While the official results of the election are not yet in, the media are almost entirely treating Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election and president-elect, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now preparing for a change in the U.S. administration. As he has several times before, Mr. Netanyahu is preparing for a Biden presidency, with his proxies claiming that only he can handle a Democratic Party “controlled” by hostile members of Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
A President Biden would be the fourth U.S. president Mr. Netanyahu has faced, which is rare indeed for many world leaders. President Clinton was the first to face Mr. Netanyahu and was often openly hostile to him, and Mr. Netanyahu blamed Mr. Clinton for his loss of office for a period. Returning to office, Mr. Netanyahu expected that President Obama would be as hostile to him as Mr. Clinton had been. His guess proved to be right, and their relationship over some eight years they served simultaneously were even worse than they had been with Mr. Clinton.
Unlike the situation with Mr. Clinton, however, who was popular among Israelis for his visits to Israel and gestures toward earlier Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres during the era of the Oslo peace accords, Mr. Obama started out by distancing his administration from Mr. Netanyahu’s government, making a point of avoiding Israel on his first trip to the Middle East.
Mr. Netanyahu avoided clashing publicly with Mr. Obama before his 2015 speech to Congress against the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal. Here he was aided by some of Mr. Obama’s own staff who walked into what some see as a trap and engaged in contradictory briefing. Earlier in the Obama administration, they were joined by some Republicans, including Mitt Romney, who coined the phrase “Obama threw Israel under the bus” in 2011.
Hostility between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu served to help him with the Israeli electorate, as it did with Mr, Clinton. This provided Mr. Netanyahu with the ability to show Mr. Obama to his nation on his own terms, and from the outset opted to portray him as Israel’s enemy — making himself a national hero for standing up to the “hostile” President Obama. The narrative of Mr. Netanyahu bravely standing up to Mr. Obama for eight years took hold in Israel, and sustained him in office until the election of President Trump.
Mr. Netanyahu is already preparing for a return to the situation he experienced for the first 10 of his 14 years as prime minister — dealing with a less-than-sympathetic Democratic president.
Here it won’t be as easy to paint Mr. Biden as hostile, as he did with Mr. Obama, given Mr. Biden’s decades of support for Israel in the Senate, and strong support from Jews in America. On a personal level, Mr. Netanyahu has known Mr, Biden for decades and understands American politics very well.
Within Israel, Mr. Netanyahu’s first priority is ensuring that voters think they will be better off with him facing Mr. Biden than his opponents Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid. To accomplish this, Mr. Netanyahu has already begun crafting media stories about Mr. Biden’s frailty and mental state, and that as president he will be constantly manipulated by the “anti-Semitic” progressive wing of the Democratic Party. His message is clear: Mr. Biden may be pro-Israel at heart, but he will be president in name only and his senile weakness makes him subject to easy manipulation by the progressive and anti-Israel elements of the Democratic Party.
This narrative also serves to counterbalance a Biden White House with a Republican Senate that will remain friendly to Israel. Even if the approach that worked for Mr. Netanyahu during the Obama administration may not work with Mr. Biden as president, it may not be enough on the Israeli domestic front to help him compensate for the loss of Mr. Trump, who gave Mr. Netanyahu diplomatic wins, boosting Mr. Netanyahu’s image as great statesman who can call upon the Trump White House for assistance when necessary.
Without Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu will doubtless lose some of his aura of invincibility, already been damaged in the stalemated elections and by his unpopular handling of the COVID-19 crisis. During the Trump administration, Mr. Netanyahu sought to position himself as Mr. Trump’s twin — as he stated during Mr. Trump’s visit to Israel in May 2017 “we even complete each other’s sentences.”
As Mr. Trump loses his bid for reelection, it may likely portend an ending for Mr. Netanyahu’s prolonged hold on Israeli political life. It has been a long run for Mr. Netanyahu, serving longer than any other Israeli prime minister. Facing domestic scandal and an impending corruption trial, he has already bought himself a new lease on his political life in a deal with his opponent Benny Gantz to share his term as prime minister. How Mr. Trump’s defeat may accelerate the change remains an open question.
The larger set of questions include the potential impact a Biden presidency will have on the “peace process” — radically upended and changed during the Trump presidency — as well as the practical issues of dealing with Iran, terrorism and rising Islamic fundamentalism. Much of this will depend on how Mr. Biden staffs his incoming administration, as well as a possible political re-alignment in Israel with or without Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister. These will be critical times for the region indeed.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is the author of the recent book “Henry Kissinger: Pragmatic Statesman in Hostile Times.”
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