Sunday, October 17, 2021
Sunday, October 17, 2021
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Harold M. Waller: The Biden Administration and the Middle East

Now that President Joe Biden has completed his first hundred days in office, it is not too early to assess his performance, accomplishments, and prospects for the coming months.  Based on developments to date, it is clear that there are at least two key elements of his approach to foreign policy and to his Middle East foreign policy in particular.  The first is to reject everything associated with his predecessor, who, in the eyes of many Democratic partisans, was an illegitimate president from the start.  And the second is to revive, insofar as it is possible, the halcyon days of the Obama-Biden administration and all its glorious accomplishments.   

In this context one of the chief conundrums that Biden’s team faces is how to deal with Israel.  Under Trump relations were very close, probably closer than they have ever been in the 73 years of Israel’s history.  While relations with Israel became very cozy, the opposite trend applied to the Palestinians.  It is not an exaggeration to suggest that relations with the P.A. became very frosty, due to Trump’s neglect of the Palestinian issue.  Toward the end of his term it became evident that a key reason for the neglect was a decision to focus on relations with the Sunni Arab states and to downplay the connection to the Palestinian Authority.  The resulting Abraham Accords unmistakably demonstrated the shift in the Americans’ Middle East focus. 

In contrast, Biden’s approach represents in many ways a revival of Obama era policies.  This should not be surprising because so many members of his foreign policy team were integral members of the Obama administration.  Among them are Antony Blinken and Wendy Sherman at the State Department, Jake Sullivan  at the National Security Council, and Rob Malley on the Iran file.  These people retain a commitment to advance the Palestinian issue, as is apparent from renewed talk about the pre-1967 armistice lines.  This approach is a non-starter in Israel, which has moved appreciably to the right since the second Palestinian intifada.  Unless the U.S. intends to provoke a confrontation with Israel, it is not likely that pursuing the Palestinian track will produce any results, especially since Biden has not yet made this cause a priority. 

There are many reasons to be dubious about the situation of the Palestinians, which is accentuated by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent decision to cancel the long-awaited election.  Apparently, he had good reasons to do so, primarily the realistic fear that Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza, might win.  One only has to recall what happened in 2006, when Hamas defeated the Fatah candidates in Gaza, to empathize with Abbas’s reluctance to contest an election in which the outcome was not guaranteed.  Of course, the octogenarian Abbas is not getting any younger.  It is telling that after more than 16 years in office (an elongated first term) no obvious successor has emerged and the prospects for Fatah are highly problematic.  Furthermore the P.A.’s focus on paying continuing stipends to terrorists or their families complicates relations with a U.S. Administration that clearly would like to do more to further the Palestinian cause. 

Concomitant with elevating the salience of the Palestinian cause, the Administration is pulling back from Trump’s benign view of Saudi Arabia.  In part this is due to lingering ill feelings from the Khashoggi murder.  But there are larger implications. The Abraham Accords facilitate Israel-Arab cooperation against the multifaceted threat from Iran.  Biden, on the other hand, wants to improve relations with Iran.  

Aside from the central question of Iranian nuclear weapons and how to prevent their acquisition, attempting to improve relations with Iran will lead to a deterioration of relations with the Gulf Arabs, thereby undermining the Middle East power structure that the Trump administration fostered.   

So, from a regional perspective, the Administration faces at least four major challenges:  what to do about Iran in general and the nuclear deal in particular; the Syrian situation, in which Iran plays a large role; how to deal with the Sunni Arabs while preserving the policy innovations of the Abraham Accords; and how to deal with the Palestinians and their cause.  Based on what the president and his officials have said, both before and after the election, dealing with these four questions presents a will be no easy feat. 

What then are the implications for Israel?  First of all, relations will definitely be cooler than they were under Trump.  Right now, the more extreme wing of the Democratic Party appears to be in the ascendency.  This is not a group that tends to be well-disposed toward Israel.  Biden himself has always been friendly and supportive toward Israel.  But he was also Vice-President in an administration that was noteworthy for its efforts to create distance between the two countries.  One has to suspect that current trends within the party will outweigh any personal feelings that Biden has. 

Another factor affecting U.S.-Israel relations concerns Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.  Will he find a way to continue in office?  If so, the new Administration would be none too happy about that.  Were he to be replaced there might be some potential for closer ties.  But who might his successor be?  What potential prime minister might be considered a welcome change by the left wing of the Democratic Party?  Anyone but Bibi?  Or are there additional criteria? 

Finally, let’s give some thought to the longer-term implications of the Biden Presidency.  There are three quick points that should be raised:   

  1. How long will he serve? One only has to see videos of Vice-President Biden during the Obama years to understand how much he has aged and slowed down.  Despite brave talk about seeking a second term at age 82, there is speculation that retirement before 2025 might become an option.   
  1. What would a Kamala Harris presidency be like (would Douglas Emhoff be a modern-day Queen Esther)? The Vice-President has generally been reticent about most issues.  And her foreign policy experience is not extensive.  She is generally seen as someone who is to the left of Biden on most issues and, therefore, as susceptible to pressure from the increasingly assertive left wing of the party.  On the other hand, she was a strong and outspoken supporter of Israel during her Senate years, despite attacks from those to her left. 
  1. What is the general trajectory of American politics and how will that affect Middle East policy? This is a complex question.  At present the left wing of the Democratic Party appears to be on the ascendency.  However, based on many past elections, one would expect the Republicans to gain in the 2022 congressional elections, thereby blunting Democratic domestic aspirations.  But foreign policy is largely the president’s domain, which means that it will not be affected much by the election.  Of course, there are several other areas of foreign policy concern other than the Middle East, the most noteworthy of which is China.  So, it would not be surprising if the Administration were reluctant to invest a lot of political capital in the Middle East.  If anything, it appears that Biden wants to get the re-entry to the Iran deal over with quickly and then move on to matters outside the region unless he perceives that the situation is ripe for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. 

To conclude, Israel faces several challenges with regard to the United States but is unlikely to be the major focus of Joe Biden’s foreign policy.  Still, if a new government is formed in Jerusalem one of its key priorities will be to improve relations with the new Administration. 

(Prof. Harold Waller, is a Professor of Political Science, McGill University, retired, and an academic Fellow with the CIJR.  He currently resides in Florida.) 

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