Biden was not the preferred choice of Israel or the Gulf states, and he’ll be facing a very different Middle East.
Unlike President Trump, whose positions on many issues were not widely known before he decided to run for the White House, the views and beliefs of Joe Biden, the veteran senator and former vice president to Barak Obama, are known to all.
The day before the American election, rumors spread through the networks of the Middle East that some Arab countries were trying to influence their expatriates living in America to vote for Donald Trump. But after the American media called the election for Biden, even staunch Trump supporters like Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz offered traditional congratulations to the apparent victor, and the Middle East began preparing for a change of administration in Washington.
Before diving into Biden’s expected Middle East policies, two important points should be made:
- The Middle East has lost its high priority for American presidents over the past two decades, and this trend will continue under Biden. America is leaving the Middle East, reducing its military presence (Trump cut the number of bases and troops in Syria and Iraq), and is instead relying more on alliances between its regional partners, like Israel and the Gulf states.
- As much as the US might want to scale back direct involvement in the Middle East, it can’t leave the region and focus solely on “America first.” Left unchecked, the Middle East would quickly come to American shores and those of key US allies in the form of Islamic terrorism.
Biden and Israel
Joe Biden is no stranger to the Israeli political elite. He is a regular guest of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, and has hundreds of “pro-Israel” votes in the Senate. Biden belongs to the core “old guard” of the Democratic Party, whose positions on Israel have been criticized by rivals further to the left, such as Senator Bernie Sanders. But Democratic voters in many states overwhelmingly chose Biden over Sanders as their candidate for the White House, so to claim that Biden’s more pro-Israel views no longer align with the party majority is laughable.
Today it can be all but assumed that any new American president is going to be at least as generous in providing military and technical assistance to Israel as Barack Obama was. The previous military aid package of $38 billion was approved in 2016 (under Obama) and went into effect in 2019 (under Trump). It is scheduled to end in 2028. Should he end up victorious, discussion on the next aid package would begin under President Biden, and there is no reason to believe he’d seek to reduce aid to Israel.
At the same time, it is known that Joe Biden adheres to the classic American position on the issue of Jewish settlement building, and in this sense is no different from Bill Clinton: settlement construction is not encouraged, annexation is completely against international law, and the preferred solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the formula of “two states for two peoples.” Is this position hostile to Israel? Of course not, because not all Israelis agree on the feasibility of building new settlements on land that does not belong to the state.
Of course, a lot would depend on how relations between Netanyahu and Biden developed. The past 12 years (eight under Obama and the last four under Trump) have seen something of an “ice age” in relations between Netanyahu and the Democrats. It will not be easy to restore relations between the State of Israel and the Democratic Party to where they were when Clinton was president.
Biden and the Palestinians
The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, and even in Gaza, was overjoyed when the media declared Joe Biden to be the next president of the United States. The Palestinian street, however, remained virtually indifferent to the news. This dissonance can be easily explained by the fact that residents of the Palestinian Authority still remember the enthusiasm over the election of Barack Obama, who ended up doing very little for them. And they don’t expect anything more of Biden, who, again, was Obama’s number 2.
Even so, at least for the Palestinian leadership, Biden is preferable simply in that he is not Donald Trump. He will not humiliate the Palestinians with sudden decisions taken after consultations with one party – Israel, and will almost certainly restore financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority, as well as reopen the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington.
Very few expect the the land-for-peace negotiations will resume while Netanyahu remains in power. But if the situation could return to where it was just before the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, many Palestinians would see that as an achievement. Of course, Biden has already signaled that he would not acquiesce to the Palestinian demand to move the embassy back to Tel Aviv.
Biden and Iran
From the point of view of the military and political leaderships in the region, the most sensitive question is what kind of policy a President Biden would pursue in regards to Iran.
First, the nuclear deal. Biden has previously stated that he would return to the agreement concluded in 2015 under Obama, which as vice president Biden had a hand in. But how realistic is this in the geopolitical reality of 2021? Over the past five years, evidence has come to light that Iran intends to violate certain provisions of the agreement, and Tehran is now demanding “compensation” for sanctions imposed by Trump if it is to return to the deal.
Iran has also become firmly aware of US plans to reduce its presence in the Middle East and avoid direct confrontation with the Islamic Republic. It is for that reason that, sanctions and threats notwithstanding, Iran felt emboldened to attack oil plants in Saudi Arabia over the past year.
In Biden’s view, the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal without any clear alternative to contain Iranian aggression in the region was futile. It is likely that around the time of the next Iranian presidential election (June 2021), Biden would try to carefully forge a new nuclear agreement based on the previous one.
Israel’s goal will be to use all of its leverage with the new administration (which is far less than in the past) to curb Iran’s designs on hegemony in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq by convincing Washington that such an outcome threatens not only Israel and the Gulf states, but the United States, too.
Biden and the Arab leaders
It is no secret that the leaders of the Arab countries were not enthusiastic about Joe Biden’s nomination. As in Israel, they preferred to continue working with Trump, who has taken a tough stance toward Iran and turned a blind eye to various human rights violations in the Arab states.
In Saudi Arabia, they congratulated Biden on his projected victory, but are wary of him again raising objections to human rights violations in kingdom and its neighboring states. Unlike Trump, Biden would be expected to have far less tolerance for such behavior. Of course, it should be noted that no US president has ever taken concrete action to protect human rights and force any Arab regime to play by rules the are alien to the “laws of the jungle” that they follow. Yes, presidents have often publicly condemned abuses, but never went any further.
Apparently, Trump saw no point in such toothless condemnations, and instead signaled that human rights violations in the region were not his concern.
While Arab leaders would expect a shift under a President Biden, they are also to some extent aware that he is not Barack Obama. Biden is a skilled diplomat and politician, and he will be able to find a common language with those who today feel no joy in his declared victory.
Biden also needs arms deals with the Gulf monarchies, because he needs jobs for the Americans, he needs allies to stabilize the situation in the Gulf region, and more than anything else, he needs peace and quiet in order to pay as much attention as possible to American domestic problems.
The United States and Turkey
It is believed that tension between the US and Turkey would increase if Biden were to assume the presidency. The reason would be similar to the situation with Saudi Arabia – a Biden White House would demand more accountability of Turkey in regards to human rights and democratic norms.
Also of great inconvenience to a Biden presidency would be the regional aggression, both military and religious, of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Originally posted at israeltoday.co.il