A Biden administration is likely to implement a significant shift in US policy concerning Israel and the Middle East broadly. Will a President Biden be captured by officials from the former Obama administration and be swayed by radical elements in the Democratic party? It is understandable that within Israel there is a considerable level of apprehension about a potential Biden-Harris administration. Nowhere outside the US will the outcome of the presidential election have a greater impact.
During the US presidential election campaign, a video by Yossi Dagan, the Mayor of Samaria with former Palestinian terrorist and now peace activist, Muhammad Masaed, had a powerful message. They urged support for President Trump. Why? They explained that the rate of conflict and terrorism deaths on both sides was substantially lower under Trump’s policies. During the Obama years, terrorism and conflict killed 4,127 Arabs and 204 Israelis compared to 531 Arabs and 37 Israelis during the Trump years. Allowing for the different durations, this is a reduction in the death rates of about 75 per cent. Similarly, a group of six senior Israeli Rabbis wrote ‘to you it is a ballot, to us it is a question of life itself’.
Extremist Arab Palestinian and terrorist leaders made it clear they wanted to see a President Biden and not a President Trump. Since 3 November, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has called for a Biden administration to move the US embassy out of Jerusalem and back to Tel Aviv. Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh goes further and has urged that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital be reversed. Early indications are a Biden administration will not rush to do either.
President-elect Joe Biden has a mixed track record when it comes to Israel. In 1982 Senator Biden famously clashed with then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Biden threatened to withhold US foreign aid to Israel demanding concessions for Arab Palestinians. Begin’s response is engraved in Israeli folklore ‘Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees…’ as he then schooled Biden on the historical traumas faced by the Jewish people. However, Biden has generally had a fairly positive approach to Israel, certainly more so than President Obama.
Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris has made statements recognising Israel’s unique security requirements. But of serious concern is her pledge during the campaign ‘we will restore aid to the Palestinians’, a policy proven to feed terrorism and corruption. Harris’ Chief of Staff Karine Jean-Pierre is problematic. She praised Democrats in 2019 for boycotting the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, an annual pro-Israel gathering. Zionists of America (ZOA) assessed Jean-Pierre as a ‘radical Israel hater’.
Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren forecasts that a Biden administration will be more like Obama’s than Trump’s and Israel must be ‘ready to deal with it’. There are likely to be senior officials from the Obama administration appointed to a Biden administration. For example, heading the list of candidates for Secretary of State are former Obama national security advisor Susan Rice, former Obama deputy secretary of state William Burns, and former Obama deputy national security adviser Antony Blinken.
Certain priority issues which have a potential major effect on Israel, the Middle East and more broadly, will likely come in to play early in a Biden administration. The Iran nuclear issue will be a priority and the US would re-engage with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement. Any relief of sanctions on Iran or approval of a pathway to nuclear weapons would be a serious threat not just for Israel, but also the Sunni Gulf states. Iran is the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism and involvement in regional conflicts via proxies is already a serious security risk. In the next few weeks, the Trump administration may impose additional sanctions and two members of Congress, Josh Gottheimer and Brian Mast are preparing legislation to provide Israel with bunker-busting bombs that could strike Iran’s underground nuclear facilities. Resourcing and emboldening Iran would make war more likely.
The Trump administration rightly cut funding to the PA which refused to stop paying jihadist terrorists pursuant to its notorious ‘Pay for Slay’ programme. Similarly, US funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which runs schools for Arab Palestinians, was cut when it would not stop teaching hatred and glorification of terrorism. Restoration of US funding, as promised by Kamala Harris, would inevitably fuel more violence.
A reversion to the Obama/Kerry paradigm where the only pathway to peace was a ‘two state solution’ with appeasement of the PA, would be a retrograde disaster. This paradigm has been challenged and proved false.
The Abraham Accords, the term for the normalisation agreements between Israel with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, brokered by the Trump administration, are the most tangible progress in Middle East peace in a generation. Biden made statements welcoming these agreements yet there are concerns his policies could prevent progress. President Trump has said there are another five or six Arab states interested in similar agreements. Israeli expert on Arabic and Islamic issues, Dr Mordechai Kedar, assesses that while existing agreements would not be undone, further developments would be ‘frozen’ consequent to a Biden administration.
This is understandable. It is quite challenging for an Arab Muslim state to disconnect from 70 years of anti-Israel policy, perhaps confronting internal detractors. An environment of solid US political, economic and security support may be prerequisite. The ice has been broken and it would be a tragedy if the opportunity was lost to develop the potential of the existing agreements and finalise other possible peace agreements.
There are policy dilemmas for an incoming Biden administration with radical forces pushing towards Obama-era anti-Israel and pro-Iran settings versus a more mature pragmatic approach to recognise that the Middle East has evolved and significant good has been achieved which can be built upon.
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Dr David Adler is President of the Australia Jewish Association
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