Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (August 3, 2020) - Biden, the Democratic Platform, and the Middle East


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The 2020 Democratic Platform devotes one page out of 80 to the Middle East, including three paragraphs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is this an adequate portrayal of party policy for a future President Biden?

A. Hardly. Nor does it aspire to be. This is a solid, motherhood-and-apple-pie document that reiterates traditional Democratic commitments to Israel’s democracy and security, a two-state solution, and a revitalized JCPOA regarding Iran’s nuclear project. It seeks to restore US-PLO ties, opposes annexation and opposes efforts like BDS to delegitimize Israel. It rejects American military intervention and regime change projects in the Middle East, pledges to continue to counter ISIS and seeks a political solution for Syria.

Q. Nothing wrong with all that. What in your opinion is missing?

A. The policy prescriptions are okay as far as they go. But the Middle East that emerges from this platform plank is not described realistically. The Israel that emerges is not described realistically. A President Biden who proceeds on this basis in dealing with the Middle East will fail.

Q. Well, let’s start with Israel and the Palestinians. What issues and emphases would you add?

A. If more than 15 years ago even Ariel Sharon could call the situation in the West Bank “occupation”, why can’t the Democratic Party use that terminology? The platform’s commitment to oppose anything that “undermines prospects for two states” rings hollow in the ears of anyone who sees how Israel is sliding down a slippery slope toward an ugly and dysfunctional one-state reality. By the same token, the “democratic Israel” described in the platform is in reality threatened by an increasingly right-messianic, authoritarian Israeli political mainstream. Its prime minister is on trial on three charges of corruption. He is ideologically a soul-mate of Donald Trump. Americans, especially the American Jewish mainstream, are increasingly aware of this. If Biden needs to defeat Trump, he also needs to say something about Netanyahu. Here Biden should be aware that the Israeli right-nationalist mainstream overwhelmingly supports Trump. Last month, the highly reputable Gutman Institute at the Israel Democracy Institute polled Israelis as to “which candidate is better for Israel’s interests”. Trump won hands down with 56 percent as against 16 percent for Biden and 28 percent who don’t know. This statistic should be understood against the backdrop of two indisputable truths. First, aside from dual citizens (as many as 200,000), Israelis don’t vote in US elections. Nor do all dual citizens vote. In other words, Israelis’ current support for Trump is of no great consequence. Second, Israel’s security dependency on the United States is so strong that a President Biden will almost automatically be able to leverage American influence over the Israeli mainstream and its leader and oblige them to adjust their policies in accordance with his values.

The Israeli right-religious mainstream may be impressed by Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, but Biden should not fear or hesitate to put Israel on notice regarding more than unilateral steps like annexation. When he’s president, Israelis will have no alternative but to fall in line. Netanyahu will come to the White House and the Pentagon hat in hand. Right-messianic Israelis may not like Joe Biden’s policies any more than they liked Barack Obama’s, but that should not be allowed to affect Biden’s policies.

Still on the Palestinian issue: does the Democratic platform recognize that the Palestinian polity is hopelessly divided between the West Bank and Gaza, between Fateh/PLO and Islamist Hamas? Does it note that neither entity is democratic? No. Opposing settlement expansion and restoring US-Palestinian diplomatic ties is fine. But under current circumstances, knee-jerk support for a two-state solution rings hollow.

Rather, priority should be awarded to helping Palestinians restore unity and democracy as a building block for peace, in addition to braking Israel’s descent into a non-democratic one-state solution. That’s a far more realistic menu for US policy.

Then there is the security issue. The platform rightly commits to opposing Iranian nuclear designs by revitalizing the JCPOA, the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal that President Trump, with Netanyahu cheering him on, has done so much to undermine. And it rightly recommits “to Israel’s security, its qualitative military edge, its right to defend itself”. Israel’s security serves American strategic interests in the Middle East.

But here the platform leaves us with three problems. First, how can an Israeli occupation state that is moving toward bitterly conflicted bi-nationality serve either its own or America’s security interests? Second, Israel under Netanyahu has become extremely friendly at the strategic level with a host of ultra-nationalist leaders: not only Trump, but Putin, Modi, Xi and Bolsonaro. Surely a President Biden should have some thoughts about this. Third, the platform’s emphasis on the Iran nuclear deal risks underestimating the danger of Iran’s ambitions for Levant hegemony. True, there is a reference to Iran’s “regional aggression”. The platform does not repeat the Obama mistake of appearing to welcome an Iranian regional role in the Middle East. And it pledges to “find a political resolution” to the fighting in Syria. But all this rhetoric dances around the emerging reality to Israel’s north, where an aggressive Iran and an ambivalent Russia are installing themselves in Syria as Israel’s neighbors.

Israel is already in a conflict with Iran and its proxies in Syria, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah. That limited “campaign between wars” could escalate any day, any month, any year. It could, willy-nilly, involve Russia. The Democratic platform notes the need to stand up to a “revanchist Russia” in the European context. But what about the Middle East context? Candidate Biden should be put on notice.

Q. Are there areas where Israel’s regional policies are worthy of positive mention? Issues that are missing in the platform?

A. Israel has entered a strategic energy and security alliance in the eastern Mediterranean with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Here increasingly Islamist and expansionist Turkey is the nemesis. And Israel has a tacit alliance with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia against Iranian expansionism. Both alliances are worthy of explicit Democratic support.

The Democratic platform focuses on Iran. Nowhere does it mention Turkey. Ankara’s growing expansionist military involvement in Middle East trouble spots like Syria, Yemen and Libya and its hegemonic coveting of Mediterranean energy resources marks it increasingly as a troublemaker. Turkey is in NATO. That makes it President Biden’s problem.

Q. You mention Syria, Yemen and Libya--all regional hotspots. The Democratic platform rejects US imposition of “regime change on other countries”. Yet a Biden administration will have to deal with these anarchic hotspots, just as it will have to confront the deteriorating stalemate on the Israeli-Palestinian front. What advice would you give Biden in this respect?

A. Let’s start with what not to do. The platform’s rejection of regime change is spot on. But there are additional policy areas where “don’ts” are called for. In all these realms, the Middle East policy menu Biden will realistically need should cite the mistakes of not only Trump but Obama, Bush and even Clinton as well.

First, don’t make promises or issue ultimatums you can’t follow through on. Middle East actors take US presidential words very seriously and test the credibility of whoever utters them. A prime example is President Obama’s 2013 threat to punish the Assad regime in Syria for using chemical weapons against its own citizens. Assad used them. Obama backtracked, did not punish Assad, and instead accepted a Russian compromise formula. The upshot was a serious blow to Obama’s credibility in the region and an American contribution to Russia’s reentry to the Middle East via the Syrian civil war. Syrian chemical attacks never stopped. Better to say nothing than to make empty threats.

A second negative example is Obama’s pledge to “lead from behind” in the 2011 NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war. The outcome has been an even worse civil war. What began with NATO now features Turkish, Russian, UAE, French and Egyptian intervention. Back then the US did not lead well. Better to have stayed away.

And of course, a third negative example is Trump’s ‘deal of the century’. Sadly, a majority of Israelis that takes seriously what US presidents promise has fallen for this hoax. This segues directly into another “don’t” that concerns the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Don’t try to be an active peacemaker. That kind of US role has never worked. All major breakthroughs to Arab-Israel peace transpired behind the back of the US: the Sadat peace initiative in 1977, the Oslo breakthrough of 1993, and the peace with Jordan a year later. In contrast, Clinton’s Camp David 2000 Israeli-Palestinian final status summit failed and led to the second Intifada. The Kerry initiative of 2013-14 failed and led to an Israel-Gaza mini-war. Where might Trump’s ‘peace plan’ lead? Not to peace.

When Washington tries pro-actively to initiate Israel-Arab peace, it ends up somewhere else--usually somewhere worse. Israelis and Arabs are capable of negotiating a peace departure on their own. If they cannot or will not get their act together, do not do it for them. A smart American president will resist appeals to intervene and initiate. Instead, he/she should help create conditions for peace, recruit active Arab support and set limits. In this respect, opposing annexation and settlement expansion are not enough.

Q. Bottom line: any more Middle East landmines Biden should beware of?

A. We’ve mentioned Libya. The Democratic platform mentions Syria, Iraq and of course Iran. It does not mention Egypt and Lebanon. The former is a brutal dictatorship, constantly on the brink of economic collapse and currently in danger of going to war in both Libya and Ethiopia. Lebanon is quite simply on the verge of economic and political implosion. Both Egypt and Lebanon are Israel’s neighbors. Both are friends of the United States. A president interested in Israel’s security and in regional stability had better study up on them.

Nor does the platform specifically mention tribalism and militant Islam as two of the basic precursors of Arab world instability. In the Middle East, the US confronts a state system that has in recent years proven incapable of solving its problems. (Not just the Arab states; Israel has proven incapable of solving its Palestinian problem.) Washington can avoid sending military forces and should indeed abjure political intervention as the Democratic platform specifies. But a President Biden will ignore the region’s overall negative strategic dynamics at his peril.

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