Biden’s Middle East

Barack Obama and Joe Biden @Pixabay

Josef Robinette Biden Jr. has been elected the next U.S. President. He is definitely not a newcomer to the realm of foreign policy. Biden has not only served as Vice-President in the Obama administration (2009-17) but is also a long-time senator who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s. In short, as far as international relations are considered, Joe Biden will be on “his terrain.”

The first and grand question to ask is one about Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal). The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 on the grounds that it facilitated Iran’s regional aggression and only postponed its eventual military nuclear capability. With Joe Biden in the White House, the United States will probably take steps to rejoin the JCPOA, as President-Elect has suggested in his public statements. That, by the way, should not come as a surprise since he worked hard, as Vice President, for the Congress to endorse the agreement in 2015.

Will that be a decision to “simply” return to the status quo ante – to what JCPOA was before U.S. withdrawal? Although there can be no certainty about that, Biden is reportedly aware of the original deal’s shortfalls and has expressed hope that he can work with U.S. allies to “make it longer and stronger.” Also, which is not unimportant, while the Democratic Party’s foreign policy line provides that “the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remains the best means to verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb,” it states that “the nuclear deal was always meant to be the beginning, not the end, of our diplomacy with Iran.”

Talking of Iran, the threat its proxy Hezbollah, which is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, poses to Europe will have to be handled in a serious way. Biden can deftly use the EU’s demand for U.S. security contribution on the continent to help the Union understand that much of its security depends on its own decision to ban Hezbollah entirely. A growing number of EU member states have already done that using domestic law instruments – Lithuania was the first one in Central Europe to do so. AJC welcomed that brave move with appreciation hoping it is building momentum that will finally lead Brussels to designate all of Hezbollah as a terror group, not just its so-called military wing.

In shaping its policy vis-à-vis the Middle East, U.S. relationships with Israel seem crucial. And Biden has long known Prime Minister Netanyahu from his days in various public offices. It is our hope that the new administration’s relationship with Israel will be no less intense or friendly than what we have seen over the last four years. Bearing in mind, however, that Trump has been seen by many as the most pro-Israel president in American history, that may not be an easy task for Biden.

The big question is of course: what will become of Donald Trump’s idea to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People”)? How will the new administration handle it? On the issues of the settlements and Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank the Democrats have held views different from the line presented in Trump’s vision. Tony Blinken, Joe Biden’s senior foreign policy adviser, said earlier this year that the Democrats’ presidential candidate does not support “unilateral annexation” since it contradicts the concept of “a negotiated two-state” solution. That, however, is overshadowed by the fact that the Palestinian leadership rejected the plan immediately after it had been announced. Despite that, it shouldn’t be ruled out that under Biden U.S. financial aid to the Palestinian Authority will be restored and his administration may be considering a reopening of the Palestinian mission in Washington.

What will certainly not change in American relations with Israel? The first thing is the U.S. commitment laid out in the Memorandum of Understanding signed under President Obama to support the Jewish state with $3.8 billion in annual aid, which is the largest ever military assistance from the U.S. Another Trump decision highly unlikely to be reversed it the one to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Although postponed by all presidents before Donald Trump, that decision simply implemented the Jerusalem Embassy Act adopted by the Congress in 1995. Also, since the U.S. has long been making efforts to build good relations with some Arab countries (Egypt, the Saudis), the new administration will naturally continue with its support for Israel’s recently established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.

These new relationships are not only good for Israel, they not only serve the economic interest of those Arab nations, but, no less importantly, will contribute immensely to the stabilization of the Middle East. It has to be added, however, that the Democratic administration’s relations with some of the Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, may see some friction as the Democrats may share harsh comments on human rights issues in those countries.

United States’ relations with Turkey will likely become more of a challenge. While President Trump had a fairly good relationship with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President-Elect Biden has been critical of some of Ankara’s decisions affecting the region, notably its military incursion in northern Syria. And if Biden wants to strengthen ties with Syrian Kurds, Turkey may react nervously.

AJC will continue to support a responsible and balanced engagement of the U.S. in the Middle East, specifically when it comes to helping Israelis and Palestinians find a way to a peace agreement acceptable to both parties. AJC will strive to ensure that if there is to be any new agreement with Iran, it must address the weaknesses in the 2015 deal and curb Iran’s ballistic missile program, belligerent regional activities, and ensure a more intrusive inspections regime throughout the country.

Dr. Sebastian Rejak is the Acting Director of the American Jewish Committee Central Europe (AJC CE) Office which opened in Warsaw in 2017. It covers Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia. Its mission is supporting Israel, promoting peace in the Middle East, cooperating with local Jewish communities, countering antisemitism, promoting the transatlantic partnership and democratic values.

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