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Challenge to get Biden to focus on Israel, not back off the country



By the time Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, I had been living outside of South Africa for 16 years but recall the overwhelming sense of relief that most South Africans felt as the country finally joined the enlightened world.

When Joe Biden was declared president-elect on Saturday, “relief” was the term most widely used among those that supported him and among many who didn’t as well. Relief that the focus would now be on the daunting issues facing the United States and frankly the whole world, and not on the latest incendiary Tweet from the fragile ego of one person.

As Jews, we are of course most interested in the meaning of a Biden presidency for the US Jewish community and Israel, and Biden’s record over the past 40 years gives cause for great hope.

Who did Jews vote for? By most accounts, 77% of Jews voted for Biden and 21% for Trump. This resounding 56-point margin is in itself beneficial for the community. We voted with the winner and our influence will ipso facto be greater. The South African Jewish community should broadcast this fact loud and clear.

Who is a genuine person of faith? National Public Radio correspondent Barbara Sprunt observed wryly, “Church and golf – Biden and Trump return to their usual Sunday routines.” As a man of faith who reads the bible, not just brandishes it for photo opportunities, and who quoted from Ecclesiastes in his victory speech, Biden has deep respect for all people of faith. Even Evangelical Christians admit that their votes for Trump aren’t based on their respect for him as a Christian.

What’s good for Israel? As one reads the Israeli press, both before and after the election, one is struck by the Bibi narrative that Trump was better for Israel than any US president ever, and more than President-elect Biden will be.

He telegraphed his dismay by being one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden. The question is, what does “better for Israel” really mean? Most American Jews, including this one, believe that the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem was sensible and overdue. The open agreements now with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan are certainly beneficial, even though none are on the frontline of the conflict.

But in the end, the most fundamental question of all regarding the Palestinians and Israeli democracy was not addressed for even one day over the past four years since John Kerry’s last futile trip to the region in the waning days of the Obama presidency. And, until it is, Israel’s international stature at the macro level and within an increasingly distant younger and progressive Jewish community in the US at a more esoteric level, will continue to wane.

Biden’s credentials on support for Israel are impeccable. Concern that some of the democratically elected Muslim members of Congress will dictate his foreign policy is foolishly playing into Trump/Bibi fear-mongering tactics. Biden stayed the centrist course on Medicare-for-all (against) and defunding the police (against). He will remain centrist on supporting Israel without giving Netanyahu and the Israeli right carte blanche on everything and anything. That’s what being authentically pro-Israel is all about.

The challenge Israel faces is to get attention! In the debates (one of which sort-of met that definition, the other of which was a shameful temper tantrum) the questions of foreign policy were few and essentially non-existent. The top four issues the Biden-Harris ticket has emphasised repeatedly are (1) the pandemic, (2) the economy as a result of the pandemic, (3) global climate change, and (4) racial justice.

In foreign policy, getting to a more sensible place with China and making Putin pay for his interference in 2016 which continued this year according to every US intelligence agency, are at the top. While every Israeli newspaper is analysing what this means for Israel, it’s safe to surmise that Israel is very low on the “do we have the bandwidth for this?” list of priorities. Those of us who care for Israel’s democracy are ironically tasked with getting the Biden administration to pay attention, not back off.

This is the eighth election since I moved to the US. As a Democrat, I was on the winning side four times with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and three times on the losing side with Gore and Kerry against Bush Jr. and Hillary Clinton against Trump four years ago.

Never once in the first seven, including four years ago, did I believe that it was a struggle for the soul of America, the continuation of democracy, and the existential threats to our planet. This time, all of those were on the ballot and as a global citizen, an American, a Jew, and a Zionist living in the swing state of Wisconsin that flipped blue, I kept saying shehecheyanu all weekend long.

Simmy Ziv-el grew up in Pretoria, attending Carmel School, and was the national Mazkir Klali and Rosh Machaneh of Habonim in 1976 and 1977. He lived in Israel for 13 years before he and his family relocated to Milwaukee. For the past 30 years, he has worked in global Education Assessment companies.

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