Biden and Netanyahu become Frenemies as Biden resumes ties with Palestinian Authority

  • Biden aims to restart the nuclear agreement with Iran which puts Netanyahu at a disadvantage.
  • Netanyahu wants Biden to continue supporting Israel and its agenda as Trump and most American presidents have done so in the past.
  • Biden is holding all the cards as his position is more certain given Netanyahu’s instability.
Source:  Amos Ben Gershom / GPO via Getty Images file

Why has Biden become Netanyahu’s frenemy?

Answer: Biden aims to undo some of Trump’s decisions regarding Israel.

Prior to Biden’s presidency, Netanyahu and Biden sustained a 40 year friendship. Now that Biden has begun his presidency, many wonder as to whether this friendship will continue, and how Biden will approach the Middle East, more specifically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

When Biden took office in January, Netanyahu immediately congratulated him on social media, emphasizing their friendship and how he has been a friend of Israel thus far. Netanyahu also expressed his eagerness to collaborate with Biden and encouraged him to try to continue promoting reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world as Trump had in his presidency. Finally, Netanyahu also called for unity in the face of common threats, such as the danger posed by Iran. 

Biden took a few weeks before calling Netanyahu for the first time as President, and many media outlets took the opportunity to highlight this delay. The White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki rapidly reminded media outlets that Netanyahu is the first Middle East leader to whom Biden spoke. However, in comparison to Trump who called the Israeli Prime Minister solely two days after taking office, Biden’s delay of a month is significant. Nevertheless, Netanyahu being the first Middle Eastern leader Biden calls not only illustrates how Biden will aim to sustain his friendship with the Israeli Prime Minister, but also highlights that at least back then, he was prioritizing Israel in his Middle East foreign policy.

Since taking office, Biden has undone some of Trump’s policies towards Israel and the Middle East. These include reopening the Palestinian Consulate in Washington D.C, and restarting US humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees through the UN agency. Although these actions will trouble Netanyahu, the biggest decision to affect him and Israel is that Biden would like to restart negotiations with Iran to revive the Nuclear Agreement.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Trump’s decision and sanctions towards Iran benefitted Netanyahu and many Middle Eastern key players such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia as they limited Iran’s power in the region. Now that Biden is open to resume talks with Iran, Iran could potentially reestablish its political ties with the US and regain its power within the region. This will impact the friendship between Netanyahu and Biden in the case that Iran is allowed greater power and influence in the region.

What does Biden want? 

Answer: Biden wants to gain legitimacy at the start of his presidency, and be seen as “America’s progressive hero.”

As America is entering a Post-Trump era and thus more liberal policymaking, Biden’s democratic supporters are exerting pressure on him to undo Trump’s severe regulations. Three months into his presidency, we can see that he is doing exactly that, not solely in regards to the Middle East, but on other concerning topics like immigration and climate change. 

As each recent US president has approached peace negotiations and new resolutions between Israel and Palestine in the past, there is pressure on Biden to unveil his stance on it especially as he has not yet made a clear statement regarding his position. It is likely that Israel will view the transition to a Biden administration as a change of focus away from the Palestinian conflict. With a pandemic, an affected economy, and profound social schisms vying for his attention, Biden is expected to focus more on tensions with China and Russia.

Nevertheless, the US State Department spokesman Ned Price stated last week that he recognized occupation within the West Bank. This statement and Biden’s decision to reestablish diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority indicates that he will attempt to provide a more “balanced” approach to the conflict in comparison to Trump’s favor towards Israel.

The US opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has varied immensely over the years. According to some analysts, the United States’ interest in settling the conflict has declined in recent years. As the Arab Spring began in 2011, other international crises such as wars in Syria and Yemen, Iran’s bid for regional supremacy, and militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, posed more direct threats to US interests.

Furthermore, the United States’ ties with Iran and the Arab Gulf states no longer seem to be focused on Israeli-Palestinian concerns, rendering the crisis much less of a concern for the United States. This can be seen through Obama’s administration who decided to “Pivot to Asia” rather than focusing solely on the conflicts in the region. 

Throughout the Trump presidency, Trump enabled talks between Israel and many Arab countries. Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates have established diplomatic ties with Israel. Although there are still many other Arab countries to relax relations with Israel, the Middle East is slowly recognizing Israel as a state.  Pressure is applied on Biden to continue enabling diplomatic ties between Israel and further Arab Countries.  

Ultimately, Biden is left in a complex situation; on one side, sustaining a forty year friendship with Netanyahu and remaining a “friend of Israel,” and therefore prioritizing a common-agenda with him. On the other side, he is prioritizing his progressive hero image, and therefore reestablishing ties with the Palestinian authority and restoring the Iranian Nuclear Deal. At the moment, Biden is attempting to please everyone. But can he succeed?

What does Netanyahu want?

Answer: Netanyahu lost his biggest ally Trump, and is hopeful Biden will continue American support of Israel and its desires. 

Netanyahu and Trump were each other’s biggest advocates as they pursued a common agenda in the region; Trump prioritised Israel in many of his policies. Now that Biden has begun his presidency, Netanyahu hopes he will continue supporting Israel particularly given recent events. Additionally, Netanyahu’s corruption trial has hurt his credibility and legitimacy as many Israeli citizens felt perplexed voting for someone undergoing a corruption trial. Nevertheless, this has not prevented Netanyahu from succeeding in getting votes in the first three rounds of the elections. 

Similarly, Israel swore in its thirty sixth government with Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid who will share the leadership for the next four years. Their coalition includes parties with huge ideological differences, including, probably most importantly, Raam, the first independent Arab party to join a prospective government coalition. It also boasts a total of nine female ministers, which is a new high. Although Netanyahu did not want to lose power, the establishment of the new government pushes the spotlight temporarily away from his corruption trial. Although he can no longer use the position of “Prime-Minister” to undermine the courts, Israeli citizens are currently more focused on the success of the coalition rather than his trial.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu is using his successful handling of the pandemic, vaccination rollout and successful ties with Arab countries as a way to increase his legitimacy and drive attention away from his trial. Furthermore, Netanyahu wants Biden to keep the sanctions on Iran and keep Iran out of the Nuclear Agreement as Iran will become a bigger threat to Israel otherwise. Without the sanctions, Iran will have more money to finance its network of militias over the Middle-East and this will destabilise the region. 

Although initially it did not appear that Netanyahu would get what he wanted as Biden commenced the negotiations, 7 rounds of discussions with Iran later, the deal seems to be far from being agreed upon. This benefits Israel as the longer it takes for a deal to be concluded, the less money and power Iran has within the region to fund militia groups,

What is Netanyahu doing? 

Answer: Trying to ensure legitimacy for himself at home and internationally despite the trial. 

As Netanyahu is aware that not much is in his control with regard to his trial, his strategy is to continue to emphasize his forty year friendship with Biden and sustain frequent contact with him. Despite his end of power, continuing a friendship with Biden will be a way to exert somewhat of an influence and attempt to keep a hold of events.

During Obama’s presidency, from their theological disagreements over how to settle the Israel-Palestine crisis to their respective strategies on stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, the Obama-Netanyahu relationship never really developed past the frenemy stage. Biden, who was the Vice President under the Obama Administration, was continuously attempting to bridge the gaps caused by the mutual distrust between Obama and Netanyahu. 

Netanyahu has left an indelible imprint on Israel, altering and shaping its path. And, while he may be stepping down from the highest office for the time being, his impact is far from gone. He plans to continue leading the Likud party as long as he can, as a way to exert his influence on Israeli politics.

Who is winning and what about you? 

Answer:  Biden is currently winning as he is holding all the cards.

Biden is currently winning the “war of words” as the situation is out of Netanyahu’s control. Will Biden prioritize his relationship with Netanyahu or pursue his own agenda and image of a “moral and balanced president’? Biden is facing a tough home situation: Republicans have blasted him for not being strong enough in his support for Israel, while many Democrats have criticized his cautious stance on Palestine. 

This is relevant to us because if Biden rejoins the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, also known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement, this will indicate that he is ready to improve the US’ ties with Europe. Furthermore, a resurgence of Iran’s nuclear weapons program means that Iran will have more money to fund its network of militias across the Middle East, further destabilizing the area. Moreover, this would drastically raise Middle East tensions, heightening the risk of confrontation between Iran and regional adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, but also affecting every country part of the plan including Europe.