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Israel, the Middle East and Joe Biden

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Ksenia Svetlova

How will a Biden Administration change American policies on Iran, the Palestinians and Israel’s tightening relationships with Arab states?

Some two years ago, Democrats harshly attacked Trump for withdrawing US troops from Syria and thereby undermining the alliance with the Kurds. However, Democratic leaders also favor a reduced US presence in the Middle East and understand the region’s declining relevance to US global policy.  It was Democrat Obama who withdrew US troops from the Iraqi bloodbath; Biden, if elected, will presumably continue a similar course. The US is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, China is perceived as its greatest threat, and the defeat of ISIS has lowered the strategic terror threat level to US national security.

Biden, just like Trump and Obama, probably believes that the US can downscale its presence in the region and rely on its allies (the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, of course) and on the alliances being forged between its partners over the past two decades. The US could increase aid to a specific ally at a time of need (as was the case with the massive 2014 influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan) or Iraq (during the fighting with ISIS), but it is loath to continue meddling in local conflicts. What is more, the painful lesson of the intervention in Iraq has dissolved the Bush Administration’s messianic belief in the democratization of the Middle East. Concern about Russia or China filling the vacuum left by the US is also no longer deterring US leaders (like Obama and Trump) who are trying to score points with voters by troops drawdowns and free the administration up to deal with different matters, among them the “Pivot to Asia”.

As a Democrat, Biden is expected to be more sensitive than Trump to human rights violations in the Middle East. He condemned the conduct of the Saudi regime following the murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi in fairly harsh language several times and also called for curbing weapons sales to Riyadh.

However, if elected, Biden’s first order of business will be dealing with the biggest health and economic crisis the US has experienced since 1929. He will have to create jobs and deal with thousands of burning domestic matters. Those will be his flagship issues. He may have to set aside his moral repugnance and allow weapons exports to prevent job and profit losses for Americans. Trump, too, was harshly critical of Saudi Arabia prior to his election, but subsequently changed his tune and conducted his first overseas trip there as president.

One can cautiously assess that any change in US policy toward the Gulf would not undermine Israel’s rapprochement with those states. The strategic regional threats (expansion of Iran’s hegemony and its violations of the nuclear agreement, as well as Turkish activity in the region) will remain unchanged, and therefore the interest in economic and security cooperation between Israel and Gulf states will remain. Arab states that traditionally view Israel as a bridge to the White House could try to exploit this now official relationship to promote their standing with Congress and a new administration, if one is installed.

Biden’s position on the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) is of concern these days to both Israeli and Arab leaders, which could further cement their ties. Arab leaders are concerned about Biden rejoining and reviving the deal that Trump abandoned. They are relying on Biden’s criticism of the unilateral US pullout from the agreement and his declaration that he would make every effort to rejoin it. Nonetheless, Biden’s people seem to understand that they cannot simply turn back the clock. Blinken, one of Biden’s closest aides and potential future national security adviser, has said in interviews that the US would not return to the agreement until Iran fulfills all its commitments – meaning, until Iran walks back all its violations of the agreement. It is hard to predict just how Biden might draw Iran to the negotiating table, but as long as such an option is viable, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states will have sufficient grounds to close ranks.

Biden is a sworn supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is expected to re-open the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, restore US aid to the Palestinians and invite the PLO ambassador back to Washington. However, this does not mean that he will place the Palestinian issue on his list of priorities, especially given the domestic crisis and ongoing tensions with China. The Palestinian issue is unlikely to return to center stage following a change in the US administration. The Arab world is growing increasingly weak as the coronavirus continues to spread, the economic crisis deepens and unemployment rises. Arab states also fear that the major non-Arab states in the region – Turkey and Iran – will exploit this weakness. Should that happen, the Palestinian issue is unlikely to attract much interest from key Arab states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which also dictate the conduct of the Arab League.

That said, should Biden decide to revive the Arab Peace Initiative and mobilize Saudi and other Arab support (perhaps in return for a more determined US stand on Iran, the supply of US strategic weapons, etc.), pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue could re-emerge. If Israel chooses to respond with accelerated construction in the settlements, in defiance of US policy, states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE would likely toe the line of the US administration but would not cut ties with Israel as a result.

In conclusion, a Biden victory would not affect the strengthening relationship between Israel and Arab states, especially if he opts to focus on the Iranian issue and a US return to the JCPOA. The Middle East’s relevance to the US is expected to continue its decline, prompting cooperation among its partners in the region in order to forge a robust front and repel threats from the non-Arab states (Iran and Turkey). A changed US approach to the Palestinian issue could increase pressure on Israel slightly, but is not expected to substantially change the current dynamics.