Israel Is Firmly in Trump's Corner, but Unfazed by Potential Biden Win | Analysis

If the old adage about Israel being America's 51st state were true, Trump would carry the Jewish state today in a landslide—in stark contrast to the 70 percent Biden support projected among America's own Jewish voters. Israel might be politically divided, with three successive elections ending in gridlock and with the government currently shared in a fraught emergency coalition between Benjamin Netanyhu and his erstwhile challenger, Benny Gantz. Netanyahu himself might be at a political nadir, trapped between a looming corruption trial and persistent nationwide demonstrations galvanized by his government's catastrophic mishandling of the economic crisis engendered by the coronavirus pandemic. But on one issue, the majority of public opinion in Israel and its government align: Israel falls definitively in the Trump camp in the 2020 election.

The reasons are not difficult to discern. Trump lavished extraordinary attention on Israel from the moment of his election. Much is made of which state a new president chooses for his first overseas trip, but Trump rushed to Israel within days of his victory, weeks before being inaugurated. The "Deal of the Century", championed by his son-in-law, adviser (and Netanyahu family friend) Jared Kushner was easily the most seductive outline of a peace agreement ever put on an Israeli leader's table. It adopted Netanyahu's mantra of "economic peace" and reduced independent Palestinian statehood to enclaves with far less autonomy than American states enjoy vis-a-vis their own federal government. One of the main "carrots" dangled in front of Israel in earlier peace plans—U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital—was given away with no return and with considerable fanfare.

In contrast to Obama, who began his presidency with a failed attempt to pause the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, Trump's ambassador to Jerusalem is himself intimately linked to the settlement movement. And for the first time, however briefly, the dream of unilaterally annexing the territories Israel didn't manage to secure in the War of 1948—without entertaining voting rights for their Palestinian population — seemed within Netanyahu's grasp. Perhaps most importantly for Netanyahu, in Trump he found a president almost as ferocious as he in opposing Iran. The Obama deal that Netanyahu spent much of his last few terms campaigning against has been cast aside, and although Trump has stopped short of going to war with Iran, the underpinnings of a regional Sunni-Israeli-American alliance against Tehran are now firmly in place. Thanks to the flurry of treaties known as the Abraham Accords, Israel now has above-board relations with more countries in the region than ever before in its history. (The question of whether this weakens or strengthens regional actors' leverage on Israel is a different one, but in the short term, this is certainly a feather in Netanyahu's cap.)

The Israeli public is also solidly pro-Trump, consistently giving him higher approval ratings there than in his own country. That's not so much because of all the boons delivered to Netanyahu—neither Iran nor the somewhat abstract question of Jerusalem's diplomatic importance top the list of Israelis' everyday concerns, and the Palestinian issue hasn't dominated a general election since the early 2010's. But in a nation deeply allergic to even the best-intended criticism, Israelis have put Trump down as firmly "on our side": he offered no critiques, made no demands, heaped Israel with praise and, despite a close shave or two, managed not to spark a regional war.

"Israel is not a deeply polarized society, outside of the narrow Netanyahu question," Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and president of the U.S. / Middle East Project, told Newsweek. "There's actually a deep consensus around the broader narrative of how Israel understands the region and the world, and around the preference for Trump."

Still, even Israelis—beginning with their prime minister—are beginning to adjust to the possibility of a Biden presidency. The overall assumption is that Biden will have plenty on his plate domestically and will be in no rush to wade into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He might try and reset the rapprochement with Iran, but dynamics set in motion by Trump's first term make it even more of an uphill battle. And this is where Israel's own political divide comes into play: moderate centrists, led by Benny Gantz, are a few seats away from a majority coalition, and they would certainly prefer to work with Biden, if only because of how tightly allied Netanyahu and his party are with Trump's administration, Levy said. Biden, meanwhile, is seen as a traditional, pro-Israel Democrat: "They don't really buy the argument about the entire Democratic party turning anti-Israel."

"The fear for Netanyahu is not so much getting Biden as losing Trump," Levy added. "The hard right doesn't want to lose what they gained under Trump, and they do feel threatened by a Biden presidency because he won't go along with projects like annexation, and because Biden might appoint people who distrust and dislike Netanyahu since their days in the Obama administration."

And while the Israeli hard right might indeed find it difficult to get game-changers like unilateral annexation past a Biden administration, there's little reason to fear Biden will roll back the status quo. It's practically impossible to see him undoing the Abraham Accords, or even moving the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv, and nothing so far suggests America's longstanding, bipartisan commitment to military aid to Israel will change on his watch.

The Israeli prime minister, meanwhile, is already positioning himself to engage a potential Biden administration. Famously interventionist when it comes to domestic American politics, Netanyahu hung back on the sidelines in this election; having needled Obama throughout his presidency and praised Trump throughout his first term, the Israeli leader is hedging his bets.

Trump: “Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi, Sleepy Joe?”

Israeli PM Netanyahu: "Uh ... well ... Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America." pic.twitter.com/LU02tEOXtK

— The Recount (@therecount) October 23, 2020

On Friday before last, announcing the normalization of relations between Israel and Sudan via a publicly staged telephone call with Netanyahu, the American president all but begged the prime minister for an endorsement. "Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi? Sleepy Joe?" Trump asked, looking expectantly at the cameras. After the briefest of pauses, Netanyahu demurred. "Uh ... well ... Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America," he replied—separating "any one," for emphasis. And only then, almost as an afterthought: "We appreciate what you've done, enormously." Against the backdrop of Trump's poor prospects for reelection, this sounded almost like goodbye.