columnMiddle East

Biden’s revival means a return to Obama’s Middle East policies

A Trump-Biden matchup will give voters a choice between two different visions of relations with Israel, the Palestinians and Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, meet with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016, during Biden's official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, meet with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016, during Biden's official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As far as many Democrats are concerned, the possibility of one nightmare has been averted. Now they think it’s time to make the other bad dream in the form of President Donald Trump go away. The question is can they make that happen by offering America a rerun of the Obama administration?

In the course of less than two weeks, former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential hopes went from being dead in the water to an all but certain path to the Democratic nomination. By contrast, Sen. Bernie Sanders went from being the frontrunner to all but finished during the same period.

Not everybody in the Democratic Party is ecstatic about having Biden, whose dismal performances on the campaign trail and in debates over the first several months of the contest caused many to write him off, as their nominee. But they are, for understandable reasons, delighted that Sanders and his left-wing activist followers aren’t about to hijack their party.

Had Sanders been the nominee, the fall election would have been as much a referendum on the dubious prospect of Americans wanting to give Socialism a try rather than one on the record of President Donald Trump. With Biden more or less locking up the nomination with a series of crushing primary victories, the outline of the general election is now set. But what makes a Biden-Trump matchup different from any of the other Democratic contenders is that it ensures that this vote will also measure opinions about the Obama administration and its policies.

Biden’s success in the primaries was due largely to his ability to appeal to the African-American voters who rescued his flagging candidacy in South Carolina. To do that, he had to constantly invoke his status as Barack Obama’s faithful vice president. That triumph—and the very real prospect that continuing the competition for centrist voters would ensure a Sanders victory—convinced much of the rest of the field to drop out and ensured Biden’s subsequent wins.

One conclusion to be drawn from that is the encouraging news that most Democrats don’t want their party to be run by radicals. But it also shows that they are comfortable with the idea that the only way to beat Trump is with an Obama nostalgia tour. And since Biden is going to need a massive turnout of minority voters in order to duplicate the Obama formula for winning the 2008 and 2012 elections, we can expect to hear a lot more from him about being an Obama Democrat than what it might mean to be a Biden Democrat.

While a crusade whose purpose would be to restore the status quo of Jan. 20, 2017 might sound appealing to those who can’t stand Trump, it also invites a re-examination of the record of, as it will be known for the next eight months, the Obama-Biden administration.

The policy differences between Obama and Trump presidencies are many; however, there is no starker contrast than the one between their respective foreign policies. And it is on that point rather than on domestic politics—where Biden has often seemed to be dithering between more moderate stances and a tilt to the left to appease his party’s base—that we can most accurately gauge what his administration would be like.

As Biden has consistently said throughout his presidential run, his policies will be more or less a repeat of the ones that Obama pursued for eight years. And it is regarding the Middle East that some of the most important policy differences between the last two presidents are to be found.

The centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy was an attempt to bring about a rapprochement with Iran that would, in the words of the former president, give the Islamist regime a “chance to get right with the world.” Unfortunately, Iran was never interested in that opportunity and exploited Obama’s eagerness for a nuclear deal that would be his signature foreign-policy accomplishment. The result was a weak pact and an emboldened Iranian regime.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal has been denounced by Democrats, as well as Obama’s “media echo chamber.” But his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran has put the regime on its heels and given other states in the region hope that its quest for regional hegemony can be stopped.

The other major difference concerns the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Biden has sounded more supportive of Israel than his boss or most of his 2020 Democratic competitors. But the former vice president also remains an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s efforts to pressure the Jewish state into concessions that the majority of its people have rejected as irresponsible and a danger to their security.

Biden opposes Trump’s efforts to end Obama’s policy of more “daylight” between the United States and Israel, such as the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory and the effort to force the Palestinian Authority to stop funding terrorism.

Instead, a Biden administration—staffed by Obama alumni—may take the region back to the old failed U.S. policies that believed Israel had to be saved from itself, and which also rejected the strong consensus among the Jewish state’s voters that there is no viable Palestinian peace partner.

Turning back the clock to the way the world looked four years ago may sound good to Trump’s critics, but in the Middle East, it will be also be good news for a dangerous regime in Iran and Palestinian rejectionists who long for the days when America was joining with the mob trying to pressure Israel rather than standing up to it. Unless and until Biden is ready to say where he differs from the man he served so faithfully, he will be vulnerable to criticism that his election will be a rerun of Obama’s Middle East policies that have already been tried and failed.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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