President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in Wednesday evening as the president of the United States, and will immediately be tasked with leading his country through one of its most challenging periods in history.
Beyond the most pressing matters of a worsening pandemic, a mounting economic crisis and a historically divided nation, Biden’s plate also will be filled with matters of foreign affairs, none perhaps more pressing than a reignited Iranian nuclear program and ongoing Middle East tensions.
Biden’s policy toward the region, and especially toward Israeli-related issues, is expected to significantly differ from the stance struck by his predecessor’s administration over the past four years.
“Since Biden was vice president, the Democratic party has moved more to the left,” professor Zaki Shalom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line. “Today’s party is largely opposed to most of what the current Israeli administration is doing. Biden’s wiggle room is much smaller than [former President Barack] Obama’s was, in that sense.”
Because of the current circumstance, the Middle East will receive much less attention than the previous administration gave it, except maybe the Iranian problem
Prof. Ephraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes that, more than the president and his party’s leanings, the US’ priorities will dictate the amount of effort invested in the Middle East.
President-elect Joe Biden “has more pressing matters like the coronavirus and domestic issues. Washington’s trend of distancing itself from the region, which started during Obama’s term and continued with [outgoing President Donald] Trump, will persist,” Inbar told The Media Line.
“Because of the current circumstance, the Middle East will receive much less attention than the previous administration gave it, except maybe the Iranian problem,” he said.
President Trump will leave his successor the thankless task of reining in Tehran, which in recent months has aggressively flaunted international agreements and violated its past commitments.
Since President Trump unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal struck between Iran and the world powers – over two years ago, Iran has slowly but surely advanced its nuclear activities, most recently starting to enrich its uranium stockpiles to up to 20% purity levels and reopening several dormant facilities.
To make matters worse, Iranian leaders like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif have indicated they will refuse any attempts by the US and European countries to reopen the nuclear deal or negotiate issues like its long-range missile projects or its regional activity in neighboring countries.
“Biden will try to strike a new deal with Tehran, and with all the Obama-era appointees filling his cabinet, there’s an indication an agreement will be reached at all costs,” Inbar said. “That doesn’t bode well for Israel.”
“I assume that, at least in the beginning, Netanyahu will try to avoid the head-on conflict that erupted during the 2015 negotiations. But at a later date, when it becomes inevitable – Jerusalem will have to protect its interests, maybe even to the extent of striking in Iran,” he said.
Israeli officials also are waiting to hear Biden’s plans for issues closer to home.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration has been in virtual lockstep with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, siding with the right-wing leader on nearly all matters regarding West Bank settlements and the Palestinian conflict.
Trump took several historic steps during his term, including recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights captured by Israel during the 1967 war, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and officially designating Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank territories as “not illegal per se.”
In 2019, at the height of parliamentary elections in Israel, Trump revealed his peace plan, which included the possible annexation of some 70% of the West Bank by Israel. While Netanyahu embraced the proposal wholeheartedly, Ramallah rejected the entire initiative and refused to meet with the president’s team.
Biden, said Shalom, “will almost certainly cancel the Trump peace plan, and will try to bring back the two-state solution. He won’t undo the steps taken by Trump in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but he will definitely halt any Israeli actions seen as provocation by the Palestinians.”
“There will be some pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table, and to rein in the settlement expansion,” he continued. “But Biden was part of the peace process during the Obama years. He saw those negotiations lead nowhere. That experience may lead him to adopt a more skeptical approach.”
Inbar added: “They understand that the Palestinian issue is unsolvable at the moment. It will be about managing the conflict, not resolving it.”
“Maybe Washington will be friendlier to Ramallah – reopen its embassy in Washington, reinstate the funds to UNRWA. But that’s about it,” he said.
One area in which Biden is expected to fully adopt Trump’s policy is the normalization process between Israel and Arab nations.
Starting in early August, four countries in the Gulf and northern Africa agreed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and to form diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
While some have pointed to the massive amounts of weapons sold by the US to these states in return for their rapprochement with Jerusalem, and have criticized these moves as nothing more than glorified arms deals, the acceptance of Israel by recently hostile states like Sudan and the United Arab Emirates is likely to be encouraged and expanded by the incoming administration.
“Biden may choose to use normalization as a pressure point in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Maybe ask the UAE to slow the process down, as a way of pushing Israel into making concessions to Ramallah,” Shalom said. “But I don’t see that as very likely, especially when the UAE itself has its interest in advancing relations with Jerusalem.”
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US policy in the Middle East at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, thinks that while the chances of Biden straying from the recently blazed path of regional alliance are low, they are not non-existent.
“Biden’s main focus is negotiating a deal with Iran,” he told The Media Line. “Supplying arms to its neighboring Gulf states and adding more countries to the pact with Israel will infuriate Iran, so it might be slowed or even halted temporarily.”
Biden may choose to use normalization as a pressure point in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Maybe ask the UAE to slow the process down, as a way of pushing Israel into making concessions to Ramallah
Biden’s ascendance may also affect Israeli politics, experts believe.
On March 23, Israel will hold its fourth general election in two years. In the previous three rounds, Netanyahu knew he could rely on his “close friend in the White House” for some favorable press conferences or token declarations during the home stretch.
This time around, things will be starkly different for the veteran politician.
“Netanyahu is obviously seen as extremely close to Trump and the Republicans as a whole, and one who practically burned all bridges to the Democratic party,” Shalom said. “Many people are now calling on him to step aside, claiming he is the least fit to hold office during Biden’s term.”
“On the other hand, his supporters say that precisely because a less-than-friendly administration is in control, Netanyahu should be there, to stand up to the administration like he did during the Obama years,” he added.
Inbar advises caution when talking about a “split” with the US ruling party.
“It’s true that today’s Democratic party contains elements that are much less friendly toward the current Israeli government. Netanyahu would do well to make an effort to reclaim bipartisan support,” Inbar said.
“But any talk of a split is exaggerated. We have many friends [in the Democratic party] still. Biden himself is a close friend of Israel. His presence in the White House is an opportunity to rehabilitate relations,” he said.