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Israel and a values-driven President Biden

'Might makes right' won't go over too well with an administration aiming to focus on promoting democracy and human rights
In this November 10, 2020 photo, US President-elect Joe Biden smiles as he speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
In this November 10, 2020 photo, US President-elect Joe Biden smiles as he speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

After his January 20th inauguration, President-Elect Joe Biden is likely to maintain some of President Trump’s flagship policies, including lightening the US military footprint in the Middle East and greater pushback on China. However, one noticeable departure from President Trump’s legacy will be Biden’s expected focus on democracy promotion and human rights. Where will this leave Israel?

President-elect Biden is staunchly pro-Israel, a fact that is evident from his self-description as a Zionist as well as his 40-year record of support for Israel in the Senate and the White House. In his March 2020 article in Foreign Affairs, Biden declared his intention to “sustain our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.” Yet, unlike President Trump who believed that good relations between countries meant that there was no public daylight between them, a future President Biden will likely return to a more traditional and balanced relationship with Israel that includes not only close cooperation but also Washington’s critiques of Israeli actions it deems contrary to its interests or values. 

In that same Foreign Affairs piece, the President-elect clearly lays out his intentions regarding a more ideological foreign policy focused on galvanizing an international bloc of democracies. He writes: 

I will invite my fellow democratic leaders around the world to put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda…During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.

If democracy versus autocracy is a primary fault line through which the US president-elect views the world, Israel would do well to clarify which side it stands on. This is not to say that Israel is no longer a democracy but instead that its illiberal tendencies as of late may lead to some confusion about where exactly it stands on the democracy-autocracy spectrum. In order to prepare for such a development, Jerusalem might consider how to bolster its bona fides vis-à-vis the incoming administration. 

Beyond ‘might makes right’

Well before considering what it might do, it is worth recalling that Israel will face two constraints in such efforts. Firstly, the Palestinian issue, for which Israel catches much flack regarding human rights, most definitely will not be resolved by January 20, 2021. Second, given its longstanding, if lessening, diplomatic isolation, Israel cannot afford to be especially selective about the nature of the governments it partners with. Instead, like any other country, Israel’s foreign policy must be guided primarily by what it views as its core national interests. 

However, this does not mean that Israel is powerless to ensure its place firmly in the democratic camp. There are several steps available to Israel that could help clarify that it belongs to the group of states who value freedom of conscience, representative government, and justice rather than “might makes right.”

The simplest change would be a rhetorical shift. Take for example, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s August 2018 tweet that “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end, peace is made with the strong.”

It is true that all countries utilize a large degree of realpolitik in formulating policy, but that is not something the government of Israel ought to emphasize with Joe Biden in the White House. A more effective communication strategy over the next four years would highlight aspirations of a freer, more peaceful, and more interconnected world even if the reality of policymaking does not always allow for the realization or promotion of those ideals.

In addition, in cases when Israel finds its national interests dictate that it partner with unsavory regimes, then it might seek to convert the relationship into a means to do more than simply pursue its own interests. It could leverage its relations with illiberal democracies or autocracies to advise them against taking actions that will make them more difficult partners to publicly stand by. By doing so, Israel could at the very least attempt to restrain those governments’ worst inclinations.

Finally, Israeli officials ought to open a direct channel of communication with US counterparts on the issue of democracy and human rights. By remaining coordinated, Israelis and Americans can avoid surprising one another on an issue that could have a significant impact on Israel’s standing in Washington for the next four years and beyond. 

So while Israel need not overhaul its foreign policy, it does have some room to maneuver in the margins in order to improve its alignment with the incoming US President and his values-based foreign policy. Taking steps to head off the potential controversies that could arise between the two governments regarding democracy and human rights may not only help to avoid the Netanyahu-Biden relationship from following the same negative Netanyahu-Obama trajectory, but over the long-term, these efforts could mitigate the erosion of bipartisan backing for Israel resulting from its declining support within the Democratic Party.

About the Author
Ari Heistein is a Research Fellow and Chief of Staff to the Director at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel.
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