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.
At the time this analysis was written, on November 4th, 2020, the results of the US presidential race were still inconclusive, and it was not clear when final, undisputed results would be available. The analysis therefore examines what the future holds for the Middle East under either Joe Biden or a re-elected Donald Trump.
Q. Would a President-elect Biden bring with him a Middle East legacy? Would he have a Middle East agenda?
A. Biden has long supported Israel and its security needs. Solidly. Nothing indicates this will change in the next
four years if he becomes America’s 46th president. Over the years he has traveled widely to Israel and elsewhere in
the Middle East. Thinking back over incoming presidents since George H. W. Bush (Bush 41), no one has arrived in
office with as much foreign policy experience as Joe Biden.
Biden’s track record is not perfect, but only because he has been involved in Middle East issues for years. In the eyes of some in the region, he will have to live down Barack Obama’s mistakes as president, for example in misjudging Arab and Turkish political Islam in 2011 and in not following through on his ‘red line’ over Bashar Assad’s chemical warfare travesties in Syria in 2013. Biden once proposed partitioning Iraq--a logical but politically disastrous idea. In 2010 he was caught off guard and severely embarrassed by the launching of a new settlement project in East Jerusalem while he was visiting Jerusalem on Obama’s behalf.
A Biden Middle East agenda will comprise urgent issues. Israel is not among them. Iran’s nuclear program, Erdogan’s Islamist provocations in and around Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in Yemen and at home are more urgent. In general, following Trump’s years of conscious neglect, Biden will restore human rights to America’s global and Middle East agendas. That will include the Palestinians.
Q. So will Biden renew Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts with a realistic plan?
A. If he wins the presidential race, Biden will have three solid reasons to avoid deep involvement in fostering a
new Palestinian-Israeli peace process. For one, his agenda during his first year or two in office will be
monopolized by domestic issues. He will seek to tame the corona virus much more proactively than did Trump. The US
economy is in trouble. And Biden will face what looks like an inevitable confrontation within American society,
reflected in a divided Congress, between those who elected him and a large angry, reactionary and even violent
minority of Trump-led or Trump-inspired deniers of Biden’s legitimacy.
This election, after all, was about Trump and corona, not (despite Trump’s efforts in promoting Arab-Israel normalization agreements) the Middle East.
Then too, even if there is sentiment within Biden’s administration and perhaps the American Jewish liberal mainstream to ‘do something’ about the Palestinian issue, Biden will confront an angry and internally conflicted Palestinian leadership, a smug and uninterested Israeli leadership under Netanyahu, and an Arab world that no longer universally supports asthe PLO’s demands. He will not have forgotten Secretary of State John Kerry’s abortive mediating effort in 2013-14, which was undertaken despite President Obama’s skepticism. Third, Hamas in Gaza can be counted on to cloud the picture with violence. The likely departure from the scene during the next four years of the aging Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will introduce a period of uncertainty if not genuine unrest. Abbas’s recent cultivation of ties with Russia and Islamist Turkey--as a counter to the Trump administration’s hostility--could also present obstacles.
Assuming Biden nevertheless opts to sponsor a new peace process, and assuming Netanyahu remains in office either through reelection or by deftly outmaneuvering his seemingly powerless political opposition, the Israeli prime minister would have to choose among three possible tactical responses. He could project a façade of accommodation and cooperation as he did with Kerry. Or he could stonewall angrily and appeal to the still vibrant forces of reaction and evangelism in American society, as he did when he flouted convention and incited the US Congress against Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Or he could precipitate new elections in Israel.
Under the first scenario, cooperation, Netanyahu would hope that the Palestinians’ dysfunctional leadership once again avoids the sort of concessions (on Jerusalem and refugee/right of return issues) that could make a deal more likely. The easiest way out of an American-imposed peace process is when you can blame the Palestinian side for failure.
Under the second scenario, rallying domestic American opposition, Netanyahu might gamble that Biden would back away from a confrontation that is in any case not central to his presidency. Note that in such a confrontation scenario, Netanyahu would seek also to appeal to Arab allies--new ones like the UAE and veteran allies like Egypt--to back his security demands.
Under the third scenario, Israeli elections, Netanyahu would play for time. He would gain at least three months for campaigning before election day, then three more for forming a new coalition, during which Biden’s peace process would of necessity be on the back burner. Then, assuming once again he triumphs in elections, Netanyahu might form a solidly right-religious coalition that hunkers down and backs his refusal to negotiate on Washington’s terms.
Q. If Biden does try, what might his two-state solution plan look like?
A. Biden would presumably have to choose. Try again with Kerry’s failed model, the classic concept of two states
based on alterations to the 1967 line, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and something minor or symbolic
regarding the 1948 refugees? Alternatively, modify the Trump map that awards the Palestinians 70 percent of the
West Bank and a Swiss-cheese entity partitioned into tiny morsels by Israeli settlements and roads--a nightmare
concept that is nevertheless acceptable to Netanyahu and endorsed de facto by the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan?
Some new idea? Or perhaps suffice with modest confidence-building measures? Meanwhile, what to do about the Gaza Strip and its Hamas leaders with their close ties to Turkey and Iran and their finger on the trigger of rockets aimed at Israel?
All in all, significant progress on the part of a Biden administration toward a two-state solution is doubtful. If Biden can merely stop settlement expansion, that would be an achievement. In the face of a Republican-controlled Senate, Biden will nevertheless presumably try to undo some of Trump’s damage to US-Palestinian relations: reopening a PLO embassy in Washington and a US consulate in East Jerusalem and renewing Washington’s financial contribution to UNRWA, the UN agency that deals with the welfare of Palestinian refugees.
But Biden won’t roll back the moving of the US embassy to West Jerusalem. That would mean needlessly angering a large majority of Israelis, not to mention Netanyahu. And he won’t touch US military aid to Israel--a pillar of the US-Israel relationship under Democrats and Republicans alike.
In general, it will take an issue of great urgency and importance for Biden to risk upsetting US-Israel relations by taking on Netanyahu. The latter, of course, could on his own precipitate a crisis by, say, radically expanding settlement construction, annexing West Bank territory or attacking Iran. Even an accidental scrape with Hamas or Hezbollah could get out of hand and force the Biden administration to take a stand. Alternatively, Netanyahu could again seek to grandstand in the US Congress against the policies of a Democratic president.
With Netanyahu as cheerleader and strategic adviser, Trump has endeared himself to a large majority of Israelis who care little about his global and domestic American agenda as long as he loudly supports Israel and its territorial stand. This has hurt consensus American support for Israel. Now, with Biden in the White House but little changed in Congress, Netanyahu will be challenged to restore across-the-board US backing following the damage he and Trump have inflicted on the relationship.
Netanyahu will presumably make some sort of effort to ingratiate himself with Biden and his Jewish and other supporters as long as the US does not pressure Israel over the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu is skilled at that game, and he and Biden go back a long way. Yet at least some Democrats will remain highly suspicious. And the damage visited upon American Jewish support for Israel by Trump, American evangelicals, Netanyahu and the settlers (and, to be fair, by local American Jewish factors and demographic trends as well) may be lasting.
Accordingly, barring unexpected extreme events and assuming no radical change in the Israeli and/or Palestinian leadership, a Biden administration will primarily watch passively, along with a growing club of Arab states, as Israel and the West Bank continue to descend down the slippery slope toward a binational apartheid reality.
Q. Inviting Iran to discuss revival of the JCPOA appears to be a more urgent and promising track for a Biden Middle East effort.
A. Indeed. The principals are waiting: Iran itself, alongside JCPOA signatories Russia, China, the UK, France and
Germany. Yet the regional realities have changed since 2015. Iran, having survived the Trump administration’s heavy
economic sanctions, will drive a hard bargain. It is now free of UN sanctions on the purchase of new weaponry. It
will suspect that any new Biden proposals will be overturned by a Trump-like successor. Trump’s assassination of
Iranian strategic mastermind Qasem Soleimani did not stop Tehran’s military drive into the Levant.
Netanyahu, complicit in Trump’s attempt to derail the JCPOA, refuses to acknowledge the already emerging outcome: a renewed Iranian nuclear weapons drive. He can now make common cause with the UAE and presumably Saudi Arabia to try to thwart a new JCPOA and whip up enthusiasm for a military response to Iran. He can again appeal provocatively to the US Congress. Netanyahu’s task could be made easier by Saudi resentment if Biden honors his election pledges to take a tougher line with Riyadh’s hyperactive de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman regarding US weapons sales, human rights, and the Saudi military fiasco in Yemen.
In general, the Saudis and Emiratis (and Egyptians) prefer Trump’s carte blanche approach to human rights violations and weapons purchases. In recent years Israel has lobbied on their behalf in Washington. Given Netanyahu’s strong Republican and Evangelical bias, this will no longer be such an easy task in the Biden era.
Q. If Biden wins, Trump will not turn over the reins of power until January 20. What might he attempt in the Middle East prior to then, to “cement his legacy”?
A. If Biden is elected and Trump wants to leave a reasonable or at least defensible legacy, he will concentrate on
persuading additional Arab states to begin normalizing relations with Israel. He will also continue to thin US
forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, by way of honoring his pledge to end the region’s ‘endless wars’. Not all
these troop withdrawals would necessarily produce a happy ending for US interests. Israel would be troubled by the
continuing American military withdrawal from the region. But this is a project begun by Obama that Trump can
legitimately proceed with as a lame duck president.
A more explosive and negative legacy--one that Netanyahu might welcome--could be some sort of American military initiative against Iran: a parting blow. Would the leaders of the US military consider this a legal and legitimate presidential directive? Would Trump, the critic of endless wars in the region, contemplate risking a new war on his way out? Of course, here as elsewhere a lot depends on Trump’s readiness to actively or even passively legitimize a Biden electoral victory.
Q. How would a reelected President Trump deal with Israel and the Middle East in the course of the coming four years?
A. Basically, more of the same. Trump ran in this election without a platform regarding the Middle East or anything
else. A Biden victory warrants a serious discussion of the likelihood of new departures for US policy in the Middle
East, particularly regarding Israel-Palestine and Iran. A Trump victory, on the other hand, is not likely to
generate such a discussion. Ongoing Republican control of the Senate reinforces this impression.
The point of departure for this assessment of Trump’s next four years is the recognition, based on the past four years, that he has no deep-felt moral and ethical values, whether concerning life in America or America’s foreign relations. He is at heart an isolationist and shuns global commitments, alliances and obligations. He wants to avoid committing the US to foreign wars. He likes to broker global deals (and manage domestic policies) in ways that make money for the American industrial complex. He is also not a deep or strategic thinker and tends to make foreign policy by Twitter, based on little or no serious consultation with his defense and intelligence establishment.
Accordingly, the only tool we have for predicting a re-elected President Trump’s next four years is the last four years. In the years ahead, then, we are likely to witness a further dismantling of US military commitments abroad, with the presumed exception of the Far East. This means the weakening of NATO. It means completion of withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, irrespective of the outcome of internal conflicts and outside interference in these countries. The influence of Arab and Iranian energy resources on American policy will continue to decline. Based on this model, Trump will continue to shy away from direct military involvement in the region.
The upshot will be a strengthening of the Russian presence in the Middle East. Iran and Turkey will remain in Syria. Iranian influence will be decisive in Iraq. China will expand its power projection in the region, almost exclusively economically.
Broadly speaking, at the regional level none of these developments is good for Israel, which traditionally relies on a strong American strategic presence in the Middle East. If reelected, Trump will ‘compensate’ by giving Jerusalem a free hand in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and by continuing to persuade Arab states, using financial incentives, to normalize relations with Israel, including security cooperation. His victorious Evangelical political base will weigh in with support for West Bank settlement expansion.
Meanwhile, the divide between Israel and the American Jewish mainstream will widen. Israelis will overwhelmingly support Trump; the liberal American Jewish majority will oppose the president’s policies, just as it opposes Israeli mainstream sentiment regarding the settlements. Israel will condemn growing anti-Semitism in the US and elsewhere in the West yet do little about it, if only because part of the problem is Israel’s own policies.
In contrast, much of the western world will respond to Trump by taking its distance from what appears to be a failing and unreliable America. In this sense,
Trump’s reelection will further isolate Israel from Europe and the liberal democratic world while moving it closer to the autocratic world of the Arabs, the Russians and the Chinese. This puts a large majority of pro-Trump Israelis and a small electoral (though not popular) majority of Americans in decidedly bad company. But that is the drift in today’s world. Trump’s reelection will put wind in Netanyahu’s sails. Israel’s prime minister may be indicted on three counts and incapable of dealing with corona, but he could advertise himself as Trump’s best buddy.
For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.