What will the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel look like under President Biden? It is too soon to tell. On several crucial issues, including this vital relationship, the administration does not appear to be of one mind. We must wait and see which officials dominate.
Biden clearly wishes to build consensus on foreign policy matters. He also hopes to keep such complex strategic issues on the back burner while his administration focuses on its domestic agenda. At the same time, the core of his foreign policy team looks like an alumni reunion of officials from the administration of President Obama. They think their foreign policy served the nation well and want to get back to it as soon as possible.
Then there are those far left members of the Democratic Party, who reject the traditional bipartisan support for the key alliance with Israel. They see Israel as the root of problems in the region, siding with the Palestinians in the conflict with the only democracy in the Middle East. Indeed, they also believe the Middle East may be better off if the Muslim Brotherhood were in charge, supplanting those regimes in countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. They also oppose the measures to restrain Iran.
Some of the most recent nominees of Biden have extremely controversial views on Israel. Maher Bitar, who critics accuse to be a fervent activist for the efforts to boycott Israel, was appointed senior director of intelligence programs at the National Security Council. Then Uzra Zeya, who has been connected in the past to the “secret money” conspiracies over Israel, was nominated to be undersecretary for democracy and human rights. Robert Malley, the special envoy to Tehran, supports diplomacy with Iran and has spoken out against the policy of Israel toward the Palestinians.
How all this gets sorted out remains to be seen. Biden came to office with no strong plans to deal with foreign policy issues such as the Middle East, offering only his promises to restore the “credibility” of the United States. There are several clues on his ideas about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. His administration has endorsed the two state solution. It also plans to restore aid to the Palestinian Authority, renew funding to the United Nations Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees, and also reopen the Palestinian Liberation Organization mission out in Washington.
Yet Biden has fervently backed Israel and firmly rejected the antisemitic movement to boycott the country. His administration has embraced the widely accepted working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. His administration also declared the opposition to the International Criminal Court probe on Israel sought by the Palestinians. The objection cited that the investigation has “unfairly” targeted Israel, and that the Palestinians also lack sovereignty.
Biden remains cloudy for his position toward Iran. He assured all that he was going to rejoin the Iran deal but provided no distinct plans for doing so. It is no secret Iran is resolved to develop nuclear weapons along with the ballistic missiles to deliver them. It remains to be seen how Biden will handle the new demands from Iran to reverse sanctions as a condition to getting it back to the negotiating table for such a nuclear deal.
Israel has noticed that his administration no longer mentions “all military options are on the table” in its words about Iran. When Israel announced that it was refreshing its attack plans against the nuclear facilities in Iran, the administration warned “its allies in the Middle East” not to oppose its actions or to find military solutions. Then there are the Abraham Accords. The administration could have plans for the most significant geopolitical initiative with the region in a generation but has not shared it.
What all these ambivalent measures have in common is that none of them appears to really advance American interests across the region, which are restraining Iran, pushing against extremism, promoting collective security, fostering economic integration, and ending the disruptive influence from Russia and China. This leaves the vital relationship with Israel on unsettled ground because the alliance is based on the reality that Israel is crucial for safeguarding numerous American interests in the Middle East.
There are not enough dots to connect with how Biden will handle all of the challenges in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel and the Sunni Arab states are likely to try to make nice with Washington, while hedging their bets by making deals with each other. That will not be a worst case scenario here. But anyone who thinks it is a situation that is likely to lead to a more stable and prosperous Middle East in the near term is sadly mistaken.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 3/11/21