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What would Biden’s potential replacements mean for Israel?

After a disastrous debate performance, some Democrats are demanding Biden step aside — with major potential consequences for the Middle East

In the wake of President Joe Biden’s dismal performance in this week’s presidential debate, there is agitated talk of finding a way to replace him as the Democratic nominee for president. If that occurs, it could have profound implications for Israel.

That’s because Biden has been a pro-Israel president — to a degree that is strikingly at odds with increasing anti-Israel sentiment in the Democratic rank-and-file, and especially among younger progressives who are not only unsympathetic to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians but also increasingly inclined to view Zionism as a colonial enterprise. 

So if Biden does step aside — which his campaign on Friday indicated he has no intention of doing — it’s likely that whomever replaces him will not display the same degree of enthusiasm for supporting Israel.

Israelis and their supporters should consider it remarkable that Biden declared himself a “Zionist” during his 2022 visit to Israel; became the first U.S. leader to visit Israel during wartime last October; and has mostly stuck by Israel despite its globally unpopular war against Hamas in Gaza, which has killed many thousands of civilians in the strip.

Some Israelis, especially on the right, are angry with Biden for supposedly holding up some munitions — a claim that Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently pushed, without much evidence beyond a single withheld shipment — and for his evident antipathy toward Netanyahu, who is slated to address a joint session of Congress late next month but has yet to receive an invitation to the White House.

Moreover, the Biden administration has been tireless in efforts to organize an exit strategy for Israel from the war. Among them: proposing a grand post-war design that might include normalization with Saudi Arabia in the context of creating a Sunni-Western-Israeli strategic alliance to counter the regional ambitions of Iran.

That level of ambition reflects the fact that Biden is not just a longtime expert on foreign affairs, but also a member of the post-World War II generation that built the liberal world order, which as it stands depends on a degree of American activism.

Those being touted as possible replacements for Biden would come in with a vastly different worldview. 

Here’s a quick take on some of the names who might emerge:

Vice President Kamala Harris: Harris, whose husband is Jewish, should get credit for the administration’s pro-Israel policies, but she seems distinctly cooler to Israel than Biden and is generally understood to be closer to the progressive camp’s views on the Middle East.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro: The Jewish governor of a critical state, where Jewish votes could well prove decisive, may be closest to Biden in terms of the level of commitment he holds toward Israel. He has defended the war against Hamas, saying that Israel has a “responsibility” to defeat Hamas, and has been critical of universities that allowed encampments of students opposing Israel in ways that were seen as flirting with antisemitism. Of all the potential replacements, he is the most likely to speak the language of old-school near-automatic support for Israel.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: One of Whitmer’s great draws: She might help Democrats win Michigan, which is the swing state with the largest Muslim-American population — about a quarter million. (Biden’s 2020 margin of victory in the state was around 150,000 votes.) Considering the demographics or her state, though, it is noteworthy that Whitmer has defended Biden’s approach to the war and refused to call Israel’s actions a “genocide” — or, to be fair, to deny the accusations outright, maintaining credibilty with her Muslim constituents. There is no evidence that she would ever describe herself as a Zionist — but she has been close enough to Biden that Israel policy may stay somewhat the same. And it’s worth noting that she’s dynamic, for example passing sweeping gun reform in her state. One senses she would not pleasantly put up with Netanyahu’s machinations — and almost certainly would do so less than Biden has.

Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock: Warnock is from another state that should be critical in November, and he is heavily dependent on black voters, who have been increasingly distant from Israel. Warnock himself has a history of support for a two-state solution, but has throughout his public life managed to upset all sides on the Israel-Palestine continuum. He has been accused (almost certainly falsely) of both antisemitism and of betraying the Palestinians upon taking office. His instincts are progressive and inclined toward social justice — which means he would be no friend of Benjamin Netanyahu.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom: Newsom has national name recognition, but may be something of a long-shot because he is from a state that is sure to go Democratic; he doesn’t bring the added benefit of pull in a crucial swing stage. That might lead one to suspect Newsom would be cool to Israel, but in fact he told NBC several months ago that he wants to “see Hamas eliminated.” To be fair, he also said Netanyahu is “doubling down on stupid” for walking away from the two-state solution in rejecting in recent statements the idea that the Palestinians ultimately must have independence in the West Bank and Gaza. He has also called for a ceasefire in Gaza, a rare foreign policy intervention for a governor. He’s a classic American supporter of Israel, but close to the progressive movement and unlikely to share the truly emotional connection with Israel that Biden has. He’d certainly support a potential moderate Israeli government after Netanyahu. 

If any of this happens, it will be remembered as a consequence of Biden’s age. Choosing a replacement in for Biden would constitute a turning of the page away from an older generation of Americans who came into maturity when memories of the Holocaust and World War II were fresh, and when Israel was seen as the plucky underdog. Biden, who is given to quoting 1970s Israeli premier Golda Meir, is the epitome of this. The successors will be far less emotional. 

Still, even though some of these potential replacements — particularly Warnock — are closer to the progressive camp that is moving away from Israel, they can be expected to continue the Democratic Party’s fundamental support for Israel as well as support for a two-state solution — at least for one more generation of Democratic leadership. There is still too much support for Israel among U.S. centrists who are critical to winning national office, and all of them have shown streaks of pragmatism — and ambition. 

The main difference between them and Biden would likely manifest more in the degree to which they would be willing to take on Netanyahu and punish him for his obstinacy in pursuing a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Biden has been rather acquiescent; everyone on the above list is more likely, both temperamentally and in deference to shifting domestic politics, to take on the Israeli right. 

For Israel, then, this moment of contemplating a post-Biden future brings into view the contours of a fundamental challenge: if the Israeli right stays in power and does not change its ways, it will find itself in serious conflict with the U.S. Democratic Party of the future. 

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