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Senior Israeli cabinet minister ‘optimistic’ about warm relations with Biden administration

With President-elect Joe Biden set to take the oath of office on Jan. 17, a senior Israeli minister expressed confidence that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can develop a warm working relationship with Biden despite major differences on policy — and after four years of embracing President Donald Trump.

“I am optimistic,” said Tzahi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister of community affairs, pointing to the decades-long friendship between Biden and Netanyahu.

In recent years, Netanyahu had developed a close alliance with Trump that went beyond the traditional relationship between leaders of allied countries. During the 2019 and 2020 Knesset elections, the Netanyahu campaign ran ads and billboards depicting Netanyahu and Trump shaking hands. The two leaders were in lockstep over a tough policy on Iran and a dismissive approach towards the Palestinians.

Hanegbi, a confidant of the Israeli leader, explained that the embrace of Trump was a token of appreciation for the steps his administration took on the Jerusalem embassy, recognizing Israel’s control over the Golan Heights and for withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

“I don’t think that the Democratic administration will be vindictive against Israel because we were enthusiastic about an American administration fulfilling some of our important policy recommendations or fantasies,” he said. “We will have to build our new relationship based on common interests between Israel and the United States.”

According to Hanegbi, the two challenges facing the Israeli government in the coming months — in particular following the March 23 elections — are “rebuilding trust with the Democratic Party and proving that we are as bipartisan as we were before,” as well as developing a “renewed dialogue” with American Jewry.

Hanegbi acknowledged that an “overwhelming majority of the Jewish community felt for the first time in many decades that the Israelis do not understand how frustrated American Jews have become due to the fact that the Israeli government was hostile to everything they believed in.”

Democratic control of the White House and both houses of Congress, he added, presents an opportunity for the Israeli government to heal those relationships and find new understandings.

One of the areas that will test the relationship between Netanyahu and Biden will be on the Iranian nuclear threat.

While Biden has pledged to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran returns to compliance, Netanyahu has launched a campaign to caution the incoming administration against rejoining the international accord and hinted about reviving the military option.

In 2015, Netanyahu took a public stand against the deal by delivering a speech to a joint session of Congress that infuriated the Obama administration. In 2018, Netanyahu was a driving force in Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal.

Hanegbi said he’s “optimistic” that the Biden administration will take a different approach given the new realities, and stressed that Israel is not opposed to talks with Iran, as long as the “endgame result” prevents Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. Hanegbi also suggested that the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in June may freeze the current situation before reaching a comprehensive agreement.

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