JERUSALEM – President-elect Joe Biden and his advisers have asserted that their strategic objectives are no different from those of previous administrations, i.e., preventing Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons; restraining Tehran’s dangerous activities in the region and the domestic arena; fortifying Israel’s security, in part by continuing security assistance and preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge; opposing Israel’s delegitimization; and promoting an agreement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the formula of two states – even if they are skeptical of the prospect of making significant progress towards this goal.
The ability of the new administration to advance its worldview in the Palestinian context, given the changing reality in the Middle East, will be influenced by a variety of constraints. Significant aspects of the new rules of the game appear to be irreversible, notably the normalization of relations between Israel and the pragmatic Sunni states, which have even adopted dimensions of moderation. For instance, in the agreement with the United Arab Emirates, the UAE recognized the existence of a Jewish People for the first time – a clear contradiction of the central principle underlying the Palestinian narrative that rules out the existence of such a people. Therefore, the ability of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) to mobilize the Arabs to pressure Israel has been significantly reduced.
It is also unlikely (though not entirely impossible) that the new administration will ignore the Taylor Force Act and renew financial aid to the P.A., even while the P.A. insists on continuing to pay salaries to terrorists who murdered Israelis (and Americans). The P.A. has even announced that it will employ the terrorists who had completed their prison terms in the P.A. security forces. The Palestinians are considering changes in the system of payments to arrested terrorists, encouraged by sympathetic Democratic Party activists, but it is doubtful that they really mean to stop this practice or change it in any significant way that might satisfy Israel, the United States and other donors.
It appears that Biden will refrain from returning the U.S. Embassy to Tel Aviv or canceling the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Golan Heights as part of Israel. If the Senate remains Republican-controlled, he will find it even harder to aid the Palestinians, despite expected pressure from the progressive camp in his party.
On the other hand, Biden may freeze or cancel Trump’s peace initiative and return to referring to the settlements in the territories as illegitimate or even lacking legal validity (in the language of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which the Obama administration allowed to pass in its final days), despite the opinion of the State Department under President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which contradicted this claim.
Biden may re-adopt the Obama-Kerry peace plan of 2013-14, which included a security concept dangerous to Israel (the “Allen Plan,” which among its many flaws included a Palestinian Special Forces unit equipped with helicopters). In any event, it is likely that despite Biden’s sympathetic attitude to Israel he will show a more critical attitude toward it, especially compared to Trump.
Even in the Iranian context, the new rules of the game and current circumstances will make it difficult for Biden and his administration to turn the wheel back quickly. Some sanctions were deliberately imposed through mechanisms that cannot be readily repealed (such as those set under anti-terrorism legislation). Moreover, the Iranians are unwilling to agree to changes or additions to the original nuclear agreement, such as limitations on intercontinental ballistic missile development.
The Iranians are now busy preparing for Iran’s upcoming presidential elections and the consequential internal tensions. Meanwhile, more information about Iran’s nuclear program has emerged and is being discovered, both on the basis of the nuclear archives uncovered by Israel and on the basis of revelations by opposition sources, which could require the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to take action against Iran, complicating the situation further.
In the broad regional context, Biden is expected to adopt a more critical policy toward Saudi Arabia and other elements of the pragmatic Arab camp and move closer to Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated states and “reformists” in Iran. Groups in the United States, led by the pro-Iran National Iranian American Council (NIAC)’s Trita Parsi, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), with its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, had close relations with the Obama administration and supported Biden’s candidacy. They will be seeking “payback” for their support. Progressives in the Democratic Party will also pursue government posts in return for their support.
Ultimately, Biden will have to take into account that relations with Israel are crucial to protecting American interests in the region and that the pragmatic Arabs are close allies of the United States, while the regimes in countries led by radical elements, such as Turkey and Iran, are involved in activities that undermine stability and blatantly violate the human rights of their citizens, much more than the pragmatic Arab camp.
It is precisely the new rules of the game that create potential leverage to make significant changes in Palestinian and Iranian policy during the next U.S. president’s term. The distress in which the Iranians, their proxies and the Palestinians find themselves, and their high expectations that Biden will extract them from these pressures, create a convenient basis for the new president to demand flexibility from the Palestinians and the Iranians to further his foreign policy goals.
On the other hand, attempts to reinstate the old rules of the game unconditionally, and to reject everything achieved by the Trump administration, as expressed in some of the initial statements by Biden’s people, may dissolve the potential to bring about desired changes. Such a position could result in encouraging the Iranians to become more stubborn in their demands to reject any changes in the JCPOA.
Israel must do all it can to strengthen ties with the United States under the new administration, preserve as much as possible the new rules created in recent years, sharpen the positive potential inherent in these changes and emphasize the importance of support for the pragmatic Arab camp, even though it has its problems. The more Israel cooperates with members of this camp and expands the circle of countries that openly promote normalization of relations with it, the stronger Israel and the pragmatists will become as they seek to bring the new U.S. administration to support the positive changes in the Middle East and to realize their potential. At the same time, Israel will strive to maintain its fundamental positions and freedom of action toward Iran and the Palestinians.
DF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.