Tuesday, 1 Dec 2020 - 15 of Kislev, 5781
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What the next US administration could mean for Israel and the Middle East

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While the election results still remain unclear, observers have questioned whether a potential Biden administration could treat Israel with some level of hostility that was especially seen during the last few months of the Obama administration.

By Israel Kasnett, JNS

With razor-thin margins separating U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the contentious race for the White House has yet to produce a clear victor. Around the globe, all eyes are on the elections, but in Israel in particular, questions are being asked over what the next four years could look like with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s new relationship with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan.

Yonatan Freeman, an international relations expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told JNS that the Palestinians “stand to gain” from a Biden administration.

According to Freeman, if Biden wins the election, “there is a potential that the Trump ‘deal of the century’ will be replaced by a Biden plan, though it may incorporate certain aspects of what Trump put forth, as well as policies that Biden was a part of during the Obama administration.”

While as vice president, Biden played a prominent role in helping to shape the Obama administration’s foreign policy, including on Israel, several major shifts in the region have occurred over the last four years, especially in the last several weeks with the Abraham Accords, that could re-shape Biden’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, foreign policy may also take a back seat for early in a potential Biden administration as the U.S. seeks to get a handle on the coronavirus pandemic.

Freeman believes that the Palestinians “will potentially have an increase in diplomatic standing vis-à-vis relations with the United States and certain aid which was frozen by Washington during the Trump presidency may now be released to the Palestinian Authority both directly and by way of contributions by the U.S. to international bodies that have been shunned by Trump.”

There will likely be more criticism of Israel when it comes to its activities in the West Bank, too, and a future U.S. ambassador to Israel may have a weaker relationship with the Israeli government.

Freeman said he does not think Biden will close the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem; however, he “might change U.S. policy when it comes to the Golan Heights,” although a senior Biden campaign official recently told JNS that the former vice president would likely keep Golan recognition.

Based on what Israel witnessed during the last few months of the Obama administration,  observers have questioned whether a Biden administration could also treat Israel with some level of hostility. According to Freeman, it is likely that “more U.S. criticism may be directed towards Israel even in international bodies like the United Nations.”

He noted that pro-Palestinian groups “from inside and outside the Democratic Party,” as well as stronger U.S. relations with the European Union, “will likely have a stronger way of impacting the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Regarding Iran, Biden has mentioned a number of times that he intends to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of in May 2018, likely lifting the heavy sanctions in the process and once again giving Iran access to significant cash.

By doing so, said Freeman, a Biden administration could improve Iran’s standing diplomatically. “This could impact relations with Israel and cause the sort of disagreement that existed during the Obama presidency,” he said.

“I think that there will be increased pressure on Israel to distance itself from China. I think that this will be Israel’s ‘question of the century’ because undoubtedly a change in Israel-China relations will have a great impact on Israel, both when it comes to its security and economy.”

With regards to the Abraham Accords, Freeman said he believes that the United States “will continue to push for improved relations between Israel, and the Arab and Muslim world, as a way of improving the possibility of attaining a deal to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a way of improving security for U.S. interests, especially when it comes to Iran, and as a means of opening up economic opportunities for U.S. companies.”

Freeman said that a Biden administration will likely renew direct negotiations between American and Palestinian teams, “without Israel necessarily being involved.”

Indeed, the Biden campaign’s top foreign-policy official, Tony Blinken, is a veteran of the Obama administration, serving as deputy secretary of state, and will likely get a senior post in a potential Biden administration. While Blinken has praised the Abraham Accords as a “positive step,” he thinks that the Trump administration has ignored the Palestinians and would look to restart negotiations with them.

The greatest impact the new U.S. administration will have on Israel, regardless of whether Trump or Biden sits in the White House, “will concern Jerusalem’s relations with Beijing,” stressed Freeman.

“I think that there will be increased pressure on Israel to distance itself from China,” he said. “I think that this will be Israel’s ‘question of the century’ because undoubtedly a change in Israel-China relations will have a great impact on Israel, both when it comes to its security and economy.”

“This will be especially true if a move is taken by Jerusalem to distance itself from China, or if Israel decides to join the United States and its criticism of Beijing,” he added.

Freeman warned that during the next U.S. administration, the Jewish state may have to choose whether it stands with Washington or with Beijing.

“I think that this question is already greatly on the minds of Israeli decision-makers,” he said.

‘Stiff American resolve in opposing Iran’s hegemonic designs’

David M. Weinberg, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that if Biden wins the White House, “nothing will better solidify the new Mideast dynamic which strengthens Israeli and Western interests than a few more peace accords between Israel and Arab/Islamic states.”

He added that this would mean a simultaneous “weakening” of Iran, Turkey, Russia and the radicals among Palestinians.

Weinberg said he believes that Niger, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia “should be steered next towards reconciliation with Israel.” This achievement would require “intensive, high-level American diplomacy with concrete offers of U.S. military and diplomatic backing on the table.”

With a Biden administration likely to warm up to Iran much like the Obama administration had done, Weinberg said there must be “continuing stiff American resolve in opposing Iran’s hegemonic designs in the region,” and the next administration should resist the temptation “to overprioritize the Palestinian issue.”

“Israel fears that a Biden administration will not sufficiently sustain these principles,” said Weinberg.

He said he fears that a Biden administration “will downplay the Jewish-Islamic religious reconciliation discourse that underlies the ‘Abraham Accords’”; a discourse Weinberg said he views “as one of the most luminous aspects of the recent peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain.”

He also noted that a Biden administration would need to recognize the changed paradigm in the Middle East when it comes to Israel.

“The lending of religious legitimacy to Arab peace with Israel, by referencing the Abrahamic common heritage of Arabs and Jews, implicitly acknowledges that Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel,” he explained. “This is a mammoth transformation in the Arab approach to Israel, and the bluntest-ever rejection of the ongoing Palestinian campaign to deny and even criminalize the Jewish people’s historic rights in Israel.”

Weinberg, however, was hesitant to believe that a Biden administration would be open to such a vastly different paradigm in the Middle East, saying that this “hopeful, dazzling new discourse may be too ‘religious’ for the incoming administration, which will want to distance itself from the worldview of the many Orthodox Jewish officials who were key to Trump administration Mideast policy.”

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