The Israel and Jewish issues likely to be on Biden’s agenda – analysis

Written by on November 7, 2020

There are quite a few Jewish- and Israel-related issues that Biden will have to address in the early months of his presidency.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) prepares to sign the guest book before his meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem March 9, 2010. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) prepares to sign the guest book before his meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem March 9, 2010.

(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

With two months and about two weeks left until his likely inauguration, presumptive President-Elect Joe Biden may face a protracted legal battle to defend his apparent victory. In the meantime, his transition team will probably be very busy coming up with ways to overturn President Donald Trump’s policies.

There are quite a few Jewish- and Israel-related issues that Biden will have to address in the early months of his presidency.

With COVID-19 and all the related economic and social ills still raging, Biden will likely put most of his focus on domestic matters, before foreign policy.

And one of those may very well be antisemitism. Biden has said that he decided to run for president on the day that Trump said there were “fine people on both sides” of the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which some of the demonstrators chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

Biden has focused on antisemitism in his campaign in an unprecedented way. He’s published op-eds on the issue, and has a plan to combat hatred of Jews on his campaign website.

That plan includes taking antisemitic violence and rhetoric seriously by consistently condemning it, restoring funds cut by the Trump administration to fight domestic terrorism and working on passing a law to fight domestic terrorism while preserving free speech, appointing leadership at the Department of Justice who will prioritize prosecuting hate crimes, and increased gun control to “break the nexus between extremism and gun violence.”

As for some of the rhetoric coming from within his own side of the political spectrum, the Biden campaign website said he would “firmly reject the BDS movement, which singles out Israel – home to millions of Jews – and too often veers into antisemitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices.”

This side of the fight against antisemitism will be a greater challenge for Biden. While the vast majority of Democrats have thus far opposed BDS, a growing number from the party’s progressive wing oppose steps against the anti-Israel movement on free speech grounds.

Biden is the Democrats’ compromise candidate, and he may want to maintain party unity and avoid provoking the ire of those to his Left, which includes Vice President-Elect Kamal Harris, though not necessarily on the issue of Israel.

Biden may want to put domestic policy first, but the world is not going to be at a standstill until he has the time to address it, which means that he will have to be ready for any number of international issues, including those that impact Israel.

Foremost of those is Iran. With other UN Security Council members not respecting the US activation of “snapback sanctions,” the UN arms embargo on Iran expired last month. The Trump administration put additional sanctions on Iran to make up for the reticence of the other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly called the Iran Deal, to make sure there are consequences to the Islamic Republic’s continued development of advanced weapons and its nuclear program.

Iran and its likely sources of weaponry – China and Russia – have waited before making any arms deals, but they may feel emboldened to do so now that Trump and his “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign are on the way out. That is an imbroglio that Biden would have to address immediately, for the security of the world.

That being said, Iran has an election of its own in January, and while there’s no need to pretend it will be free or fair, the ayatollahs may wait a few months for the new political leaders to take office before taking action.

Biden, in keeping with his campaign messages, is expected to call on Iran to return to the terms of the JCPOA and, in exchange, to offer an American return to the deal. Biden has said he would negotiate to make the Iran Deal stronger, though he did not specify in what way, and the other parties in the deal have been loath to do much on that front, which may make any changes to the JCPOA difficult if not impossible.

Another issue that may come up whether it’s top of Biden’s list or not is Turkey’s continued aggressive actions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has provoked numerous crises with Greece in recent years, bringing naval ships into the EU member state’s economic waters. This has come along with Turkish threats against Armenia, the UAE and Egypt, as well as Israel. Most recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has incited against France and French President Emmanuel Macron after the latter’s assurances that free speech would continue in the Fifth Republic even after an Islamist decapitated teacher Samuel Paty, who displayed a caricature of Mohammed in class.

Turkey has become a major destabilizing force in the region, and the reverberations will be felt in Israel, as well. The Trump administration has mostly held back on addressing this problem, but a Biden administration will probably have no choice.

Biden’s victory may also slow down the momentum of countries normalizing ties with Israel after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Biden and his campaign have expressed support for these developments, but the Trump administration particularly prioritized these moves and even put Israel-related elements into agreements with countries like Kosovo and Sudan. Biden is less likely to do those things, though his administration may encourage Arab countries with unofficial ties to Israel, like Saudi Arabia and Oman to come out into the open.

Biden has promised to put pressure on Saudi Arabia over its human rights violations, and some analysts have floated the idea that Riyadh would establish diplomatic relations with Israel in order to curry favor with the new administration. If that is true, then there could be movement on the Abraham Accords front sooner than expected.

Not particularly urgent at the moment, but likely to come up with a Biden administration, is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. There have not been serious peace talks in many years, and, on the other hand, there has been relatively little violence lately.

Yet, a week and a half ago, Harris told the Dearborn, Michigan-based Arab-American News that a Biden administration “will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington.”

Biden surrogate former Rep. Steve Israel recently said: “I don’t see any scenario where the Biden administration seeks to rescind the Taylor Force Act.” That law prohibits the US from providing aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it continues to pay convicted terrorists and their families. But Harris said they would “restore… assistance to the Palestinian people”, such that it seems they already have some kind of loophole in mind.

Harris also said: “We are committed to a two-state solution, and we will oppose any unilateral steps that undermine that goal. We will also oppose annexation and settlement expansion.” Biden has been an opponent of settlements for all of his nearly 50-year political career, such that this is not surprising.

Settlements will likely come back in the headlines as a source of friction between Jerusalem and Washington, though his advisers and others have said Biden is less likely to take as confrontational a tack as former US president Barak Obama did.

When Biden enters office in January, as he is now expected to do, he will have a litany of items on his agenda, and these Israel and Jewish ones will likely be on his list.

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