What Happens to Israel When Democrats Are in the White House?
The original decision over whether to recognize Israel in 1948 set up one of the most bitter policy fights in U.S. history. Nearly the entire national-security establishment opposed recognizing Israel, including Secretary of State George Marshall. The surrounding Arab populations vastly outnumbered the small number of Jews in Israel and around the world. Recognizing Israel seemed to be a bad bet.
Harry Truman himself, however, had some sympathy for the position that the Jews had a right to return to their ancestral homeland, and he was willing to put up with some internal strife to hear the other side of the argument. On May 12, 1948, Truman asked his aide Clark Clifford to make the case for recognizing Israel, with Marshall making the case against. Marshall went first and focused on the geostrategic elements of the situation, particularly the likelihood that the Arabs would defeat the outnumbered Israelis. Clifford, a skilled trial lawyer, then made his case—and Marshall could not contain his anger. His response was dismissive and ad hominem. “I don’t even know why Clifford is here,” Marshall complained. “He is a domestic adviser, and this is a foreign-policy matter. The only reason Clifford is here is that he is pressing a political consideration.”
Truman lashed back: “Well, General, he’s here because I asked him to be.” Marshall then stretched the boundaries of appropriate behavior in a meeting with the president by threatening to vote against Truman if he sided with Clifford. Marshall’s shocking comment effectively ended the meeting. “Well, that was rough as a cob,” Truman said to Clifford.
Marshall lost the argument. The U.S. recognized Israel. According to Clifford, Marshall never spoke to him again and would not even mention Clifford’s name for the remaining 11 years of Marshall’s life.
In the days leading up to the Six-Day War in 1967, the national-security establishment was again aligning itself against Israel. President Lyndon Johnson, another Democrat, initially followed their lead. He pointedly warned Israel not to engage in a preemptive attack against the Arab countries menacing it, despite the fact that Israel was facing possible annihilation. “Israel will not be alone unless you decide to go alone,” was how Johnson characterized his own position. The president also worked behind the scenes to pressure the Israelis, subjecting Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban to the infamous Johnson “treatment” at the White House. As LBJ’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalled: “Johnson really worked him over to try to persuade him to persuade his government not to preempt.” At the beginning of the conflict, which began when Israel did indeed strike first to stave off a multifront assault, State Department spokesman Robert McCloskey notoriously announced that the U.S. is “neutral in thought, word, and deed.”
But within the Johnson White House, there was a coterie of political aides more sympathetic toward Israel. Two of them, Larry Levinson and Ben Wattenberg, wrote a memo to Johnson explaining that within the Jewish community, “there was sharp disillusion and dismay at the McCloskey statement concerning ‘neutrality in word, thought, and deed.’” Levinson and Wattenberg also wrote that “the Jewish leadership understands that the statement was not your policy, but they feel that it did indicate to them a real feeling in the State Department.” Johnson was not one to tolerate internal disagreement. True to form, Johnson lashed out at Levinson in abusive terms: “You Zionist dupe! You and Wattenberg are Zionist dupes in the White House!”
Yet at a key moment, Johnson gave Israel the benefit of the doubt. On June 8, a day after the Levinson-Wattenberg memo, Israel attacked the USS Liberty in the Mediterranean, killing 34 of the ship’s crew. Israel claimed it was an accident, and LBJ accepted the explanation. Most of Johnson’s national-security advisers doubted the excuse, but Johnson decided to back Israel anyway. And following the war, Johnson made the notable decision to have the United States step into the breach created by an arms embargo from France—which had, until then, been Israel’s key military supplier. This put the U.S. on its path to become Israel’s primary source of weaponry.
The next Democratic administration, that of Jimmy Carter, was wracked by internal fighting at the highest levels. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance disagreed on virtually every key issue that came their way, and their disagreements led to constant sniping, with Vance periodically threatening to resign before Carter finally took him up on the offer in April 1980. But Brzezinski and Vance did agree, along with Carter, on one thing. All three favored a tough stance on Israel, coupled with a policy tilted toward the Arabs in the Arab–Israeli dispute. As Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat (more favorably disposed toward Israel) wrote, both Vance and Brzezinski “and usually the president himself” were “aggressively pushing forward a peace process in ways that often alienated Israel and American Jewish leaders.” Eizenstat further observed that “Vance was very pro-Arab. Vance was impossible on this issue.”
Israel did have some important internal allies, including Vice President Walter Mondale. According to Mondale, the administration’s Israel policies “made my life miserable.” He particularly disliked the way that Brzezinski did not allow for a fair process to discuss policy disputes and went directly to Carter to get his way. Eizenstat recalled that Mondale “exploded” when he was interrupted at a Georgetown dinner at the home of socialite Pamela Harriman to be told that Vance had proposed new concessions from Israel to placate the Palestinians.
The culmination of the Carter foreign policy was the Camp David Accords, the Israel-Egypt peace treaty signed in 1979. The treaty brought with it many advantages, but the process of getting there was fraught. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was reluctant to go to Camp David because he feared, correctly, that Carter would consistently side with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, leaving Begin isolated. Brzezinski was an antagonist as well, and not just across the negotiating table. Begin and Brzezinski played chess multiple times at Camp David. Brzezinski claimed later that they split two matches, but the author Lawrence Wright later revealed that Begin had won three out of four.
Carter’s administration provided an early preview of the disturbing direction in which the Democratic Party was heading when it came to Israel. While it is true that Bill Clinton has gone down in history as a mostly “pro-Israel” president, the largely aligned Clinton team was in strong agreement over its dislike of the third Israeli prime minister they had to deal with.
The Clinton team, and especially Clinton himself, had been enamored of Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. National Security Adviser Tony Lake recalled that Clinton and Rabin had “a great relationship,” that Clinton “loved” Rabin, and that “Rabin had a huge influence on him.” But Rabin was assassinated in November 1995. And despite the naked efforts of the Clinton administration to engineer the election of Shimon Peres to remain in office as Rabin’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu won instead in May 1996. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recalled that with that victory, “instead of having a lubricant, like Rabin, you had sandpaper like Netanyahu.” She noted twice in an oral history interview how “difficult” Netanyahu was, albeit with different modifiers—she described Netanyahu as both “really difficult” and “unbelievably difficult.” Albright even lamented her “bad luck” at having to deal with Netanyahu as her first Israeli partner and warned Israel that intransigence would lead the U.S. to “reexamine its approach to the peace process.” Albright was not alone. In one instance, after Clinton erupted at Netanyahu over rudeness to Yassir Arafat, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger pressed negotiator Dennis Ross to make sure that Clinton’s anger did not abate, stressing the need “to keep the heat on Netanyahu to be able to close the deal.”
Ross recalls the political aides blowing up at him on the occasions when he argued for politically risky interventions by Clinton in the peace process. And Berger noted that there was a Rashomon-like quality to the unsuccessful 2000 Camp David peace discussions, with Clinton aides differing wildly in their interpretation of the events. As Berger recalled, “there’s Dennis Ross’s Camp David, and there’s Madeleine Albright’s Camp David, there’s Sandy Berger’s Camp David, and there’s Rob Malley’s Camp David.” In the end, though, Ross wrote that “there was little dissonance within the [Clinton] administration on policy.”
Barack Obama’s administration began with details of a leaked meeting in which Obama himself said he needed to create “daylight” between the United States and Israel. While some older foreign-policy hands were supposedly more favorably inclined toward the Jewish state, a more dominant younger group—influenced by the bestselling author and administration staffer Samantha Power—was aggressively hostile. Obama himself notes the existence of this divide multiple times in his own memoir.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who supposedly had a “mind meld” with Obama, was so critical of Israel in internal debates that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel dubbed him “Hamas.” Some might object to being likened to a vicious and murderous terrorist group; Rhodes bragged about it in his own memoir, revealing that on one occasion, Emanuel complained that “Hamas over here is going to make it impossible for my kid to have his f***ing bar mitzvah in Israel.”
Even when Rhodes overreached, Obama criticized him only lightly. According to Rhodes, following a detailed New York Times Magazine piece by David Samuels on Rhodes’s methods, Obama just asked him one question: “Why were you so eager to talk about how the sausage gets made?” Obama, despite his reputation as “No Drama Obama” who presided over a rivalry-free administration, was fine with the kind of drama Rhodes created because it came in pursuit of Obama’s foreign-policy vision—especially when it came to the Middle East. This vision included regular criticism of Israel, particularly regular snubs and lectures directed at Netanyahu, who was once again prime minister during a Democratic administration.
Obama’s recent memoir is replete with snide comments about Netanyahu, grumbling about “the noise generated by Netanyahu” and wondering “whether things might have played out differently if someone other than Netanyahu had occupied the prime minister’s seat.” Obama also, sounding a bit like George Marshall in 1948, complained in the memoir about the “domestic political cost” of what he called “normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister,” claiming that these costs “simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, or any of our other closest allies.” Whatever one thinks of Obama’s differences with Israel, they were far from “normal.” Obama directed his team to abstain on a UN resolution criticizing Israel on the administration’s way out the door at the end of 2016, mostly to deliver a weaselly parting shot at the premier he had clashed with.
IN DEMOCRATIC administrations especially, the issue of Israel can expose ideological fault lines and unleash strong personal feelings. But this history reveals that these robust exchanges and the resulting bloodletting should be welcomed in Democratic administrations, because the alternative can be far worse. When these administrations are unified on Israel, it is typically not in a way that is favorable to the Jewish state.
As we witness the start of the new Biden administration, it’s worth asking whether this same paradigm will play out on Israel. Is the Biden administration likely to be internally united or divided, and if united, in which direction? Will it be like the Carter or Obama administration, mostly united but in ways problematic when it comes to Israel? Like Truman’s and Johnson’s, where aides willing to buck the prevailing winds helped Israel in difficult situations? Or will it be like the largely united Clinton administration, which could be characterized as pro-Israel but anti-Netanyahu? To assess this question, we can look to Biden’s policy record, his personnel selections, his general disposition toward Israel, and he and his team’s response to challenges from the anti-Israel left.
Biden has a record on Israel dating back four decades. In the Senate, Biden consistently supported aid to Israel, backed weapons systems helpful to Israel, and also opposed the sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981—even writing an op-ed in the New York Times on the subject (at the time, opposition to the AWACS deal was an important signal of support for Israel). During the 2020 election campaign, Trump and his team tended to tout Trump’s support for Israel and warn about a return to the Obama administration’s less friendly approach—but adduced little in Biden’s own record to add to the indictment.
On the personnel front, key players on Israel in the Biden administration will include National Security Adviser Designate Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Designate Tony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Designate Gen. Lloyd Austin. All served under Obama, and none is known as an Israel critic. In fact, the strongest pushback against Blinken’s selection came from the vociferously anti-Israel Representative Rashida Tlaib, who bizarrely suggested that Blinken might somehow have the power to suppress her right to criticize the Jewish state but that she would be fine with him if he left her alone.
A third question is one of attitude or approach, whether Biden gets Israel in his kishkes, as it were. Obama failed the kishkes test and grumbles about it in his memoir, even using the Yiddish word. Carter failed the test, and his post-presidential writings suggest he’s proud he did. Clinton passed the test, regardless of his tussles with Netanyahu. There is no objective measure to a kishkes test, as it appears to be a generalized sense among Jews themselves that professions of support for Israel are sincere and that disputes with Israel are coming from a place of friendship rather than hostility.
Biden appears to pass the test, though not with flying colors. He and his team often mention his influential visit with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973, who chain-smoked her beloved cigarettes while giving him an update on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. Biden does or did have long-standing relationships with nearly every important Israeli leader over the past four decades. He delivered eulogies for both the conservative military man Ariel Sharon and the liberal internationalist Shimon Peres. But one meeting about which Biden has been less vocal was a 1982 clash with Menachem Begin at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden lectured Begin forcefully about both the settlements and Israel’s involvement in Lebanon and reportedly threatened U.S. support for foreign aid in the future. Begin, for his part, responded strongly, saying, “I am not a Jew with trembling knees.”
Biden was also at the center of the firestorm during the Obama administration when the Obama team exploded in anger over the announcement of new housing units in Jerusalem during a Biden visit. But it’s also the case that while Biden was the point person in the White House, relations between Netanyahu and Obama became too poisonous.
Biden has a four-decade history with Netanyahu. Both men have professed their friendship for each other in recent statements, which could perhaps blunt some of the personal nastiness toward Netanyahu in the last two Democratic administrations. That said, Biden has also complained that Netanyahu has moved “so, so far to the right,” which raises a question about how far the decades of friendship will go in maintaining that relationship.
The most important Democratic Party challenge facing Biden is the woke left. Biden himself has addressed this question more broadly—the disagreements within the Democratic Party on radicalism versus moderation were litigated in the primary season, and he won. But while this approach might have worked during the Democrat-unifying effort of defeating Donald Trump, dealing with his party’s radicals will be a more complicated business once he assumes power.
There was one disturbing incident during the campaign. Israel critic and open anti-Semite Linda Sarsour was granted a speaking role at a council meeting during the Democratic National Convention. After critics highlighted Sarsour’s record, the Biden team disavowed her, said she “had no role within the campaign whatsoever,” and reiterated Biden’s opposition to the BDS movement that Sarsour champions. The woke left reared in outrage, and the Biden team then had to apologize privately for disavowing her. Biden coalitions director Ashley Allison was reported to have said, “I am sorry that that happened. And I hope that whatever trust was broken, that this conversation is one small step to help build back the trust, but that is not the last time we have this conversation.”
What this incident reveals is that the Biden administration may be blind to the records of problematic actors on the left side of the aisle, may reject such views if they are pointed out publicly, and may also feel the need to apologize for rejecting those views.
A FINAL FACTOR to consider is that circumstances have changed since Obama’s departure. The ties between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, nascent then, have accelerated in the wake of shared concerns about Iran; and the Abraham Accord peace deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan are the first fruits of this new reality. Blinken himself has made favorable comments about the accords, even though he also downplayed their importance.
Biden and his team have been harshly critical of Trump’s symbolic efforts to tilt U.S. policy toward the Jewish state, such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and allowing the word “Jerusalem” to appear on the passports of Jews born in that city. But symbolic actions can have tangible effects. The muted reaction to the embassy move throughout the Middle East revealed the hollowness of the long-standing threat that the “Arab street” would greet any thaw with Israel with violence and revolution. Given how low the cost was, and the fact that the embassy move was directed by U.S. law, it is hard to imagine that a President Biden would expend any political capital on an effort to return the embassy to Tel Aviv. And indeed, Biden has indicated he does not plan to do so.
Another traditional lever used against Israel is U.S. military aid. Biden has both supported aid and threatened cutting it to Israel in the past, but aid to Israel is a bipartisan policy. The current levels are set out in a Memorandum of Understanding established under the Obama administration, and the Biden team has said it does not plan to make that aid conditional. Even more telling, U.S. aid is no longer the existential necessity for Israel that it once was—so threatening to limit it no longer provides the leverage over Israeli decision-making that it once did.
But it is very likely that the Biden administration will put more rhetorical pressure on Israel to strike a deal with the Palestinians. It’s not clear, however, what policy leverage the U.S. has to push Israel in this regard while the Middle East landscape is changing—or whether the Palestinians will even consider some kind of a deal in any case. Still, Biden could, as Obama did, support UN resolutions critical of Israel. He could also sternly lecture Israeli officials, as he has intermittently throughout his career. Biden is on the record unambiguously about restoring the U.S.–Iran nuclear deal.
Looking at all of this, one can discern the outlines of a policy framework toward Israel—call it Bidenism. It will be supportive of continued aid to Israel and unlikely to publicly question the wisdom of such aid. Rhetorically, Biden will repeatedly present himself as a friend of Israel and of Prime Minister Netanyahu, even as he questions whether Netanyahu is too far to the right and as he exerts private pressure for concessions with the Palestinians.
Bidenism will seek a return to the problematic Iran deal in some form but will continue to profess its concerns about Iran getting nuclear weapons and will be unlikely to try to stop Israel from allying with Sunni Gulf states as a counterweight to Iran. Bidenism will not seek to move the U.S. Embassy from Jerusalem—but it won’t encourage other nations to move their embassies from Tel Aviv. And Bidenism will likely be muddled when it comes to the woke left’s intersectional hostility toward Israel—willing to condemn certain outrageous and anti-Semitic statements but ever careful not to offend and, on occasion, will even apologize if its condemnations produce too much blowback.
Israel’s relationship with the outgoing administration was extraordinary. We shall not see its like again. The question going forward is whether the Biden administration will take the recent successes into account as it makes its own way in the Middle East—or whether the powerful urge to restore the status quo ante of the Obama administration will set the course for the next four years.