1. How fast can Netanyahu shift?
For some, the transition was swift and painless.
On the streets next to Capitol Hill, DC residents broke out into spontaneous dancing, as soon as police lifted the barricades next to their homes at the end of Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
Across the country, cheerful Americans posted photos online of champagne bottles popping open, sharing toasts with friends, and showing off Biden-Harris posters and inauguration memorabilia. (There were also the Bernie Sanders memes, but that’s another story.)
For others, however, transitioning to Joe Biden’s America was harder.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has never kept his close relationship with former President Donald Trump a secret, took his time congratulating Biden after the winner was called back in November. And even then, Netanyahu made sure to attach a greeting to Trump, right after congratulating Biden.
But Netanyahu, the veteran politician and savvy statesman, also knew when it was time to move on. On inauguration day, only a few minutes after Biden raised his right hand and took the oath of office, Netanyahu released a pre-taped greeting to the new president, reminiscing on his “warm personal friendship going back many decades” with Biden. This time it was not followed by a similarly warm note to Trump.
Inauguration day was also the cue for Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, to leave his post. Dermer, who in his lengthy and influential tenure in the U.S. personified the Israeli government’s strong alliance with Trump and the Republican Party, ended his term and was replaced by Gilad Erdan, a longtime Likud politician who has held senior cabinet positions, and who is now vowing to “expand those relations” with Democrats.
Netanyahu and the Israeli government are signaling that they understand things in Washington have changed and that they are willing and ready to accept this change. The bromance with Trump? Oh, that was simply an expression of the close relations Israel wishes to maintain with any president the American people choose. And the public rebuke of Obama during the Iran nuclear deal debate? That’s no more than a policy difference, nothing personal.
Can Netanyahu convince Biden and his administration that the shift is genuine?
It shouldn’t be too difficult.
Biden, with his decades-long friendship with Israel (as his frequently recounted Golda Meir story suggests), does not seem to be interested in revenge, nor is he poised to shake the foundations of America’s relations with the Jewish state. The same is true for members of his senior foreign policy team, though many of them are Obama administration alumni who took offense at Netanyahu’s treatment of their boss.
2. Sheldon Adelson was the link bonding Netanyahu and the GOP
The affinity between Likud and the Republican Party is not as obvious as it may seem. Likud leaders in the past have struggled with Republican administrations seen as being too demanding (think Yitzhak Shamir and George H. W. Bush) and with strains of isolationism within the GOP.
Bibi Netanyahu was the first to tap into the partisan divide in 1995 by forging close ties with then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and cooperating with GOP attempts to derail some of President Clinton’s actions regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Since then, much has changed. Pro-Israelism took hold of the Republican Party, in part because of the growing political clout of evangelical Christians.
But a lot of credit for the warm embrace of recent years goes to late casino mogul and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, who passed away on January 11.
Adelson sat at the nexus of Israeli right-wing interests and Republican politics. He was uniquely positioned, as Trump’s number one political donor and as Netanyahu’s top ally (Israeli campaign finance laws prohibit Adelson from donating directly, but he owns and funds the widely circulated Israel Hayom daily, which is known for its staunch pro-Netanyahu line) to promote the interests both leaders shared: Adelson was considered the strongest voice urging Trump to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and Israel Hayom ran countless news stories, editorials and interviews with the president and his top advisers, praising Trump for the willing ears of the Israeli audience.
Read Moment‘s in-depth profile of Adelson here.
3. Israel prepares for a second round in its battle against the Iran deal
The cordial greetings Netanyahu delivered to Biden and his pledge to cooperate with the new administration don’t necessarily mean smooth sailing. Friction between Israel and the Biden administration is just around the corner since one of the top foreign policy issues on Biden’s agenda is reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
It’s not a choice Biden has made, it’s one dictated by the situation on the ground.
Since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran has returned to enriching uranium and there’s an immediate need for action—diplomatic or other—in order to stop Tehran from reaching military nuclear capabilities.
Biden and Tony Blinken, his pick for secretary of state, have made no secret of their wish to return to a nuclear deal, though at the same time they noted that it would take time and that it was contingent upon Iran adhering once again to restrictions spelled out in the original deal.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, made clear that nothing has changed on his side—he is just as opposed to key components of the nuclear deal (the built-in expiration date, limitations on inspections, the lack of restrictions on Iranian bad behavior as it relates to ballistic capabilities, the country’s support for terror and meddling in neighboring countries) as he was five years ago.
Does this mean the stage is set for a repeat of the 2015 blockbuster Netanyahu vs. Obama?
All signals coming out of Jerusalem indicate that this round will be very different. Israel is not seeking public confrontation with the Biden administration. It believes that the power of persuasion, coupled with backing from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, can make Biden adopt a tougher stance toward Iran and mitigate some of Israel’s concerns.
Also, the situation now is quite different than it was in 2015: Most players believe that a nuclear deal is inevitable and that the battle is not on whether to have a deal or not, but on its terms and conditions. And as opposed to Obama in 2015, Biden does not feel his record hinges on reaching a deal, and he’s likely to be more willing to press Tehran, even at the risk of losing one.
Both Israel and the U.S. are entering the second round of the Iran nuclear debate in a new, perhaps more mature, posture. They’re more realistic, less combative, and more willing to understand that at the end of the day, neither Netanyahu nor Biden will get all they wish for from this deal.
4. The agenda swings back to a focus on domestic policy, to the relief of the Jewish community
With all the focus on Iran, it’s worth noting that foreign policy is not at the top of President Biden’s agenda. His first days in office were dedicated to pressing domestic issues: fighting COVID, delivering economic relief, reforming immigration.
This is good news for most of the Jewish community, which has is traditionally more concerned with domestic issues than overseas concerns. After four years in which much of their agenda items—relating to social issues, equality and immigration—, were ignored, and when the White House’s appeal to Jewish constituents was based primarily on Israel, the pendulum is swinging to greater focus on domestic issues.
Expect a flurry of lobbying, public advocacy and fundraising aimed at promoting these goals, and this time, they might even get some traction.
5. On Bibles and biblical quotes
For or Jewish viewers watching the news through our built-in Jewish lens it was hard to ignore Jon Ossoff’s choice of Bible for his swearing-in as a new senator from Georgia. Ossoff, who in winning the Georgia runoff (along with newly elected Senator Raphael Warnock) gave the Democrats control of the Senate, swore on a historic Bible, which belonged to an Atlanta rabbi whose synagogue was bombed in 1958 by white supremacists.
And there were also the biblical references and allusions in Biden’s inaugural speech. In the Wall Street Journal, Tevi Troy and Stuart Halpern provide a fascinating historical analysis of the use of biblical references in presidential inaugural addresses throughout the years. They argue that it has become more common in recent history to sprinkle biblical references in the speech. “The increased tone of religiosity may reflect a greater comfort with religion in the public square, as Americans have become less concerned over the prospect of state-established religions the likes of which the Pilgrims and other migrants fled,” they explain.
This can be a comforting note for Jewish Americans watching these speeches–a free and open use of scripture, based on biblical universal values, without fear it will be used to marginalize religious minorities is a further manifestation of the great promise for religious freedom in America.