Only Damage Control after the Wrecking Ball

Donald Trump has revolutionized US Middle East policy. But has it really been for Israel’s benefit? And what would Joe Biden actually change if he wins?
Analysis02.11.2020Thore Schröder
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Tel Aviv Israel July 28, 2019 View of giant political poster hanging on the facade of a building in the streets of Tel Aviv in the afternoon I By Jose HERNANDEZ Camera 51

If Donald Trump would run for election in Israel, he would win by a landslide. According to a survey conducted for the i24News channel, two thirds, or 63%, of Israelis prefer him to win the presidential elections on November 3, compared with less than 19% for his rival Joe Biden.

“You have been the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his ally during a Washington visit this year. “Frankly, though we’ve had some great, outstanding friends in these halls, it’s not even close.”

Netanyahu has every reason to shower Trump with praise. While it is debatable whether the US president has actually been the Jewish state’s best friend, he has fulfilled nearly every political wish of his Israeli counterpart. Netanyahu is standing trial on multiple counts of bribery and breach of trust; he also faces mounting opposition for his government’s botched Covid-19 reaction. In the past four years, the Trump administration has thrown him lifelines time and again, by implementing policies that for decades seemed unthinkable in the Middle East.

Since Donald Trump was sworn in in January 2017, he has moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, stopped funding for UNRWA (the Palestinian refugees’ agency), pushed to close the PLO office in Washington, proposed a peace plan that effectively dropped the two-state solution, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan heights, legitimized Israeli settlements, and supported Israel’s plan to annex 30% of the West Bank. Under Trump the US has also left the Iran nuclear deal, conducted a “maximum pressure” campaign against Israel’s archenemy, and assassinated powerful Revolutionary Guards General Qassem Sulaimani. In recent weeks, the US also facilitated Israel’s “peace deals” with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, the so-called Abraham accords. Weeks later, Sudan announced its willingness to normalize relations with Israel. This African country was coerced by US economic pressure into agreeing to rapprochement.

In the days leading up to the US elections the Trump administration keeps on giving. Recently the State Department published a legal opinion declaring settlements to no longer be per se inconsistent with international law and declared to extend their scientific cooperation to beyond the Green Line, essentially erasing the demarcation for Washington. Last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that US citizens “born in Jerusalem can now elect to list their place of birth as either "Jerusalem" or "Israel" on their passports.”

The pro-Israel approach has in great part been implemented to serve the interests of the large Evangelical voter base in the US. The support of the religious conservatives played a key role for Trump’s surprise triumph in 2016. Pompeo and vice president Mike Pence are themselves practicing Evangelicals. Many such Christian Zionists believe supporting the Jewish state is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy.

While all of the Trump administration’s steps are in line with Netanyahu’s Likud party program and his far right government’s agenda, some foreign experts doubt their value for Israel’s security. Daniel C. Kurtz, who served twice as US ambassador in the country, argued in a recent webinar of the Jerusalem Press Club: “These policies have actually hurt Israel.” He was speaking about the decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that effectively motivated the Mullah regime to step up its efforts to reach for the nuclear bomb and about the lack of any palpable progress on the path to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Nimrod Novik, a former adviser to Israeli president and Prime Minister Shimon Peres and a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, concurs: “When it comes to substance, regarding our only two major external challenges — the need to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and the need to restrain Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions — we are far worse off.”

Kurtz and Novik conflict the sentiment on the right where Trump is praised for his seemingly tough and out-of-the-box approaches. For instance, commentator and analyst Thane Rosenbaum rejoices over Trump’s “honest tough talk” to the Palestinians. He claims past administrations had “infantilized” them by allowing them to claim the role of the victim. Conservative Israeli journalist Tal Heinrich especially lauds Trump’s “fresh approach” to regional relations. “The Israeli-Arab conflict is over”, she argues referring to the Abraham accords. Heinrich regards these deals, which further sidelined the Palestinian question, as “insurance policies” for the case of a Democratic victory, if a new US government subsequently re-engages in a dialogue with Iran.

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Funeral of Qassem Suleimani assassinated by American drones I Iran Tehran, Jan 7, 2020.

Joe Biden has announced that he would offer Teheran “a credible path to diplomacy (…) while also addressing other issues of concern”, hinting at Iran’s meddling in the affairs of other countries in the region and its ballistic missile program. He could rely on broad support from European allies who would be grateful to see Trump’s wrecking ball approach come to an end.

Unlike in the case of Iran, fundamental policy changes can hardly be expected vis à vis Israel and the Palestinians. PLO Central Council member Nabil Amr believes that the US and the Palestinian Authority (PA) could at least re-establish bilateral relations, especially since Biden's team had promised the situation to return to as it was pre-Trump. Salem Barahmeh, the Executive Director of the Ramallah-based Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, notes: “There will be a change in bilateral Palestinian-US relations, but not in terms of a political settlement and launching a program and plan for negotiations that the Palestinians would be satisfied with.”

Similarly, Kurtz expects “a return to more normal US foreign policy”, but also does not believe in a big push for peace. Biden will not regard Israel as a priority, since the president will have other momentous internal and external challenges to address: the Covid pandemic, the disastrous US economy, race relations or China, to name but a few.

“Annexations in the West Bank will probably be halted indefinitely,” thinks Hafed Al-Ghwell, a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The new Democratic Party platform, adopted this year, rejects annexation and expresses support for a two-state solution and Palestinian rights. Seemingly, any paradoxical reference to Israel as an occupying power was dropped from the Party platform after pressure from pro-Israel lobby groups and Biden’s personal intervention.

Picking Kamala Harris as his running mate is actually considered by many as proof that US (military) support for Israel will be provided unconditionally for the time being. The California Senator has strong ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Biden himself has pledged to maintain Washington’s “unstinting support” for Israel and strongly rejected placing conditions on US aid to Israel and supporting boycotts. When Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden’s competitors for the Democratic candidacy, suggested that they might consider leveraging Israel’s 3.8 billion annual military aid package to stop annexation, Biden dismissed the idea as “bizarre.” At the same time, he has said that he would not reverse Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem or move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. Joe Biden has not indicated whether he would reverse US recognition of the Golan Heights.

Khaled Elgindy, Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, sums up the Biden approach in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs: "Merely going back to the status quo ante (or some approximation of it) is probably not enough to produce a credible peace process or salvage a two-state solution.” The window for a just settlement, as was envisioned more than 25 years ago, may already be closing. “There’s a real sense in the Democratic caucus that there’s not much time left,” said Democratic Representative Andy Levin recently in a webinar of the progressive J Street interest group. He was pointing to the steady expansion of settlements and the shrinking possibility of a viable Palestinian state. Levin added that if Biden were elected, he would have to immediately embark on three years of concerted diplomacy to restart a moribund peace process and cajole the two sides to a meaningful agreement. Only damage control would not be sufficient.


Thore Schröder

About the Author

Thore Schröder, Middle East Reporter since 2015. He works for Spiegel Online, Tagesspiegel, ZEIT, WELT, Zenith, the newspapers of Funke Media Group and others.