How the Biden Administration Is Shaking Up Their Israel Stance

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Colin Kahl
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1. The liberals are back, and they’re fighting for their agenda 

Elections have consequences, as the saying goes, and among these consequences is the reshuffling of power within the Washington inner circle. This is true not only for politicians who either move up the influence ladder or descend toward irrelevance but also for those in the policy advocacy game.

A set of events in recent weeks has made clear just how power is shifting (temporarily, as the lifespan of any change in Washington is limited to 2-4 years) toward the liberal side in terms of advocating on issues relating to Israel and the Middle East.

To put it in simple terms: Advocacy groups leaning left-of-center are having their moment, while those on the more hawkish and right-of-center end of the political spectrum have lost their seat at the table.

The first, and perhaps most glaring, example is the battle over the confirmation of Colin Kahl as undersecretary of defense for policy. This is a top Pentagon position, but not one that usually triggers a heated debate. Republicans are out to kill Kahl’s nomination (including Senator Susan Collins, who has once again proved Democrats wrong in their expectation that she will cross party lines) for two main reasons: He tweeted nasty things about Trump and the GOP, and he was a key player in shaping the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Israel strongly opposed.

And it is this second point (Kahl apologized for what he called “disrespectful” comments about Republicans) that got the pro-Israel community up in arms.

The group leading the campaign to block Kahl’s confirmation is Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a huge pro-Israel evangelical group, which has been buying ads in West Virginia in an effort to sway the state’s Democratic senator Joe Manchin, whose vote will decide the fate of Kahl’s confirmation.

Now, the fact that a non-Jewish group is leading the fight on an issue relating to Israel, is interesting, although not all that unusual, given the oversized role CUFI has played in recent years on issues that mainstream Jewish groups found too hot to touch, such as extreme legislation opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

But just as noteworthy is the coalition forming on the other side of the debate.

Siding with the Biden administration in attempts to push Kahl across the finish line is a group of former Israeli generals, who rarely speak out on internal American political debates, and a set of 50 former U.S. national security officials.

For these former officials and generals, the new political reality in Washington means that their voice once again matters. Sure, they could—and in many cases did—make their opinions heard during the Trump years, but now they feel it can make a difference once again and that throwing their support behind Kahl can actually steel Joe Manchin’s resolve and potentially tip the balance in favor of the nomination.

2. And there are other battlegrounds as well

The battle over Kahl’s confirmation as undersecretary of defense is led from the center, from the heart of the pro-Israeli Democratic-aligned establishment. But the rising tide of Democratic rule lifts all boats, including those farther to the left in the Jewish community.

Take, for example, a look at the debate over another nomination, one that has never made for many controversies: Who will be Biden’s pick for special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism? This is a State Department position (recently elevated to the rank of ambassador) that focuses, as the title suggests, on coordinating U.S. efforts to combat anti-Semitism overseas. 

Among those rumored for the job is Abe Foxman, the legendary former head of the Anti-Defamation League. Now, progressive Jewish activists, led by IfNotNow, are urging Biden to make a different choice and opt for an envoy who will steer away from advocating for anti-Israel sentiments to be viewed as a form of anti-Semitism, and who will focus, instead, on white supremacy as a source of anti-Semitism in America.

Or, another example:

Still on the left—though not as far out—stands Americans for Peace Now, which has been speaking out against the Biden’s administration embrace of the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism,” commonly referred to as IHRA.  

The IHRA broadly includes anti-Zionism, and some forms of criticism against Israel, as anti-Semitic, a definition that some activists on the left view as an opening to banning any critical approach to Israel’s policies. Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken adopted the IHRA definition “enthusiastically” and it is a policy that is in line with most mainstream Jewish groups, but at odds with the progressive wing of the community.

Can these efforts of left-wing groups make a difference? Probably not. Progressives aren’t likely to shape Biden’s choice of an anti-Semitism envoy or change Blinken’s mind on the IHRA definition. But the point is that they are back in the game. For four years, views like theirs were limited to the internal debate within the Democratic camp, which had zero chance of influencing policy. Now they’re being heard. Ignored, but heard.

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3. The fight over settlement expansion is back

Another battle brewing behind the scenes is over the Biden administration’s approach to Israel’s settlement activity.

Why behind the scenes? Because no one in the administration really wants to take on the issue right now. The United States has put Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking very low on its priority list, and it definitely doesn’t want to get into a major fight with the Israeli government over settlements, which would distract from the real issue facing both countries right now: returning to the Iranian nuclear deal.

But this doesn’t mean that professionals within the administration aren’t doing preliminary work on the issue. The UAE-based publication The National revealed last week an internal document prepared by Hady Amr, deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, which details proposals for a “reset” and a “path forward” for America in the region. The ideas suggested in this internal paper are far from dramatic. They focus on restoring U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and re-establishing diplomatic ties while emphasizing America’s support for a two-state solution and its opposition to Israeli settlement expansion and to incitement on the Palestinian side. The paper also calls for rolling back certain steps taken by the previous administration, such as the decision to allow labeling products from the West Bank settlements, sold in the U.S., as “made in Israel.”

4. Will Biden shift left?

There’s a thread connecting all these events and developments. From approving nominations of officials who may not have seen eye-to-eye with the Netanyahu government, to questioning the U.S. stance toward anti-Israel criticism, to wishing to re-center America’s position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All indicate a realignment of power when it comes to the way America discusses these issues.

Trump, with the help of Mike Pompeo and Jared Kushner, sought to permanently change America’s posture toward Israel. They worked to put an end to old paradigms regarding the two-state solution and cement the notion that America’s priorities in the region are the same as Israel’s.

Biden’s Washington is out to prove that there is no such permanent shift in posture. Policy, as Biden’s team is already demonstrating, swings like a pendulum. All that has been done can be reversed. 

This means new life to Jewish center-left and progressive groups and activists who are now part of the discussion once again, as well as a return to pre-Trump policies that may have irked the Israeli government and some of its supporters in America, but that sit well with the majority of American Jews.

And a word of warning: This realignment in no way means the Biden administration is about to adopt a progressive agenda on Israel. Everything we know about Biden, Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and most other Middle East hands in the administration indicates that when it comes to Middle East policy, they are centrist, pragmatic and averse to confrontation with Israel.

5. Last word on Israeli elections

This newsletter will land in your inbox on Monday. By Tuesday, Israelis will have visited their polling stations (yes, still no absentee ballots in Israel) for the fourth time in just over two years, and elected their next prime minister.

Counting the votes could take a few days, due to COVID restrictions, and coalition talks, well, they could go on for months. So, here’s a very quick guide to what you want to look for on Tuesday, as results begin to pour in:

Does Netanyahu have a path to 61 seats? Look for how well the Likud fared (any outcome above 29-30 seats will be really good for Netanyahu). Also, look for Naftali Bennett’s numbers. Whatever he gets will, eventually, add up to Bibi’s coalition, despite the current façade of competition between their two parties.

Can the anti-Bibi camp pull it off? Yair Lapid is likely to get around 18-20 seats. But keep an eye on his potential partners for an anti-Bibi coalition, especially the small ones: If Meretz, or Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, fail to pass the threshold, Lapid has no chance.

And here’s what you shouldn’t be looking for: Don’t even try to find any ideological rationale behind these coalitions and voter blocs. It doesn’t exist. This is a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership and personal integrity. Any other policy question or ideological belief, is, at best, marginal.

One thought on “How the Biden Administration Is Shaking Up Their Israel Stance

  1. JEFFREY LANDAW says:

    Ummm, to stick to just one point, this old liberal has a real problem with anybody who has a problem with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

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