Today, the “change government” will be sworn in by a majority vote in Israel’s Knesset and I am excited! The same excitement, and relief I felt on January 20th, when Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the United States, after 4 years in which the Trump administration made every effort to distract the United States from its role as the leader of the free world, and in some ways (as we have seen in the treatment of Covid 19) to turn it into a third world country.
In both cases the outgoing leader refused to concede and his supporters made efforts to generate confusion, distraction and a mess that would prevent the realization of the election results. In the US on January 6th, these were attacks by a mob of Trump supporters on the US Capitol while Congress was in session to certify the results of the November 2020 election. Here in Israel the Kahanists, a far-right fringe party that Netanyahu worked hard to get into the Knesset, were seeking to provoke and intended to disrupt the formation of the change government by their actions in Jerusalem. They recently tried to ignite a new round of violence, by announcing a provocative “Flags March” through the Moslem Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, that luckily at the last minute was postpone by the security agencies.
Of course, there are significant differences between the government to be formed in Israel and the new American administration. The differences are due to the differences in the structural democratic systems of government between the two countries and the different political situation. In the US, an elected administration can advance an agenda for at least 4 years and 8 years if reelected. For the Biden administration, the first two years in which it has a majority in both Houses of Congress until January of 2022 appears to be the specific opportunity to be consequential. While in Israel’s parliamentary system, a government might fall any day if it loses the majority in the Knesset on a motion of no confidence, or by failing to pass a budget.
Despite the above, there are opportunities in the welcome trend of change on both sides of the ocean. The two strongest leaders in the new constellation — Biden and Lapid — are members of the pragmatic center. While both do not fully represent my values, as I lean toward the social and political left, both have recently demonstrated very smart character and strong leadership abilities.
Biden, whom Trump called “sleepy Joe”, has proven to be just the opposite and has succeeded since being sworn in to bring up a most impressive pivot in U.S. foreign relations, as well as to advance a revolutionary agenda in the domestic arena. The domestic agenda that Biden promotes was authored by the progressive side of the Democratic Party but the progressives wouldn’t be able to implement their policies without the capabilities of a veteran legislator and centrist position of the President.
Biden also demonstrated impressive abilities in the deft handling of our most recent outbreak of violence in the Jerusalem and the Gaza strip regions, when he led Egypt to negotiate a ceasefire within 11 days. And this despite the fact that he has yet to appoint an American ambassador to Israel.
Initially, it was clear that a high-profile US role in helping resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue was not his priority for the near future, in light of the many issues facing him. Biden learned the lessons from his eight years alongside President Barack Obama and applied them admirably when he chose not to make public statements, but instead to act behind the scenes in smart diplomacy that did not provoke the ire of the Netanyahu government and Republicans in Washington.
Incoming Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has also displayed some impressive leadership skills since parting ways with the centrist “Blue White” party for the 2021 elections. Lapid was able to put his ego aside and lead the camp of change wisely, while showing modesty and generosity towards his partners to form a majority coalition.
Biden and Lapid’s similar approaches may bring about a change in relations between the two countries despite the inability of the new Israeli government to lead a significant initiative. The very return to the traditional approach of mutual respect between the states and the cessation of the Netanyahu governments’ attempt to side with the Republican Party and to favor the evangelical Christians over the Jewish community marks the beginning of necessary healing.
While I would prefer a left-leaning government that would immediately initiate a political process to promote a two-state solution, and an American administration that would prioritize the issue, the political situation simply does not allow it at the moment. So, what can be done?
Israel must return to the position of a close ally capable of conducting disagreements constructively, rather than through the media, or through intervention in American politics. Israel can influence the nuclear deal with Iran if it cooperates with the US, instead of fighting the Biden administration’s intention to return to the JCPOA, with the ultimate goal of making it longer and stronger.
Israel needs to work with the Biden administration to strengthen the moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority and contain Hamas in a way that will address Gaza’s humanitarian needs without perpetuating the Hamas rule. Israel will have to refrain from unilateral steps in Jerusalem and in Areas C in the West Bank in coordination with the Biden administration in a way that does not embarrass the Jordanians, Egyptians, and the new partners in the normalization process.
The partnership between the Biden Administration and the new government in Israel could turn a new page in the two countries’ relations with liberal governments around the world, and especially in Europe, after years in which the partnership of Trump and Netanyahu saw a movement towards authoritarian and populist governments as allies.
The vast majority of the Jewish community in the United States will breathe a sigh of relief after a period in which American Jews saw Israel develop a symbiosis with the Trump administration contrary to all their deeply held progressive values. The new government in Israel should open a new page of respect in its relations with the non-Orthodox denomination in Judaism and end the discrimination against them by the Rabbinate.
This new approach of constructive cooperation will not be easy to achieve given the fact that in the US, despite Trump’s loss, Trumpism is still alive and kicking and so is Netanyahu’s cult of personality in the Likud Party and the ultra-Orthodox parties. However, even in the face of many challenges, I allow myself to be optimistic about the prospects for a new era of US-Israel relations beginning today.