2021 Annual Assessment

Israel could find itself imperiled both by Biden’s moves reflecting disengagement from the Trump administration’s foreign policy (especially regarding Iran, the Palestinians, and attitudes toward the world order and international institutions), as well as by moves reflecting continuity (subordinating foreign policy to domestic challenges that take priority, reluctance toward military involvement, reduced presence in the Middle East, and the confrontation with China).

The character of the world order during the Trump era provided a regional and international environment that allowed the Israeli government to act with fewer restraints. In a world order that increasingly legitimized the use of force and in which the discourse on the values of democracy and human rights was shunted aside, Israel faced fewer restrictions on its use of force in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and other arenas, and less criticism of its settlement policy in Judea and Samaria. It also faced less pressure from the International Criminal Court in the Hague and fewer abusive, but increasingly ineffectual, resolutions of a weakened UN.

The Biden era, with its emphasis on human rights, may lead to some uncomfortable consequences for Israel: Jerusalem may be required to side with the US in a way that would undermine its relations with other superpowers; a similar demand may arise with respect to other countries that show friendship toward Israel, but whose rulers have drifted from democratic norms (such as Hungary). In addition, as President Biden seeks to reinforce the status of international institutions and refrains from providing Israel with unconditional support – including the automatic veto in the Security Council – Israel may find itself under pressure and subject to unfavorable decisions (this past April’s Human Rights Watch statement that Israel is guilty of “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” could spur additional declarations of the same kind).

The erosion of the place of liberal values in the world order that characterized the Trump era also helped to push the Palestinian issue off the international and regional agendas, and thus facilitated the normalization process with countries in the region (the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco). The return of the Palestinian issue to the agenda will reduce the flexibility of Arab rulers in their open relations with Israel.

Even in areas where Biden appears to be continuing along the path laid out by Trump, a negative trend, unfavorable to Israel, can be identified: focusing on domestic affairs while striving to avoid military presence or involvement in the Middle East, creates a vacuum that draws Russia and China into greater involvement in the region, and could lead to a gradual erosion of Israeli deterrence and the power attributed to it. An expression of this alarming reality is reflected in recent remarks (June 7, 2021) by General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command, in which he warns of Iranian subversion, and notes that Russia and China are deepening their involvement in the region, based on a sense that the US is reducing its presence there.

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