President Biden and Israel
With Donald Trump gone from the White House and the shame of impeachment as the Senate’s farewell, his most durable achievement is easily overlooked. He is likely to be remembered — without close competition for the dishonor — as the worst president in American history. But he is also likely to be remembered as the best presidential friend of Israel since Harry S. Truman recognized the fledgling Jewish state only moments after its Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. That is no small achievement, although one likelier to be appreciated by Israelis than by liberal American Jews, for whom Trump’s departure from the White House is a gift for which there can be no equivalent.
What were the components of president Trump’s generosity toward Israel? In December 2017, he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and relocated the American embassy there from Tel Aviv. Acknowledgment of Jewish national sovereignty over the ancient holy city, for the first time since King David relocated his throne from Hebron to Jerusalem, affirmed its embedded place as the capital of the Jewish people.
Then, in March 2019, the United States became the first country to recognize the Golan Heights, the bastion of Israeli protection from Syria and Lebanon, as part of Israel. Eight months later Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration did not view Jewish settlements as a violation of international law. Trump’s 2020 peace plan assured Israeli control over Jerusalem as its capital and allowed it to keep Jewish settlements intact in Judea and Samaria (previously known as Jordan’s “West Bank”).
Along the way, Pompeo changed passport rules to allow Americans born in Jerusalem to list “Israel” rather than “Jerusalem” as their place of birth, an implicit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over its ancient capital. The Trump administration ended funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a continuing scam that has transformed descendants of Palestinian refugees into genuine “refugees,” assuring funding to their progeny — and to UNRWA employees — in perpetuity.
Ambassador David Friedman (an Orthodox Jew who was Trump’s pre-presidential bankruptcy lawyer) played a major role in this policy transformation. He endorsed Israeli annexation of the ancient Jewish homeland of Judea and Samaria; proposed removal of “occupied territories” as their designation; and successfully urged recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Friedman also was the first high government American official to visit a settlement, providing implicit recognition of its legitimacy. As frosting on the cake, the Trump administration recognized the right of Israel to apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley (where 27 settlements, inhabited by 9000 Israelis, are located); and over Jewish settlements in one-third of biblical Judea and Samaria (although put on hold as part of Israel’s peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates).
It is likely — indeed predictable — that the Biden administration will seek to erase some of these gifts. As a senator, Biden’s wavering over American support for Israel if it established new settlements prompted a sharp rebuke from then-prime minister Menachem Begin. As Barack Obama’s vice president, he imagined that they shared the same strong commitment to Israel, although evidence of Obama’s “commitment” to anything other than criticism of the Jewish state would be difficult to discern. Biden indicated that he would not have recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and insisted that Israeli leaders “must recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations for statehood” and “stop the threats of annexation and settlement activity,” including the building of new homes.
Biden’s personal history of ambivalence toward Israel, in tandem with his embedded loyalty to Obama, does not augur well for US-Israel relations, at least while Benjamin Netanyahu remains prime minister. Ironically, disgraced president Trump’s favors to Israel are likely to remain the standard by which presidential support for the Jewish state is measured, just as Barack Obama’s chill toward Israel may be difficult to match. Where President Joe Biden will locate himself on the spectrum remains to be seen.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.