Of all US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy moves, it may be those in the Middle East that prove the most lasting.
Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; angered the Palestinians by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, cutting off US aid and closing their diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C.; and later brokered the normalisation of ties between Israel and several Arab states. Now, Israelis, Palestinians and others are trying to anticipate what Joe Biden’s incoming administration will mean for the region.
When the media announced Joe Biden’s projected victory in the US presidential elections on Saturday after several tense days of vote counting, congratulatory messages from world leaders promptly started pouring in.
Reactions from the Middle East were generally positive, though the governments of Israel and several Gulf states with very close ties to the Trump administration were cautious.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited 12 hours before tweeting his congratulations, but even then he did not mention the words “election” or “victory”, nor did he call Biden the “president-elect”. Still, he did note his long personal relationship with Biden and said he looked forward to working with him and his new vice president, Kamala Harris.
Congratulations @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris. Joe, we’ve had a long & warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years, and I know you as a great friend of Israel. I look forward to working with both of you to further strengthen the special alliance between the U.S. and Israel.
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) November 8, 2020
Minutes after his first tweet, Netanyahu tweeted again, this time thanking Trump for his friendship and for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, “recognizing” Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, “standing up to Iran” and brokering normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries.
Few leaders have benefited as much from the Trump administration’s Middle East policies as Netanyahu. Now, Israelis and Palestinians, as well as others in the region, are considering what changes in US policy and attitude await them after Biden takes office.
In Israel there is concern among Netanyahu supporters that the new US administration might hold a grudge since, over the last 12 years, Israel has broken its long-held tradition of refraining from outwardly supporting one US political party over the other with Netanyahu’s antipathy toward former president Barack Obama and subsequent embrace of Trump.
“Some probably worry that the Democrats haven’t forgotten the hostility of Netanyahu’s government toward the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress, behind Obama’s back,” Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University, told FRANCE 24.
“So there’s concern that the Biden administration will hold Netanyahu’s government to account.”
But more significantly, supporters of the Israeli government are apprehensive over a return to Obama’s Middle East policies, notably two main components: first, an attempt to seek an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that the Palestinians would accept, and the other, going back to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
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Palestinian issue ‘not a priority’ for the Arab world
The Palestinian Authority welcomed Biden’s victory and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, joined Arab leaders on Sunday in congratulating him.
“I congratulate President-elect Joe Biden on his victory,” Abbas said in a statement from his headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank. “I look forward to working with the President-elect and his administration to strengthen the Palestinian-American relations and to achieve freedom, independence, justice and dignity for our people.”
Trump infuriated the Palestinians with his decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and to close the Palestinian mission in Washington, and the Palestinian Authority has boycotted the administration ever since.
Moreover, Trump’s peace plan – which he ceremoniously unveiled at the White House last January with Netanyahu by his side but with no Palestinian officials present – was viewed as an attack on the Palestinians’ ambitions for statehood.
“He came up with the so-called deal of the century, negating any right for the Palestinian people to live in a state of their own alongside Israel and offering Israel blanket support that backed up every move made by the extreme right-wing government of Netanyahu,” said Elias Zananiri, vice chairman of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) Committee for Interaction with the Israeli Society.
The Palestinians’ isolation only deepened after the United Arab Emirates, followed by Bahrain and Sudan, recently normalized relations with Israel in agreements brokered by the Trump administration.
“What Trump did with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan contradicts the fundamental parameters of the Arab Peace Initiative [proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002] because those three countries offered Israel normalization for free, without compelling the Israelis to end their occupation of our land,” Zananiri told Jowharin an email Tuesday.
The Palestinians are expected to end their boycott of US ties once Biden takes office. Bassam Al-Salhe, a senior PLO member, told Reuters on Sunday that the boycott was primarily linked to what he called “the hostile policy” of Trump’s administration. “When Biden announces that this is going to change – and he announced that during his election campaign – there will be no reason for the boycott,” he said.
“Of course, we expect and hope that Biden remains committed to the two-state solution and that he works to achieve it, in coordination with the Israeli and Palestinian sides,” Zananiri said. “We also hope that he sends clear messages to the government of Israel that the two-state solution is in its best interest the same way it is in the best interest of the Palestinian people.”
But retired Israeli brigadier-general Yossi Kuperwasser, a senior fellow at the Center for Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based pro-Netanyahu think tank, said the US policy toward Israel has changed for the foreseeable future.
“It will be very difficult for Biden to advance his worldview, because of internal American politics – even within the Democratic Party he faces voices that are pulling him in opposite directions and, of course, in the US in general – but also because of changes in the Middle East itself,” Kuperwasser told FRANCE 24.
“In fact, the Americans have accepted the principle that appears in UN resolution 242, that Israel needs to withdraw ‘from territories’ – but not from THE territories, that is, not from all of the [occupied] territories,” Kuperwasser said. “They also recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. I find it hard to believe that Biden will go back on this. That would be strange.”
“The Arab world has now said clearly, ‘Listen, the Palestinian issue is not at the top of our priorities’. Is Biden supposed to force the Arab world to go back and put the Palestinian issue at the top of their priorities? That’s a bit of an archaic approach … It’s clear to him that this would create a conflict with Israel and I don’t believe that in the end he’d want such a conflict,” said Kuperwasser.
A return to status quo with Washington?
Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton and Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, predicts that there will be a return to the status quo in terms of the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Palestinians.
“Biden has been very clear about his support for a two-state solution, his opposition to settlement activity, his opposition to annexation and his commitment to restore Palestinian relations to what they were before President Trump came along,” Indyk said Tuesday.
The Biden administration is also likely to resume aid to the Palestinian Authority that was halted by Trump, he said.
The Trump administration in 2018 ended $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank. The following year it ceased all US funding – worth some $360 million in 2017 – for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
As for relaunching a US peace initiative, “the situation hasn’t really changed for the better since President-elect Biden and the people around him were direct witnesses to what happened in 2014, when President Obama and Secretary [of State John] Kerry and myself tried to move the parties to final status negotiations and to a peace agreement”, Indyk said.
“President-elect Biden was there for all of those meetings and discussions. He knows both Netanyahu and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) well, and I think he’s likely to conclude that they are no more likely to make the difficult compromises necessary to reach agreement now than they were back then, six years ago,” said Indyk.
Shifting regional landscape
Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who served in diplomatic roles in the Clinton, Bush Sr and Obama administrations, agreed.
Ross said in an interview Tuesday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would not be an immediate priority for Biden, “not because he doesn’t care about it, but because he sees that the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians, both psychologically and substantively, are so wide that it makes no sense to launch a big initiative that is bound to fail”.
“The last thing you need to do is deepen the cynicism and the disbelief and the sense that nothing can be done,” said Ross.
But he also believes the normalization accords brokered by Trump could help break the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I think a Biden administration will care about the issue, will approach [it] from the standpoint of trying to change the circumstances and the conditions but will also recognize that something has changed – and that’s the Arab states’ attitudes towards this conflict,” he said.
“It’s not that they don’t care about it, but it’s clearly a reduced priority. And they’re sending a signal that they will pursue their own interests first, and sending a signal that the Palestinians are not in a position to arouse public sentiments against them in a way that would prevent them from pursuing their own interests.”
“A new administration can recognize that this change in landscape actually gives you something to work with. Meaning that the Arab states could be a bridge between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and not a bypass road,” Ross said.
Indyk noted that the normalization agreements with Israel probably also helped the Palestinians, and could help them more in the future under Biden.
“Fact is, the UAE connected their normalization to the Palestinian issue. They connected it in a different way to the way it’s been for 18 years since the Arab League peace initiative established a linkage between a final agreement with the Palestinians and normalization of relations with the Arab world. But nevertheless, as part of the UAE normalization with Israel, Israel had to agree not to annex the Jordan Valley and the Israeli settlements provided for in Trump’s ‘deal of the century’,” Indyk said.
Return to the Iran nuclear deal
That’s not the only way Trump’s actions over the past four years could prove useful to Biden.
The president-elect has said that he hopes to find a way to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, and to get Iran to return to it too.
“Going back to this deal is problematic,” said Kuperwasser. “The Iranians, of course, are taking advantage of Biden’s wish to return to the agreement in order to make sure that they won’t pay any price. Because if he wants so badly to go back to the agreement, then why should they pay a price for it?” he asked.
“On top of that, if he goes back to the agreement with Iran, that will create tension with the pragmatic Muslim countries, the natural US allies and also with Israel, another natural ally and friend of the United States,” he said.
Trump’s special representative for Iran and Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, expressed optimism this week during a visit to Israel that the next administration would be able to negotiate a better deal if it leveraged the current administration’s economic pressure on Tehran.
“We have a maximum pressure sanctions program. If you look at September and October, you will see sanctions being put in place. This will continue in November and December, because it’s unrelated to politics, it’s unrelated to elections. It’s the foreign policy of the US and it’s based on Iran’s conduct,” Abrams told reporters in Tel Aviv.
“It doesn’t really matter who is president on January 20, in the sense that there’s going to be a negotiation with Iran anyway. That was the intention of the Trump administration. So that’s not a source of disagreement,” he said.
Indyk agrees that Trump’s measures will help Biden: “Trump has given Biden considerable leverage, not only to get the Iranians back into the JCPOA, but to get them to negotiate seriously on the other issues that are not related to the JCPOA that I believe Biden would want to address when he becomes president.”
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Still, Biden’s approach will be very different from Trump’s.
“He’s made it clear that he believes in alliances – in our alliances – and he will act, I believe, to revitalize them. I think even, when it comes to Iran, it’s compliance for compliance, meaning, if they come back into compliance then we come back into compliance. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be so easy, because the Iranians are going to play it that we ‘owe them’, that they deserve compensation,” said Ross.
“I think the first instinct of the Biden administration will be to re-establish a common position with the British, the French and the Germans on this, even before we talk to the Iranians.”
Ross added that he expected there would be an openness to diplomacy with the Iranians, but that it would not be simple.
“The Iranians have a way of negotiating with everybody that doesn’t make it easy, so one shouldn’t expect instant breakthroughs here. But there will be a very different posture in that we won’t go it alone vis-à-vis Iran the way the Trump administration did,” he said.
“I think also there is a broad consensus in the United States that there was an overreach, that the price of American involvement in Middle East wars was very high, with frequently dubious or even non-existant gains. So there’ll be an impulse to be more careful about the character of commitments we make. But I think at the same time there will be a conscious understanding that we can’t just leave a vacuum – because a vacuum gets filled, and it usually gets filled by the worst forces,” said Ross.