Middle East faces prospects of Biden presidency

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Posted on: 
4 Dec 2020
Middle East faces prospects of Biden presidency

After the media declared Joe Biden the winner of the US elections in early November, leaders in Israel and the Middle East quickly began taking measures in anticipation of Biden taking office on January 20th. These moves may prove premature, however, as President Donald Trump has contested the results over allegations of massive election fraud and is seeking to secure a second term on Constitutional grounds. As of this writing, the outcome of those efforts are still unresolved, but the prospects of a Biden presidency have already caused key shifts in the region.

From an Israeli perspective, it would be hard for any president to measure up to Trump. He recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US Embassy there; recognised the Golan as sovereign Israeli territory; gave legitimacy to Israel’s presence in Judea/Samaria; played down the two-state solution; cut off US funding to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA refugee agency; withdrew from the flawed Iranian nuclear agreement; confronted the bullying of Israel in the United Nations; and recently swayed three Arab states to normalise relations with Israel. For all these reasons Trump is widely admired in Israel, with one pre-election poll showing 66% of Israelis were pulling for his re-election.

Meantime, Biden has his own long record on Israel and the region. During his 36 years in the US Senate, he did tend to go along with the pro-Israel consensus in Congress. But as vice president for eight years in the Obama administration, there were many occasions when he could have distanced himself from its unfriendly policies towards Israel, yet he failed to do so. This extends from when a newly sworn-in Barack Obama immediately pressured Israel to impose an unprecedented ten-month settlement freeze, all the way to when the outgoing Obama team orchestrated the very one-sided UN Security Council resolution 2334, which declared Israeli settlements a “flagrant violation under international law”.

Given this record, most Mideast leaders have been expecting Biden to take a completely different approach to the region than Trump.

As a general rule, Biden is bent on undoing many of Trump’s executive decisions – both at home and abroad. This might not mean returning the US Embassy to Tel Aviv. But it would include warming US relations with the PLO and restoring US funding to the PA and UNRWA – although Biden would need to adhere to the new Taylor Force Act which now blocks US funding if the Palestinians are still paying welfare benefits to terrorists.

He also would vigorously push the two-state solution again, as well as pressure Israel on settlement activity. And he would likely revert to the “linkage” theory – the State Department’s traditional position that all conflicts in the region stem from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which needs to be solved before other regional problems can be addressed.

Buoyed by the thought Trump was on his way out, the PA leadership in Ramallah quickly signalled Biden they were ready to start restoring security cooperation with Israel, and even to enter renewed negotiations with Jerusalem, after boycotting any such talks during Trump’s time in office.

European Union officials also felt emboldened to ratchet up their opposition to all settlement activity, denouncing in particular Israeli plans to build hundreds of new housing units in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Givat Hamatos.

However, many Arab leaders continued to take steps to normalise relations with Israel. Even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman recently hosted a discreet but historic meeting with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss future moves should Biden take office.

Meanwhile on Iran, many analysts believe Biden would either re-enter the old nuclear deal or seek a new one with minor changes and an extended deadline. The clerical regime in Tehran, however, made it clear they would exact a high price to even entertain possible changes to the JCPOA negotiated under Obama.

Otherwise, Biden is largely seen as a ‘globalist’ – a view reflected in his picks so far for senior foreign policy positions. Many are former Obama appointees, which could prove worrisome to Israelis still smarting from the Obama years. But Biden’s defenders insist he would respect the close US-Israel relationship and help maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

For America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies, however, there are serious concerns Biden would return to the Obama-era appeasement of Iran by lifting sanctions and overlooking its aggressive tactics in the region. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to the region to reassure Israel and the Arabs that Trump was still around, and a few days later Iran’s top nuclear scientist was assassinated – setting back its atomic program no matter who occupies the White House.

David Parsons is an author, attorney, journalist, and ordained minister who serves as Vice President and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem