OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

What is going to change in the Middle East under Biden?

Israel must do all it can to strengthen ties with the U.S., preserve as much as possible the new game rules set by the Trump administration and sharpen the positive potential inherent in these changes.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a reception at the Naval Observatory Residence marking the 16th Anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22, 2010. Credit: Official White House Photo by David Lienemann.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a reception at the Naval Observatory Residence marking the 16th Anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22, 2010. Credit: Official White House Photo by David Lienemann.
Yossi Kuperwasser
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

President Donald Trump’s policies in the Middle East contributed significantly to changes in the rules of the game in the region, both in the Palestinian and regional contexts.

The primary change was the breaking of the paradigm in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the heart of the Middle East impasse. The peace and normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan illustrated the exact opposite. The agreements denied the Palestinians the veto they supposedly held on relations between Israel and the Arab world.

Another major change was the overturning by the Trump administration of the claim that Israel’s sovereignty over territory it had seized in the Six-Day War should not be recognized. In a precedent-setting move, the United States under Trump acted according to the opinion that U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 called on Israel to withdraw from “territories” it had seized, rather than “all territories.” The U.S. acknowledged Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and Israel’s claim to sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem and 30 percent of Judea and Samaria, including the Jordan Valley.

Other rules of play that changed during Trump’s term were the rejection of allegations that Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria were illegitimate or illegal, that an agreement would require the evacuation of some of the settlements and that the security arrangements that would be established in the future between Israel and a future Palestinian entity would be based on Palestinian responsibility for security. The United States recognized the legality of Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria, as well as Israel’s security needs, which require Israeli control of the Jordan Valley and overriding Israeli responsibility for security in the entire territory.

The previous paradigm demanded that Israel choose between two problematic alternatives. The first was maintaining the status quo. In order to convince Israel to disavow this alternative, it is portrayed by many as inevitably forcing Israel to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic one. The second alternative is a return to the 1967 lines with minor changes and territorial swaps, so as to enable the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank that remains committed to defeating Zionism.

Instead, the alternatives put forth were implementing the Trump peace plan in its entirety or Israel expanding normalization agreements with the Arab states while maintaining the status quo in the territories and suspending the application of its sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria.

Implementing the Trump plan would have allowed the extension of Israeli sovereignty over territories vital to Israel’s security (the Jordan Valley and much of the settlements), while potentially establishing a Palestinian state in Palestinian-populated territories, conditional on the Palestinians meeting certain conditions.

In both of these scenarios, Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature is preserved.

A change in Palestinian Policy?

Some of these demands have already been translated by the United States and Israel into legislation, notably the Taylor Force Act, which secured wall-to-wall support in Congress and declares that the United States will not provide aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it pays salaries to terrorists and their families. Israel passed a similar law, which also received broad support in the Knesset, and has determined that Israel will deduct the amount the Palestinian Authority pays in salaries to terrorists and their families from the taxes it collects for the P.A.

This deviates from the previous American practice of avoiding punitive measures against the P.A., even if the P.A. blatantly violated the Oslo Accords and supported terrorism. That American practice had been adopted to ensure the P.A.’s stability, and out of fear of a strong P.A. reaction. This Palestinian “deterrent” was also ignored when the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, actions that did not provoke a widespread negative response.

As a result of these changes, the Palestinian leadership’s ability to advance its strategic objectives, primarily the struggle to defeat Zionism, has been significantly weakened. Within Palestinian society, one can see the beginnings of a re-evaluation of the logic of the Palestinian narrative that prioritizes confrontation with Zionism and places the quality of Palestinian life as a secondary priority.

On the other hand, there were, of course, those who pledged to adhere to the narrative at all costs and even considered promoting unification moves between Fatah and Hamas. The Nov. 3 U.S. election results were greeted with a sigh of relief among Palestinians, who believe that the pressure on them will diminish under a Biden administration, and perhaps even that personnel sympathetic to the Palestinians will be integrated into the president-elect’s team. But at the same time, the Palestinians understand that they have to come to terms with the new reality and the new rules. This is why they have announced that they will resume security and civilian coordination with Israel, without Israel announcing that it is giving up its intention to extend its sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on March 9, 2016. Photo by Flash90.

Changes on the Iranian front

In the regional context, the axiom that stated that Iran and its proxies enjoyed immunity from U.S. and Israeli actions against them has been overturned. U.S.-imposed economic sanctions on Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah; the elimination of Iranian Quds Force commander Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani; U.S. strikes in Syria and Iraq; and the succession of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria (and possibly several actions attributed to Israel in Iran itself) reflect this change. However, the rule still stands that direct military activity against Hezbollah in Lebanon, beyond intelligence gathering, should be avoided.

The most significant practical manifestation of the changed rules was the U.S. decision in 2018 to exit the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and to impose ever-tightening sanctions on the Islamist regime in Tehran. These changes confronted Iran with severe economic hardship, affecting its control of countries where it gained significant influence during the Obama era (Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), and, in response, it chose to violate the nuclear agreement.

Iran was forced to leave, at least temporarily, the safe path to nuclear weapons guaranteed by the JCPOA, and instead return to the problematic trajectory of striving toward nuclear “breakout” capability. Today, the time required for an Iranian “breakout,” i.e., to produce enough military-grade enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, stands at three to five months, compared to one year, the term set by the JCPOA according to the Obama administration’s interpretation of the deal.

Israel and the Arab world

The breakthrough in relations between Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries and the pressures on Iran also changed the rules of the game between the pragmatic camp and its radical rivals from the Iranian and Muslim Brotherhood axes. This led to the strengthening of the pragmatic camp, thanks to the growing commitment of the United States and Israel to its members’ security and prosperity (including arms deals with the United Arab Emirates, notably the F-35 deal).

U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyani sign the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House, Sept. 15, 2020. Credit: White House/Tia Dufour.

During the U.S. election campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his entourage announced that they had not come to terms with many of the changes enacted by the Trump administration, and intended to reinstate the previous rules of the game. Messages in this vein were also heard after it became clear that Biden had, in fact, become president-elect. Biden and his top foreign policy advisers emphasized the U.S. interest in lifting sanctions on Iran and returning to the nuclear agreement, hoping that minor changes to the deal would be acceptable to the Iranians. They also expressed the view that the Palestinian issue is a key topic in the Middle East and that the new administration intends to renew U.S. ties and assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Will Biden follow in the previous administration’s footsteps?

Biden and his advisers have asserted that their strategic objectives are no different from those of previous administrations, i.e., preventing Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons; restraining Tehran’s dangerous activities in the region and the domestic arena; fortifying Israel’s security, in part by continuing security assistance and preserving Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME); opposing Israel’s delegitimization; and promoting an agreement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the formula of two states—even if they are skeptical of the prospect of making significant progress towards this goal.

The ability of the new administration to advance its worldview in the Palestinian context, given the changing reality in the Middle East, will be influenced by a variety of constraints. Significant aspects of the new rules of the game appear to be irreversible, notably the normalization of relations between Israel and the pragmatic Sunni states, which have even adopted dimensions of moderation. For instance, in the agreement with the United Arab Emirates, the UAE recognized the existence of a Jewish People for the first time—a clear contradiction of the central principle underlying the Palestinian narrative that rules out the existence of such a people. Therefore, the ability of the P.A. to mobilize the Arabs to pressure Israel has been significantly reduced.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, delivers a statement on the Iran nuclear agreement in the East Room of the White House on July 14, 2015. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

It is also unlikely (though not entirely impossible) that the new administration will ignore the Taylor Force Act and renew financial aid to the P.A., even while the P.A. insists on continuing to pay salaries to terrorists who murdered Israelis (and Americans). The P.A. has even announced that it will employ the terrorists who had completed their prison terms in the P.A. security forces. The Palestinians are considering changes in the system of payments to arrested terrorists, encouraged by sympathetic Democratic Party activists, but it is doubtful that they really mean to stop this practice or change it in any significant way that might satisfy Israel, the United States and other donors.

It appears that Biden will refrain from returning the U.S. embassy to Tel Aviv or canceling the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Golan Heights as part of Israel. If the Senate remains Republican-controlled, he will find it even harder to aid the Palestinians, despite expected pressure from the progressive camp in his party.

On the other hand, Biden may freeze or cancel Trump’s peace initiative and return to referring to the settlements in the territories as illegitimate or even lacking legal validity (in the language of UNSC Res. 2334, which the Obama administration allowed to pass in its final days), despite the opinion of the State Department under President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which contradicted this claim.

Biden may re-adopt the Obama-Kerry peace plan of 2013-14, which included a security concept dangerous to Israel (the “Allen Plan,” which among its many flaws included a Palestinian Special Forces unit equipped with helicopters). In any event, it is likely that despite Biden’s sympathetic attitude to Israel he will show a more critical attitude toward it, especially compared to Trump.

Even in the Iranian context, the new rules of the game and current circumstances will make it difficult for Biden and his administration to turn the wheel back quickly. Some sanctions were deliberately imposed through mechanisms that cannot be readily repealed (such as those set under anti-terrorism legislation). Moreover, the Iranians are unwilling to agree to changes or additions to the original nuclear agreement, such as limitations on intercontinental ballistic missile development.

The Iranians are now busy preparing for Iran’s upcoming presidential elections and the consequential internal tensions. Meanwhile, more information about Iran’s nuclear program has emerged and is being discovered, both on the basis of the nuclear archives uncovered by Israel and on the basis of revelations by opposition sources, which could require the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to take action against Iran, complicating the situation further.

In the broad regional context, Biden is expected to adopt a more critical policy toward Saudi Arabia and other elements of the pragmatic Arab camp and move closer to Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated states and “reformists” in Iran. Groups in the United States, led by the pro-Iran National Iranian American Council (NIAC)’s Trita Parsi, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), with its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, had close relations with the Obama administration and supported Biden’s candidacy. They will be seeking “payback” for their support. Progressives in the Democratic Party will also pursue government posts in return for their support.

Maintaining the U.S.-Israel relationship

Ultimately, Biden will have to take into account that relations with Israel are crucial to protecting American interests in the region and that the pragmatic Arabs are close allies of the United States, while the regimes in countries led by radical elements, such as Turkey and Iran, are involved in activities that undermine stability and blatantly violate the human rights of their citizens, much more than the pragmatic Arab camp.

It is precisely the new rules of the game that create potential leverage to make significant changes in Palestinian and Iranian policy during the next U.S. president’s term. The distress in which the Iranians, their proxies and the Palestinians find themselves, and their high expectations that Biden will extract them from these pressures, create a convenient basis for the new president to demand flexibility from the Palestinians and the Iranians to further his foreign policy goals.

On the other hand, attempts to reinstate the old rules of the game unconditionally, and to reject everything achieved by the Trump administration, as expressed in some of the initial statements by Biden’s people, may dissolve the potential to bring about desired changes. Such a position could result in encouraging the Iranians to become more stubborn in their demands to reject any changes in the JCPOA.

Israel must do all it can to strengthen ties with the United States under the new administration, preserve as much as possible the new rules created in recent years, sharpen the positive potential inherent in these changes and emphasize the importance of support for the pragmatic Arab camp, even though it has its problems. The more Israel cooperates with members of this camp and expands the circle of countries that openly promote normalization of relations with it, the stronger Israel and the pragmatists will become as they seek to bring the new U.S. administration to support the positive changes in the Middle East and to realize their potential. At the same time, Israel will strive to maintain its fundamental positions and freedom of action toward Iran and the Palestinians.

IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for PUblic Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

This full article is available at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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