The relationship between the U.S. and Israel will face new tests in the months ahead as Joe Biden assumes the presidency and Israel holds its fourth election in just a two-year span.
Among the most closely watched factors will be Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank. In this interview, UCLA professor Dov Waxman, an expert on U.S.–Israel relations, looks ahead at how a new Biden administration would be likely to manage those and other issues.
Waxman is UCLA’s Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Professor of Israel Studies and director of the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. His most recent book is “The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Answers have been edited slightly for brevity.
How different do you think U.S.–Israel relations will be under the Biden administration?
The Trump administration was unusually aligned with the Netanyahu government on a number of issues and they really had a very close and harmonious relationship over the past four years. While I think President-elect Biden is a strong supporter of Israel and will want to maintain a close and strong relationship with Israel, it’s very likely that there are going to be some differences of opinion on a few major policy issues.
So I expect there to be some tension, even conflict, down the line.
President-elect Biden has indicated that he wants the U.S. to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. How do you think the Israeli government will respond?
I think the issue of Iran, particularly its nuclear program, is likely to be the greatest source of tension and, potentially, conflict between the Biden administration and the Israeli government — whoever leads the Israeli government.
In Israel, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was widely viewed in a very negative light. Prime Minister Netanyahu was perhaps the most outspoken opponent of that nuclear agreement, and he has already voiced his opposition to the United States rejoining it. In order for the United States to rejoin the agreement, Iran needs to comply with the terms of the agreement. And the Iranians have made it clear that they’re only going to do that if the United States ends the sanctions it has placed on Iran in recent years — sanctions that have had a really devastating impact upon the Iranian economy.
For Israel, any kind of relaxation of sanctions — any end to U.S. sanctions in particular — is in their minds squandering leverage that the United States, and the international community, now has over Iran — leverage that the United States should be using to try to pressure Iran to enter a broader agreement, with a longer timeframe, which also deals with other aspects of Iran’s behavior, not just the nuclear program.
What are the chances that the Biden administration will reverse U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv?
I don’t expect the Biden administration to move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv or reverse the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. There would be way too much political opposition in Washington.
However, the Biden administration will try to restore U.S. economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, as well as humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. And they will also try to reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem and try to reopen the PLO mission in Washington, D.C. These moves will help restore U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, which the latter ended in response to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Do you expect Biden to push for a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians?
I would be very surprised if the Biden administration decides, at least in the near term, to push for a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. I think they know as well as anyone who really pays close attention to this conflict that the prospects for peace talks to be successful are practically nil under the current circumstances, or at least with the current leadership in Jerusalem and in Ramallah.
It would really be a fool’s errand to try to revive peace talks that are doomed to fail. It would involve a lot of political capital on the part of the Biden administration, and I don’t think they want to spend that political capital on something that has such a slim chance for success.
I think the most that can be expected from the Biden administration is that they will try to maintain at least the possibility for a two-state solution to the conflict down the line. That means preventing Israel from carrying out its threat, or promise, to formally annex large parts of the West Bank — which would effectively kill any prospect for a two-state solution — and trying to put some kind of pressure on Israel to restrain its settlement activity in the West Bank, which many also view as undermining the prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict.