expanding normalisation, and reaching a resolution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. I look forward to working with the Biden administration, and with my friends at the Pentagon, in taking on these challenges together.”
  • In his own video message, New Hope party chairman Gideon Sa’ar told Biden, “All through your career, you have championed the unbreakable bond between the US and Israel. I look forward to working with you to strengthen the US-Israel alliance and bipartisan support for Israel.”
  • Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas also congratulated Biden: “We look forward to working together for peace and stability in the region and the world.” The PA leader said he was ready for a “comprehensive and just peace process that fulfils the aspirations of the Palestinian people for freedom and independence.”

Context: After the Trump years, the US-Israel relationship is expected to return to a more balanced approach, based less on personal relationships but shared values and interests.

  • There is consensus in Israel and the Gulf that the Biden administration should not lift US sanctions and concede its main leverage against the Iranian regime without agreements reached on a new deal with the Iranians first.
  • During his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday for US Secretary of State, Tony Blinken sent reassuring messages to its Middle East allies that “there is still a long way to go” before the US and Iran are likely to agree to return to compliance with the JCPOA nuclear agreement. Blinken added that the Biden team was seeking a new agreement with Iran and would consult with its “allies” in the Middle East before beginning any discussion of a return to the JCPOA.
  • Israel will look to establish common ground with the Biden administration on a wide range of shared interests early on. One area will be the Abraham Accords, where the Israeli government hopes the Biden administration will continue the efforts under President Trump in securing more normalisation agreements.
  • Blinken also voiced other opinions that would please the Israeli government. He described the US commitment to Israel’s security as “sacrosanct,” said he “resolutely opposed” the BDS movement that “unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel and creates a double standard that we do not apply to other countries,” and committed to not reversing the US embassy move to Jerusalem and maintaining recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
  • President Biden has advocated his strong support for Israel in the past and many of his senior officials have a good working relationship with Israel. One difference between Israel and the Biden administration, as compared to the Trump one, will be a much broader relationship in the non-executive branches of government.
  • For example, incoming Middle East coordinator on the National Security Council (NSC), Brett McGurk, is a strong supporter of Israel’s campaign against Iranian military infrastructure in Syria. Former US Ambassador to the UAE, Barbara Leaf, is the new senior advisor for the Middle East on the NSC and is highly regarded by the Israeli defence establishment. Julie Sawyer, who will oversee the Israeli-Palestinian file in the White House, is well known to Israelis since the time she served as the personal assistant of American envoy Martin Indyk between 2013-2014.
  • Two other officials that have good relations with Israel in the Biden team are: Dana Stroul, who will be the Pentagon’s senior policy official on the Middle East and has advocated for a greater role for US allies in pushing back on Iran’s regional influence; and Mira Resnick, who will be in charge of security cooperation with Israel in the State Department and is a strong supporter of US bipartisanship on Israel.

Looking ahead: Prime Minister Netanyahu is keen to remain the key the figure determining Israel’s approach towards Iran and is looking to appoint a project manager to report to him directly (rumoured to be Yossi Cohen when he completes his time as head of Mossad this summer).

  • Defence Minister Gantz is against the centralisation and supports a broader decision-making forum among the leaders of the security establishment.
  • The Biden administration faces a dilemma on whether to negotiate with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before the Presidential elections in June, believing that a more conservative and hard-line leader in Iran would complicate any return to the JCPOA.

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