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After Trump’s dramatic tilt toward Israel, Biden likely to restore traditional approach

Supporters of President Trump rally in Karmiel, a city in northern Israel, on Nov. 3 — Election Day in the United States. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

JERUSALEM — Israelis have begun coming to grips with the defeat of President Trump, who enjoys widespread support here and whose presidency is seen by many as the friendliest to Israel in history.

President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a Middle East policy that has tilted dramatically toward Israel in the past four years, with the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem, suspending aid to Palestinians, declaring legal support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and backing out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Biden could bring U.S. policy back in line with Democratic orthodoxy, for instance by championing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and opposing the expansion of West Bank settlements. But analysts say he is unlikely to insist on undoing all of Trump’s initiatives.

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Biden has criticized moving the embassy to Jerusalem but said he would not pull it back to Tel Aviv. Instead, many here expect him to rebuild diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority by reopening a consulate in East Jerusalem and a Palestinian mission in Washington. Biden is also likely to resume humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

Small villages in Ireland and India celebrated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris while a few world leaders weighed in on the election. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It’s not at all black and white with Biden,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who has known the incoming president for decades.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not join the cascade of world leaders offering best wishes to Biden on Saturday after television networks called the race for him. But early Sunday he tweeted congratulations to both Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris.

“Joe, we’ve had a long & warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years, and I know you as a great friend of Israel. I look forward to working with both of you to further strengthen the special alliance between the U.S. and Israel.”

The prime minister immediately followed that with a tweet thanking Trump for his policy gifts to Israel. “Thank
you ­@realDonaldTrump for the friendship you have shown the state of Israel and me personally,” he wrote.

Biden is no stranger to Israelis. He was known as a staunch supporter of Israel through his 36 years in the Senate. He calls Netanyahu “my friend” and cites his 1973 encounter with then-Prime Minister Golda Meir as “one of the most consequential meetings” of his life.

As vice president, however, he was a loyal wingman to President Barack Obama, remembered here as a critic. And Biden will take office as the standard-bearer of a Democratic Party viewed as increasingly at odds with Israeli policy.

“Biden is the generation that remembers; he remembers the Six-Day War; he was close enough to feel the history of the Holocaust,” Oren said. “Obama was of a different generation; it was more ideological with him. Biden is not ideological.”

Israelis are perhaps most wary of shifts in Washington’s stance on Iran. Biden was part of the Obama team that reached the Iran nuclear agreement, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in return for restrictions on its nuclear program. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from it is viewed by security experts here as the greatest of his gifts to Israel. Biden’s promise to offer Iran a “path back to diplomacy” makes many in Israel nervous.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, warned on Israeli television that Biden’s return to the nuclear accord could lead to war. “If Biden stays with that policy, there will, in the end, be a violent confrontation between Israel and Iran,” Hanegbi said.

Trump’s departure could be keenly felt by Netanyahu on a personal level. The prime minister has touted his close relationship with Trump as a chief political asset, and some of Trump’s actions, such as endorsing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in 1967, were timed to boost Netanyahu’s election prospects.

Some members of Netanyahu’s fractious coalition government have said that Trump’s exit from the White House will devalue Netanyahu’s status as a Trump-whisperer and increase the chances of a no-confidence vote and early elections. Netanyahu’s popularity has plummeted in recent months over his handling of a resurgent coronavirus and a collapsing economy.

In the West Bank, Palestinian leaders hailed Biden’s triumph over Trump, whom they have accused of putting U.S. policy at the service of Israel’s right wing.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that “he was looking forward to working with President-elect Biden and his administration in order to enhance the Palestinian-American relations and achieve freedom, independence, justice and dignity for our people.”

Referring to Trump, former Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said in an interview with Turkish media: “Good riddance.”

Trump’s supporters in Israel, however, say his hard-line tactics have taught Palestinians that their history of rejecting peace offers has led them to a diplomatic dead end. Biden, they fear, will take a softer line.

Israeli settlers, who held rallies before the election to pray for Trump’s success, recognize that Biden’s diplomats will be nothing like the current U.S. ambassador from Washington, David Friedman, a longtime champion of the settlement movement.

But settlers like David Elhayani, head of the Yesha Council, an umbrella for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said the party of the U.S. president doesn’t always matter. It was under Republican George W. Bush that Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip were abandoned, Elhayani said.

“Under Obama, we built more [settlement] houses than we have under Trump,” he added. “I think Biden is a friend of Israel.”

Some Israelis are hoping that a Biden presidency could help ease the turmoil of recent Israeli politics. Netanyahu is often accused of mimicking Trump’s divisive rhetoric, which has helped stoke divisions in Israeli society. Netanyahu’s son Yair, who has cited Trump as a “rock star” role model, has regularly tweeted vitriolic insults at his father’s critics, including prosecutors pressing corruption charges against the prime minister and protesters clamoring for his ouster.

“Israel is part of the democratic world,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “And the way that President Trump has been conducting himself has not exactly been a great example to that world.”

Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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