columnMiddle East

How much of Trump’s foreign policy would Biden preserve?

Democrats want to reject everything the president has done. But when it comes to Israel and Iran, a new Democratic administration would be wise not to turn back the clock.

Former U.S. Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Credit: Flickr.
Former U.S. Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Credit: Flickr.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Democrats can’t wait until next January. They’re hoping that the next inauguration day will be the end of their long nightmare, and they can put the presidency of Donald Trump in the rear-view mirror. Should they get their wish, they’re hoping that his successor will toss out everything he’s done.

That’s the way it usually works when one party takes over from its rivals, and it largely characterized the transitions from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush and then from Bush to Barack Obama, and then Obama to Trump. Should prospective Democratic nominee Joe Biden defeat Trump in November, it’s certain that with respect to many issues, the government clock will be turned back to where things stood in January 2017.

But despite the general feeling among Trump’s detractors that his presidency has been a bad dream from which they long to wake, the notion that all of his decisions can be simply erased is itself an illusion. A lot has happened during these years, especially with respect to the Middle East, and Biden and his advisors would be foolish to want to roll back everything that’s been done.

That was made apparent when Biden said that he is not moving the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. While Biden continues to pay lip service to the foolish mindset that kept the United States from formally recognizing Israel’s rights to its capital for 70 years, his concession that a long overdue action that he still insists should not have happened (his claims that the embassy should only have been moved in the context of a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, which, considering that they have consistently rejected every offer of peace, it tantamount to saying it will never happen) is not without significance.

Biden’s foreign-policy team will look like an Obama administration alumni reunion committee. But even they know that what Trump did with respect to Jerusalem cannot be undone without doing far more harm than the theoretical good they imagine might come from appeasing the Palestinians in this manner. That is why the arguments from Jewish Democrats, who would have cheered if a president they voted for had moved the embassy, that Trump’s action was insignificant were so disingenuous. The impact of America’s finally recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the ancient capital of the Jewish people can’t be diminished.

Nevertheless, as top Biden adviser and former Obama Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made clear this week, a new Democratic administration would return to Obama’s fruitless quest for a two-state solution that the Palestinians don’t want.

Biden’s foreign-policy team will look like an Obama administration alumni reunion committee.

That is a goal that was also embraced by Trump in the Middle East peace plan he floated earlier this year. But the furious opposition of the Biden team to any prospect of Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements shows that they are still laboring under the delusion that any Israeli government can be persuaded to return to the dangerous 1967 lines, and that doing so would make any difference to Palestinians, who have already rejected several peace offers that conformed to those parameters.

In some ways, one can say that time has stood still since 2017 since the Palestinians are as determined to avoid peace with Israel as they were during Obama’s eight years in office, despite his consistent efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction. And the majority of Israelis are just as determined to avoid repeating blunders—like the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza that led to so much bloodshed—as they were when Obama exited from the White House.

But while Biden, Blinken and company may talk of two states and hope that they can outlast Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in office—something Obama failed to do—they may also understand that their chances of making the Palestinians negotiate seriously remain non-existent. The constant bickering with the Israeli government that was the hallmark of Obama’s Middle East policy may return. But in practice, Biden is likely to find himself managing the conflict in a manner that is similar to that of Trump in that he is probably going to be hoping to maintain, rather than demolish, the increasingly close though largely informal ties between Israel and Sunni Arab states that look to it as an ally against the threat from Iran.

And despite the bitter denunciations of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal coming from the Obama alumni, as well as Biden’s promise to return to it, the idea that they can simply happily revert to a policy of appeasing Tehran is also illusory.

In the years since Obama left office, Iran’s continued support for international terror and its efforts to destabilize Arab nations as part of its quest for regional hegemony have continued, even as the Iranian people persist in making clear their disgust with the misrule of the theocratic tyrants that oppress them.

Biden will need to understand that relaxing or ending Trump’s sanctions on Iran, which has shaken the Islamist regime and exposed its inherent weakness domestically, won’t make the Middle East safer. He and his team probably also know that they will be obligated to take up Trump’s quest to force Iran to renegotiate the nuclear agreement, lest they find themselves in office when Tehran shakes off its weak restrictions and finally gets a bomb with Western acquiescence. As much as Biden may claim to disdain Trump’s policies, he is unlikely to be prepared to go along with letting Iran be rearmed or further enriched and become an even greater threat.

Obama left Trump a more dangerous Middle East than Bush left him. Biden should gratefully accept the gains Trump has made in weakening Iran and would be ill-advised to try to give them back. Though Democrats may think Trump’s era will be quickly erased, they’re likely to preserve more of his foreign policy than they may want to admit.

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

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates