President Joe Biden may soon be tested on something Senator Joe Biden told the Israel ambassador to Washington 34 years ago, namely that the United States and Israel should avoid taking their policy differences public.
Disagreements should be kept to a “frank exchange” of views “without publicity and through diplomatic channels,” according to a diplomatic cable sent to Jerusalem by the Israeli congressional liaison, Neville Lamdan.
The heart of a longstanding disagreement between the future president and successive Israeli prime ministers continues to beat and could test the relationship once again.
Biden was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1982 when Prime Minister Menachem Begin met in private with panel members. To the surprise of Begin and others in the room, Biden expressed strong support for Israel’s war in Lebanon to drive out the PLO, but he was harshly critical of Begin’s West Bank settlements policy, which he warned was costing Israel support in the United States.
Begin didn’t name Biden when he briefed reporters following his trip to the United States on June 23, 1982, but it was soon leaked that’s who he meant when he said a senator “hinted – more than hinted – that if we continue with this policy that he will propose cutting our financial aid.”
Biden has consistently opposed “the steady and systematic expansion of settlements” as “moving Israel the wrong direction,” but during the 2020 campaign he repeatedly ruled out using threats to cut aid as leverage to change policy, as advocated by some of his rivals.
Antony Blinken, the campaign advisor who is now the Secretary of State nominee, has said the Biden administration will oppose any linkage between aid and “political decisions” Israel makes.
Netanyahu could try to test that. Israeli media reports he plans a new spurt in settlement construction before Donald Trump leaves office. That’s not the only sign that the prime minister seems intent in starting off his relationship with the new president on the wrong foot.
The other hot button issue that could threaten the relationship is Biden’s determination to reenter the nuclear agreement with Iran. In his belated call to congratulate Biden Netanyahu warned the president-elect, “We must not go back to the 2015 nuclear deal.” It was an unnecessary jibe that served to remind everyone of the PM’s acrimonious relationship with the Obama-Biden administration. On a 2010 visit to Israel then-Vice President Biden was blindsided by a Netanyahu government announcement of plans to build hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements.
Netanyahu’s hard right policies and hearty embrace of Trump have contributed to the widening rift between Israel and the Democrats and American Jewry. Last month, 80 million Americans, including 80 percent of Jewish voters, chose Biden to be their next president. If Netanyahu is intent on provoking public clashes with Biden, he will be doing enormous damage to US-Israel relations that the president-elect has championed and supported.
Netanyahu will be facing serious legal, political and diplomatic challenges as the new year begins. He will be fighting to stay out of jail, keep his job and convince a new administration in Washington he can be trusted. These will be the toughest days of his public career.