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How Israelis get American elections wrong

Who's better for Israel is not the question. Either way, Israel will face the same foreign policy challenges and must get ready to seize opportunities

It has always been the case that the outcomes of US presidential elections have a major impact on Israel. That is the case because US foreign policy is a critical factor in Israel’s national security calculus. The Trump Administration demonstrated over the past four years strong support for Israel; barely any daylight was visible between Washington and Jerusalem. That was also due in no small part to the fact that the government of Israel was extremely careful to avoid taking steps that would conflict with the positions of the White House.

Having said that, on the eve of the Nov. 3 US elections there is a tendency among Israelis to try and distinguish which outcome is “good for Israel” and which is “bad for Israel.” The truth is that whoever should be elected — whether it is incumbent Republican Donald Trump or his Democratic challenger former Vice President Joe Biden — both have proven that they are true friends of Israel. A better question to ask might be: How is Israel preparing to seize opportunities and cope with expected challenges once it has become clear who will occupy the Oval Office over the next term?

It is obvious that the two contenders in this year’s election are of very different temperament, and so it is reasonable to assume that they will implement their policies differently. It is also probable that the two candidates will have different priorities if elected, and that their decisions in office will be influenced by a different array of forces. However, regardless of who wins the election, there is likely to be a great deal of continuity rather than change when it comes to US policy in the Middle East.

What Israel ought to do is to act as quickly as possible to define and identify the appropriate channels in the White House, whether it is another four years of Trump or a new Biden Administration, through which it can outline and act to advance its core interests. It is safe to assume that the current Israeli government will need to expend greater efforts to build a strong relationship with a Democratic Administration than with a Republican Administration as a result of the frictions that have developed in recent years between Israel and the Democratic Party.

Regardless of who is elected President of the US, Israel will face a number of US-related foreign policy challenges over the next four years. It is worth considering three:

  1. The perception of the US as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East: Over the course of his term in office, President Trump has emphasized that Washington ought to put a stop to the “endless wars” in the Middle East. Even if he has not fulfilled his promise to do so his intention is clear. The U.S no longer views military intervention as a feasible method for advancing its interests in the region, because those interests are considered secondary or non-vital. While Trump has been especially explicit about this issue, the trend very clearly originated with President Obama and will likely inform the view of a future Biden Administration. As a result, we should expect regional states will look for alternatives to the US, and Russia and China will seek to fill the security vacuum.
  2. Coping with the Iranian Nuclear Challenge: Though their rhetoric about Iran could not be more different, both Biden and Trump Administrations will seek to resolve the Iran nuclear issues through negotiations. A Democratic Administration will likely find that it is impossible to return to the JCPOA from 2015 as if nothing happened over the past four years. Whether there is a Democrat or Republican in the White House, Israel must prepare for two eventualities: First, and perhaps the more dangerous of the two scenarios, is the continuation of the status quo in which crushing sanctions do not lead to negotiations rather Iran continues to expand its stockpile Uranium and increase the level of enrichment. The second scenario is a return to the negotiating table. In both scenarios, Israel must consider how to cope with possible gaps between its interests and those of the US The working assumption in Jerusalem should be that regardless of who is in the Oval Office, there will not be perfect overlap between the US and Israel regarding red lines for Iran’s nuclear program;
  3. America’s Priorities around the Globe: US foreign policy has reoriented or “pivoted” to focus more on Asia in recent years. During Trump’s tenure, US-China relations deteriorated considerably and as a result, the US turned to its allies, including Israel, to ask that they too reduce their cooperation with China. Whether Biden or Trump is in office, a radical departure from the current US-China dynamic is not expected – certainly, if they decline further then that could expand the requests made of Israel by its most important ally and exacerbate friction between competing Israeli interests.
About the Author
Colonel (res.) Eldad Shavit, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), served as head of the research division at the Prime Minister’s Office and as an assistant for assessment to the head of the research division in the IDF Intelligence Corps.
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