As of yesterday with the Electoral College vote in the U.S., we begin a new era of American government. Will it mean a new page in American-Israeli relations? Will the United States return to a more even-handed approach in dealing with both the Palestinians and Israel following the Trumplican administration? Bracketing the Palestinians for the moment and before we return to what can be expected of the Biden-Harris government, what is the state in which Israel currently finds itself? For an assessment of that, it helps to have some perspective.
When Israel was founded as an independent state just over seventy years ago, the situation was very different. Israel was very weak economically for the first two years and very dependent on diaspora Jewry. As a new state, Israel lacked any natural resources, held no monetary reserves, owned very little manufacturing capacity and its infrastructure was very undeveloped. Currently, Israel belongs to the developed world with a GDP per capita larger than that of Spain.
While the new immigrants that arrived in the 1930s came with financial resources, the 250,000 refugees from the European camps and most of the 1,000,000 that fled Arab countries came with nothing. At the same time, Israel lost 720,000 Palestinian productive members of the economy who fled or were forced to flee.
Israel had a population of only slightly more than 800,000 Jews and just under 880,000 Arab Palestinians living both in the territory allocated to the Jews plus the areas captured by the Zionists over the twelve months following the passage of the UN General Assembly partition resolution. Israel’s current population is 9,227,000 of which over 500,000 live in what was called the West Bank captured by Transjordan in 1948. Of the population living in Israel proper, an estimated 1,750,000 are Palestinians. In effect, the Jews moved from just under half the population to approximately 75% over the last seventy years.
In 1948, Israel was surrounded by sworn enemies – Egypt, Jordan. Syria and Lebanon. Currently, it has been at peace with Egypt and Jordan for decades. Israel also has normalization agreements with two of the Gulf States (the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain), with Sudan and with Morocco. Others appear to be on the horizon. The whole Arab world defined Israel as an enemy in 1948. Israel did not have a single great power backing it in 1948, though President Harry Truman of the USA was the first to recognize Israel. Currently, Israel is probably America’s closest ally and shares with the US security responsibilities in the Middle East. In that arena, Israel is the strongest regional military power.
In 1948, Israel was very deeply divided between the social democrats and socialists on the one hand and the much smaller but very significant percentage of Revisionists (both the Irgun and the Stern Gang) on the other. The socialists had accepted the UN partition resolution. The Revisionists had rejected it and continued to aspire for control of the balance of the land to the Jordan River. Currently, the Left has evaporated as a major political force and Israel is now run by Right-Wingers and Right of Centre politicians. The political coloration of the country has been radically transformed.
What is most significant is that this prosperous country is not in any immediate existential danger (more on Iran in a future blog) whereas the existential threat to its existence was very real when Israel was attacked by five Arab armies on 16 May 1948. The biggest difference, however, is that Israel currently rules over 2.2 million Arabs in the West Bank and Jerusalem and frequently seals the borders of Gaza which it no longer occupies. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are currently few and far between whereas missiles are periodically lobbied at Israel from Gaza. However, Israel responds to attacks with even more punishing ones, but also has an “Iron Dome” that protects the country from most rockets.
The biggest difference is with the Palestinians. In 1948, Palestinians claimed self-determination in the whole of the remaining British Mandate from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Many were engaged in attacks on Israel after the cease fire agreement at the end of 1948. Today, terrorism has become much rarer and attacks even from Gaza have recently been infrequent.
The other major shift over the last 72 years has been the backing Israel receives from the United States, at no time more apparent than under the Trump administration when Israel was almost given a free hand. However, do not expect the Biden administration either to be so accommodating or to abandon strong backing for Israel. On 15 July 2020, the Democratic Party platform did not include a single reference to the West Bank and said nothing about whether it considered the settlements legal or illegal. This is because Joe Biden has had a long and strong relationship with Israel and even a warm relationship with Netanyahu that more than offsets the rise of the progressive critical voices against Israel in the Democratic Party as exemplified in Jamaal Bowman’s replacement of Eliot Engel as a New York representative from the 16th congressional district. The right, however, accuses the Biden Democrats of driving a wedge between Israel and America.
With respect to Israel, the 2020 American Democratic Party platform:
- Supports a strong, secure and democratic Israel
- Supports a two-state solution with recognized borders and a right of Palestinians to have a state of their own
- Rejects a return to the armistice lines of 1949 as a basis for territorial division
- Supports an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel
- Opposes unfair singling out of Israel for criticism at the UN
- Opposes the BDS movement while protecting free speech, the latter caveat added in 2020
- Remains committed to Israel’s security generally and Israel maintaining its qualitative military edge more particularly
- Supports the ten-year MOU between the US and Israel dated 14 September 2016 that provides Israel with $3.1 billion per year for defence purposes
- Continues a policy that defence aid is not conditional on Israeli political decisions [Tony Blinken]
- Does not refer to West Bank “occupation,” but now opposes “annexation”
- Praises Israel for its “values of democracy, equality, tolerance, and pluralism”
- Opposes settlement expansion but does not designate settlements as illegal
- With respect to Iran, prioritizes “nuclear diplomacy, de-escalation, and regional dialogue” versus the Trump policy of ratcheting up sanctions
- Promises to restore Palestinian diplomatic ties and resume humanitarian aid.
The 2020 platform no longer includes:
- Isolating Hamas
- Resolving the refugee issue by settling the refugees where they are and paying compensation
Though Julian Castro and other members of the progressive wing of the party have momentum, given the appointees of Joe Biden, they are unlikely to get any significant movement on their anti-Israel critical policies. The Palestinians may not be able even to get the Biden administration to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, since that is now dependent on Israeli governmental approval, though it may open a convenient service delivery office in East Jerusalem. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the Netanyahu administration will make much fuss if there is a reversal in this area, particularly if the right conditions are attached. Nor will the Biden administration likely reverse the Trump administration decision to allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to list their citizenship as Israeli.
Look at Joe Biden’s personal connections with Jews and Israel. First, all of his children ended up with Jewish spouses.
- Haillie Olivere married Beau from 2002 to his death in 2015, and then Hunter married Haillie after Beau died.
- Hunter Biden’s first wife was the filmmaker, Melissa Cohen, an anti-antisemitic activist educated in South Africa at the Orthodox King David Jewish High School Victory Park.
- Ashley Biden, his daughter with Jill and an educational administrator, married Howard Krein, an ENT and plastic surgeon in Philadelphia in 2002; his parents are active Zionists.
- Natalie, 16, and Hunter, 14, by Haillie Olivere
- Beau, the baby child of Ashley Biden
- Three other female grandchildren, Naomi (26 named after Joe’s infant daughter who died in a car crash with Joe’s first wife, Nelia; she is a lawyer), Finnegan (20, after Joe’s grandmother), Naomi and Maisy Biden (19 – her best friend is Sasha Obama), by Hunter’s first wife, Kathleen
- He also has an “illegitimate” grandchild, a result of an affair of Hunter with Lunden Alexis Roberts in 2018.
His Vice-President is Harris Kamala who is married to Doug “Dougie” Emhoff, a Santa Barbara lawyer and partner in an LA law firm who, in the New Year, joins the faculty of law at Georgetown University teaching entertainment law. Kamala insists that, contrary to J Street, a peace deal cannot be imposed between the Israelis and the Palestinians. She also opposes BDS. However, she did not attend the AIPAC meeting in 2019.
Look at the lineup of the initial Biden cabinet members announced thus far:
- Anthony Blinken, a Jew whose father was an activist Holocaust survivor, is Secretary of State. In the Obama administration, Blinken can almost singly be credited with getting the US to cough up a quarter million dollars to support strengthening the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system. Blinken also has deep roots in the State Department and both his father and uncle were American ambassadors.
- Anthony Blinken’s wife, Evelyn Ryan, a Catholic like Biden, also served in the State Department as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.
- Jake Sullivan national security adviser to President Biden, sat on the Board of the Truman Centre whose president he participated in naming, Jenna Ben-Yehuda
- who served for 12 years at the State Department where she worked closely with the Defense Department and intelligence community liaison with Israel. Sullivan says that Joe Biden is committed to negotiating a follow-on deal with Iran, but, note the qualifications, one that advances Israel’s security and holds Iran accountable. “Let’s recognize that the formula that the Obama-Biden administration pursued, which was leverage diplomacy backed by pressure, is the kind of formula that can work again to make progress, not just on the core nuclear issues but on some of [the] other challenges as well.” Diplomacy first then “hard-headed, clear-eyed, effective and tenacious diplomacy, backed by pressure.”
- Alejandro Mayorkas, a Jewish Cuban American Homeland Security Secretary, was a former deputy security secretary, in charge of both immigration and anti-terrorism; his mother was a Romanian Jew who fled the Holocaust and his father had Sephardic roots.
- Linda Thomas-Greenfield ambassador to the United Nations was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population, Refugees and Migration from 2004-2006 and served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, one of the officials purged by Trump. She worked on the Iran deal.
- Avril Haines (b. 1968), lawyer, Director National Intelligence, a former Deputy Director, had a New York Modernist artist as her mother, Adrianne Rappaport, who painted as Adrien Rappin.
- Janet Yellen, a Jewish economist and the first woman to head the Federal Reserve, is Treasury Secretary; she was raised in Brooklyn in a Reform Congregation, Beth-El, where her son went to school; her mentors were Herschel Grossman and Joseph Stiglitz who won a Nobel Prize.
- John F. Kerry climate envoy who once worked assiduously to get a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
- Ron Klain, his Chief of staff and first appointee, was raised in a Jewish family in Indianapolis and celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1974 at Beth-El Zedeck congregation, a Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue.
None of this tells us what his various cabinet appointees’ values and attitudes are towards Israel, but one could not go very off base to assume that they would do nothing to threaten Israel’s existence. But what about Israel’s standing in the world? What about the real threats Israel still faces? How will the current revolutionary geo=political shifts in the Middle East affect Israel’s security and the prospects for the Palestinians? Where is the peace process going now?