Ex-US ambassador: Joe Biden is Israel’s stalwart defender in the US, UN

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US President-elect – about to be President – Biden will be inaugurated today. It’s a fateful day for the United States, for American Israel relations, and I was wondering what a Biden administration might look like in a concern that it would be anti-Israel rather than pro-Israel and I’m wondering what you think we can expect here.

Thanks for the opportunity to be with you. You know, I know Joe Biden pretty well, I worked with him when I was in the Senate as a staffer on the Senate foreign relations committee and he was chairman. I got to know him much better when he was vice president and I served in the White House for two and a half years in the Obama administration and for the rest of the administration as ambassador. He visited Israel three times, I was with him on each visit, and I was with him on a lot of his meetings in Washington with the prime minister and other Israeli officials. So I spent a fair bit of time with him around the issue of Israel, and I can tell you there is probably no American politician who speaks with the kind of conviction and emotion and sort of personal history about the relationship with Israel the way Joe Biden does.

He describes the way he learned about Israel’s existence around his parents dinner table in the years after the Holocaust and learning from his parents the importance and justice and necessity of a State of Israel for the Jewish people, certainly after that tragedy but in the fulfillment of a centuries-long return from exile. And there is an obligation of the US to support Israel and ensure its security, and that is a moral obligation that he understood fell to the US. And he took that into public life as an adult into the senate, he was a senator as a very young man, and married it with an understanding of the strategic interests that Israel’s security and its existence and partnership with the US serves for the US. So he has this kind of deep emotional and strategic sense of why the US must remain on Israel’s side and ensure Israel should be able to defend itself.

He visited Israel dozens of times since a senator, and became personal friends with nine Israeli prime ministers from Golda Meir to Benjamin Netanyahu – he’s still friends with Benjamin Netanyahu. He was a stalwart backer of Israel’s military assistance package from the US as a senator. He called it the best money the United States invests anywhere, and if we didn’t have an Israel, we’d have to invent one because of the way it serves US interests in the Middle East to have a partner like Israel. And then as vice president he was deeply involved in all the advancements of the US-Israel security partnership, from intelligence sharing to joint training of the militaries to development of technologies like the iron dome and other missile defense technologies and tunnel detection technologies and others. And of course the $38 billion MoU for military assistance.

He has always stood up strongly to protect Israel’s legitimacy anywhere it’s called into question, from the UN to Palestinians in other arenas or by the BDS movement at home, he’s stalwart in resisting those calls and saying Israel’s right to defend itself as well as its legitimacy shouldn’t be called into question. He sees Israel as more than just a security partner, but as increasingly a technology and economic partner, for certain democracy with common values. So these are fundamental for him, for him its not even a question.

There were people who said during the Democratic primaries that “we hear some other voices and there are new views in other parts of the Democratic Party,” and there are. But I think the views I described are still mainstream in the party. The point is he never shirked form his views, he stood up strongly for them. When there was a brief discussion on conditioning US military assistance to Israel, he called it outrageous, a gigantic mistake, and then he won the primary – quite handedly. And then he of course won the election.

So I think that answers the question which I’m anticipating but maybe you won’t ask it. He has those views, but will he be under pressure from other people in his party to do something different? And I think the answer is very clear: Nobody is going to tell him after a 40-50 year career what his views are on Israel. No one’s going to tell him what US obligations or interests are when it comes to Israel. And they are fundamentally built on that foundation of obligation and moral and strategic commitment that goes to Israel’s security. It does go to helping Israel achieve peace with its neighbors, including Arab states, but also a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Of course it goes to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. I’m sure we’re going to get into more detail on all of these. But for him, these are fundamentals. And so, the idea of him being anti-Israel is frankly, ridiculous. I mean, it’s an absurd suggestion that Joe Biden and a Joe Biden administration would be anywhere within that ballpark. It doesn’t mean there may not be disagreements, that’s happened between any administration and Israel on different matters. But he’s going to be a very strong friend of Israel.

Well let’s just go right to the heart of one of the two main issues here, and let’s talk about Iran. Because as you know, Israelis feel that the whole issue of Iran is one that’s an existential threat. Like, this isn’t just a policy issue that might subtly impact it, they feel like its very existence is at threat, particularly because Iran has threatened to annihilate Israel. and the wide-ranging view in Israel is that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran deal, was a very bad deal for Isral, that it actually made Iran more dangerous rather than less, and so there’s a lot of concern about the Biden administration’s talk about maybe rejoining the deal. So how is Biden going to marry his support of Israel, including militarily, with his position on Iran?

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I guess by the time this airs he’ll be President Biden, we’re taping it the morning of the inauguration so President-elect Biden, soon to be President Biden –

Right, that’s true, he will be President Biden, you can already go there. 

So neither he nor anybody who will work for him has any illusions about the nature of Iran’s regime, and he spoke of this, that it has maligned, hostile intent towards Israel – obviously the Iranian regime speaks openly about seeking Israel’s destruction – that it has hostile intent towards others in the region, towards the United States, that it does seek nuclear weapons and that it’s been a longstanding effort that they have pursued, that it supports terrorism and other forms of mayhem around the Middle East, and that there are huge dangers posed by all of those aspects, and of course the ballistic missiles, all aspects of the way the regime operates. So there are no illusions about that, so he starts a fundamental commitment that Iran will never be able to acquire nuclear weapons, period, and the United States will ensure that.

Now, it is of course true as you stated that the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, was a point of very significant disagreement when it was signed in 2015 between the United States and Israel, and of course the prime minister came and spoke against it in Congress – those views were known at the time. And you know I was of course ambassador at the time and I was speaking to Israelis all about it at the time. And I don’t want to speak for others, but I never claimed that this was a perfect deal or that it solved the Iranian nuclear problem. There was probably no such thing as a perfect deal. But I did say it bought some significant time.

At the time that the deal was signed, or being negotiated, Iran had sufficient enriched uranium and centrifuge capability and other facilities that it was on a 2-3 month breakout timeline. It could have achieved nuclear weapons capability in that period of time. And what that deal did was it removed from Iran’s possession and verified through very strict inspections the enriched uranium and the enrichment capability, and the centrifuges and other facilities, so that Iran would be at least a year from that breakout, so that if it ever started to cheat and move back on a shorter timeline, there would be time to address it. And of course, the United States had also during the Obama administration put in place a military option that we didn’t have previously, in order to have a last resort if all else failed to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. So that was the case when, of course, the deal was in place.

President Trump withdrew form the deal in 2018. I know that was a popular decision in Israel, but we do have to look at a couple of important facts that accompanied that that now the incoming Biden administration has to deal with.

One is following the US withdrawal from the deal, Iran began to violate its commitments under the deal. Today it has maybe 12 times the amount of enriched uranium that is permitted. It is enriching now to 20%, a much higher enrichment grade that’s closer to weapons grade. It is installing centrifuges and enriching with them in its underground facility at Fordow, and in other ways it’s violating those commitments. And the result is that Iran once again instead of being a year from a nuclear weapon is back to about a three month breakout timeline to a nuclear weapon. So we’re back to a much more dangerous situation where Iran is on the threshold to a nuclear weapon. That’s the first issue.

The second issue is that Iran’s other malign activities around the region, which obviously need to be addressed. This was a nuclear deal not designed to deal with all these, but they haven’t changed either. It’s not as if the Trump policy of maximum pressure sanctions, which have in fact affected the Iranian economy very significantly, has prevented Iran from arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen or arming militia in Iraq, including having them target American facilities and soldiers in Iraq, bringing weapons and militia into Syria, which Israel has had to strike dozens if not hundreds of times. So it’s not as if that issue has been addressed by the maximum pressure sanctions.

And the third thing is that the United States is much more isolated in trying to deal with this policy. It’s true that Israel and the UAE and maybe one or two other Gulf states are appreciative and sympathetic of what president Trump did by withdrawing from the deal and using maximum pressure sanctions, but it’s also true that the rest of the world disagrees with it. The US European allies, obviously Russia and China, but other nations too. And when the US in the fall went to the UN Security Council to try and extend the UN arms embargo against Iran and again to try and trigger the snapback sanctions, the automatic sanctions under the deal, for Iran’s violations, every other country on the Security Council said no. And the United States was left trying to pursue this policy by itself.

So those are some other realities that we come into. What President Biden has said is that he is prepared to reenter the JCPOA in the context of mutual compliance, and we’re a long way from Iran being compliant. It’s not at all clear when Iran will get into compliance. But in the first instance, just to simply make that offer, goes a long way towards restoring some solidarity between the US and European allies who are going to be key players in doing this. So that’s an important declaration even if its never going to be carried out.

There’s also no question, and Israeli officials have said this in recent weeks, that it’s very important the United States consult with its regional allies, the ones closest to Iran, the ones who are most affected, most in danger by Iran’s behavior, before making decisions. And I think there is zero question in my mind that that consultation will take place.

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In a matter of days or weeks, there will be a serious consultation underway between Israel and the United States at very high levels with a lot of deep intimate discussions around intelligence which, again, for many of these US officials will be the first time in four years they’ll have had exposure to that intelligence. Israel will have a lot to contribute to this discussion, and other regional players as well. But whether or not the United States then returns to the JCPOA, that’s actually not the real strategic mission of the Biden administration. It is a way of buying additional time.

Remember what I said earlier. The JCPOA was never meant to be a solution, but a way to buy time, and it’s important to use that time effectively, especially the first five-seven years of the JCPOA. Unfortunately, I don’t think we used that time effectively with Trump’s withdrawal from it, but it is also true that the JCPOA does have the sunsets when it expires and the second half the agreements and the later 10-15 year timeframe, and it will need to be addressed further. And the real strategic mission of the Biden administration is to achieve an agreement that is much longer term, that really safely puts Iran at a distance from a nuclear weapon for many, many more years than the JCPOA did and is much broader in its application – not just to nuclear technologies, but to other technologies such as ballistic missile technologies – and that addresses Iran’s regional destabilizing capabilities, and strengthens the inspection and enforcement and snapback mechanisms.

That kind of agreement – which is not easy, I’m not saying that it’s easy – but that strategic objective is one which I think has a lot of convergence between the United States and Israeli positions and Arab Gulf positions and European positions. And so as that discussion begins in the next weeks, it may include disagreement on the first steps, although there’s a lot of decisions around that, on definitions on timing on sequencing, but it’s also possible to chart together a course towards that longer-term strategic objective around which there is a lot more agreement.

But aren’t you kind of describing a new deal? Not a return to the old one but a new document that would be signed?

It would indeed be a new deal, but these are two steps. Step one is return to the deal if Iran complies, because that brings it back to the one year distance, and that buys you time. But you use that time to reach a new deal. And there may have to be some bridging of that, you know, some commitment to that negotiation as part of the return to the deal. And there’s absolutely no question that Israel can be a key partner with the intelligence it brings – but not just that, but with other ideas on how to construct the package of pressures and incentives and sanctions and negotiations that could draw Iran into that agreement or into that negotiation on a longer term agreement. That is what the Biden administration is shooting for. First to buy time – and there may be other means to buy time, and Israel should be able to bring its ideas to do that, whether it’s a sort of freeze for freeze of JCPOA minus or less for less, there’s lots of different ways you can come up with a mechanism to ensure we’re not at risk of Iran in the next months – literally few months – becoming a nuclear weapons power when the only option we have at that point is a military option to ensure that will not happen while the negotiations are undertaken to achieve that long term agreement, where I think there will be more convergence on the US and Israeli positions.

This is a disagreement, it was in 2015 and it may be now between two very close allies who see the same issue and have the same absolute bottom line and strategic goal ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear weapon, and sometimes allies disagree. We’re different countries, different sizes, different locations, different military capabilities, the threat affects us differently. Yes it is an existential threat for Israel which is taken extremely seriously by the United States. The bottom line is that there will never be a nuclear weapon and there’s a military option to ensure that. But to put that in the category again of anti-Israel is, to me, absurd. This is what allies do, they work together to bridge narrow areas of disagreement when they’re working towards common objectives.

How important would the Abraham Accords be to Biden’s Iran strategy and how important would they be to him in general and can we expect more deals to come down the pipe?

Probably the only Trump administration foreign policy initiative that Joe Biden had something positive to say about during the campaign was indeed the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, I think the other ones came right at the end and he may not have addressed them publicly. But when the UAE deal was announced in August, and when the UAE and Bahrain signing ceremony took place in September, he did not hesitate. Immediately, he embraced the normalization agreement, gave full credit to those who helped bring it about.

He said this is consistent with a long-term bipartisan objective of the United States to ensure Israel’s rightful recognition by its neighbors. It’s something he himself had worked on and actually helped work advance Israel-UAE relaitons at an earlier stage before there was a fully public normalized relations, although there were relations, quieter and less public, and he said that he would absolutely work to expand it, continue the process, challenge other nations to keep pace with them. He really sees in that a benefit not only because it’s the right thing – it’s right that Israel is recognized – but also because it does strengthen the camp of moderate nations in the Middle East, of course American partners, who are aligned against common threats, chiefly Iran but also other threats. And that’s a benefit, that helps prevent Iran from stoking divisions among its neighbors, in fact facing a more unified front. So there’s absolutely a benefit from the Abraham Accords in that building that camp of openly aligned countries to deal with threats like Iran. So he’s going to work on it.

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But he also said that the fact that the UAE deal sidelined what was until then being discussed very openly – which was the possibility of Israeli annexation of the West Bank, of 30% of the West Bank – was another benefit of it. Annexation was something he strongly opposed and would have really spelled the end of any serious prospects of a two-state solution, so that was another benefit. And that as normalization expands, it could be possible, and should be possible, to draw some positive momentum from those accords on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

It’s not gonna solve it, but as that taboo of normalization of Israel becomes more accepted and more permanent part of the regional landscape, it’s a bit easier to draw Palestinians into a discussion with Israel based on the idea of Israel’s legitimacy and its permanence, it’s a bit easier to imagine those Arab states being partners with Israel. it may involve some frank conversations with Israel about Israel’s role in achieving a two-state solution, but also a frank conversation with the Palestinians about what they will need to do and change, and also resources to help build the economy and institutions of a future Palestinian state and support the security of  cooperation between the two. So for him, this was a win-win-win, and is something he is absolutely committed to continuing to expand.

I think we have time for one last question but I just wanted to ask if we can expect to see President Biden launch any initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian track. You know, Trump came into office saying that “I’m gonna make the Deal of the Century, I’m gonna solve this thing.” And do we think that Biden is entering with the same thought, and if so, what would be the timeline for such an initiative?

Antony Blinken, his nominee to be secretary of state, had his confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday and was asked this question. He said look, Joe Biden and their administration will continue to be committed to the traditional longstanding American position that a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is the only actual end for this conflict, the only way conflict can be resolved on a permanent basis and really the only way to ensure Israel’s long-term status as a Jewish and democratic state and frankly its security as well. The only way Palestinians can achieve their legitimate rights to statehood. And that’s going to remain the goal.

That doesn’t mean this is a propitious moment to actually launch final status talks. I would personally – and I’m not involved in the transition and soon to be administration discussions, but I would personally be surprised if there was an early attempt to launch negotiations. I don’t really think the moment is right for it, the same leaders who have previously negotiated and had unsuccessful experiences and really mistrust each other, they’re are a lot of broader public attitudes that trend negatively on bath sides, so this probably isn’t that moment. I’m not sure whether they’ll appoint an envoy for this.

I think falls into the category of how in this period when in Israel it isn’t really viable to conduct these negotiations, can the United States work to help keep the two-state solution alive and viable and achievable for later attempts to actually negotiate? And that means there’s a lot that can be done on the ground that improves the economic conditions in which Palestinians live, that helps build institutions including some important changes in Palestinian behaviors like payments to prisoners who committed acts of terrorism, something Biden says he strongly opposes, that strengthen the security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians, also calling on Israel to refrain from doing things like settlement expansion and talk of annexation that make it harder and call for an end of incitement and delegitimization on the Palestinian side. And of course, there may be a role for other regional players as well.

There’s a lot that can be done that helps improve conditions on the ground for all parties that helps create a better environment and basis for a future attempt at negotiations, possibly when there are different leadership constellations, and that that needs to remain a US objective, and maybe there’s a later attempt to actually bring the parties to the negotiating table. So I believe that’s really the beginning of the administration, is a more practical on the ground focus, less push for an actual outcome, but the commitment to that outcome is still very strong because if Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state which is the core basis for common values partnership between the US that really enjoys bipartisan support and facilitative of all other aspects of the relationship including the security partnership, that’s a real US interest. So I expect that they will remain committed to that and look for opportunities over time when hopefully conditions improve to move back in that direction.

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