Israel, Palestine Are No Priorities For Biden

Published February 4th, 2021 - 07:58 GMT
Joe Biden (AFP File)
Joe Biden (AFP File)

One of the hallmarks of the Trump presidency had been the level of unconditional support that Israel received from the White House. The US Embassy was moved to Jerusalem, Israel was given a blank check in its treatment of the Palestinians and reaped the benefits of Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, as well as scoring diplomatically via the Abraham Accords. The administration called itself the most “pro-Israel” yet.

Indeed, this sentiment seems to have resonated with most Israelis, with reports suggesting that over 60% of all Israelis supported Donald Trump on the eve of the American presidential elections.

In line with his style of personalized politics, President Trump was quick to cement an alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu, who is himself an increasingly divisive figure in Israel. His son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, facilitated the relationship, flying out to the region regularly, to act as Trump’s personal envoy in dealing with Israel. This was most recently apparent in Kushner’s leadership role in facilitating a series of bilateral normalizations between Arab countries and Israel under the umbrella of the Abraham Accords.

Now that the Trump chapter in Washington is over, all eyes will be on Biden and how he will deal with America’s closest yet most controversial ally in the region. While Biden has announced that he is seeking to reinstate American aid to Palestinians cut under Donald Trump, his secretary of state Anthony Blinken openly professed that the US Embassy would be staying in Jerusalem.

For all of Biden’s talk on reversing Trump-era foreign policy decisions, his stance on Israel is not likely to be very different from that of his predecessor's. Biden might rhetorically oppose some of Israel’s more questionable policies against Palestinians and will most certainly be more distant to Netanyahu, but this will likely be the gist of it. It was no secret that Obama and Netanyahu were not fond of one another, a repeat of the same sentiment can be expected under Biden, who will likely delegate his dealings with the Israelis to his foreign policy team instead. Biden would seek to underline that it is Israel as a state, rather than Netanyahu, that the US is supporting.

Biden, however, will not be actively engaged in constructing a foreign policy approach regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. If his most recent flurry of telephone diplomacy is any indication, Israel and Palestine are not part of the president’s policy priorities. Biden chose to emphasize certain parts of the Middle East, such as Yemen, as points of concern during the campaign trail, yet he made no remarks regarding a new approach to peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Moreover, his decision to fill key foreign policy and national security posts with establishment figures friendly to the Israelis suggests that Biden’s engagement with Israel will be business as usual. Despite the emergence of more vocal critics of Israel in the Democratic Party, Biden himself will toe the line on Israel. Members of his national security elite have already announced that their decisions about the Middle East will be made in tandem with the Israelis. Much like all the administrations before him, the Israeli factor looms large over America’s overall foreign policy rationale.

On the other hand, one potential thorn between Israel and the US under Biden is the administration’s willingness to return to some form of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. It served Israeli interests to keep Iran economically isolated, and Netanyahu enjoyed the rhetorical support of Trump against Iranian ambitions in the region. Biden is already facing intense lobbying from the Israelis to make a deal that suits their interests. If the president’s acquiescence to Israel thus far is any indication, any future rendition of the JCPOA will likely reflect Israel’s weight in Washington.

Unchanging US policy

American presidents, regardless of political orientation, have remained fervently pro-Israel. This has often come at the cost of America’s relationship with other regional partners and has gradually chipped away at Washington’s ability to act as a credible broker in fostering a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Viewed from the Middle East, the US has been reduced to playing the patron of Israel and has no place in future negotiations regarding a just solution that would enable Palestinians to prosper alongside Israelis. Biden’s stance on Israel is a continuation of the same policy, which supersedes party lines and has become one of the fundamentals of American foreign policy.

Israel’s significance in American domestic political debates has prompted American politicians to adopt a universally pro-Israeli stance. This has also made criticism of Israel nearly impossible for any mainstream American political candidate. Joe Biden is no exception in this regard. Biden has no political incentives to adopt a novel stance on Israel. In fact, he needs to appear to be strongly supporting the Israeli cause, if only to guard against political attacks from the Republicans. As long as American presidents are bound to perpetually uphold Israel’s interests above those of all others in the region, their policies on Israel will remain largely unchanged.


Return to the JCPOA?

Biden’s proposed return to a deal with Iran has made the Israelis somewhat uneasy. This has been exacerbated by the appointment of Robert Malley -- the chief architect of the JCPOA -- as the president’s special envoy for Iran. Malley is viewed with distrust in Israeli circles for his role in designing the JCPOA. Israel has a long-term interest in seeing Iran weakened, and trusts that the US will do so. Any move to bring Iran back into the fold is viewed with suspicion by the Israelis, who would rather see their most sophisticated adversary sanctioned and isolated.

In this sense, Biden’s desire to return to some degree of engagement with Tehran is the greatest divergence from the Trump era. Yet the current dynamics of the situation make an immediate agreement between the US and Iran unlikely. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Tehran has rendered much of the JCPOA null and void. In lieu of this, the Biden administration is proposing a longer-term agreement further down the line.

Furthermore, Biden seems bent on appeasing Israeli concerns when it comes to Iran. Members of his foreign policy team have downplayed any Israeli concerns, asserting that any future negotiations with Iran will be done in close consultation with the Israelis. Even on the Iran account, Biden may simply safeguard Israeli interests, rather than pursue a broad compromise with Tehran. Overall, the Biden chapter of US foreign policy seems much like all that came before when it comes to dealing with Israel.

Batu Coskun is a London-based political analyst focusing on Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf. He holds an MSc in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

© Copyright Andolu Ajansi

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