The Trump administration is shoring up policy changes long sought-after by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shifting the ground in the Middle East that will create challenges as well as opportunities for President-elect Joe Biden, The Hill reports.
Biden will take office at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are further apart on negotiating a two-state solution and as Gulf countries unite with Israel to oppose efforts by the U.S. to re-engage with Iran over its nuclear program.
It’s unclear what role a Middle East peace process will take in the Biden administration, which will also find itself grappling with COVID-19 and a weakened economy. Its foreign policy challenges include rebuilding American relationships with allies abroad and confronting China.
Iran is likely to be a bigger issue initially.
“The reality is, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not going to be the Biden administration’s top foreign policy priority in the Middle East, it will be Iran,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and who has advised both Republican and Democrat administrations on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
“And why is it the priority? Because it is the only issue, in this entire region, that could create the kind of tensions and escalations leading to military confrontation, not just between Israel and Iran, but potentially between the U.S. and Iran over the nuclear issue.”
Iran has been ramping up its nuclear program, and the new Biden team wants to engage with allies over a stronger international agreement to rein in Tehran's ambitions.
Biden has vowed to put the U.S. back in the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement that is broadly opposed by Republicans and is also seen critically by many congressional Democrats.
Biden is unlikely to roll back many of the more consequential policy changes related to Israel that have occurred under Trump, such as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
But Biden has committed to reengaging with the Palestinians, who cut ties with Trump in 2018.
He has said he will restore diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and deliver millions of dollars in security assistance and financial aid to the United Nations agency dedicated to assisting Palestinian refugees, already earmarked by the Senate.
Palestinians are setting themselves up for a fresh start, announcing earlier this month that they are restoring communication with Israel. There have also been reports that they are making moves to end payments to families of Palestinians in Israeli jails on terrorism-related charges.
The Palestinian Authority recently sent ambassadors back to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after recalling them when those nations established diplomatic ties with Israel.
One former U.S. official, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss staffing, said it is important for Biden to quickly replace the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who the official described as “a very negative factor in the prospect of advancing toward peace and in exacerbating problems on the ground.”
Policy shifts under the Trump administration have strengthened Netanyahu’s position.
While Netanyahu “suspended” earlier plans to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank in exchange for opening diplomatic relations with the U.A.E. and Bahrain, the Trump administration — and Pompeo in particular — have legitimized their presence.
Pompeo reversed a State Department legal decision that viewed the settlements as illegal; lifted restrictions allowing for U.S. investment in science and research programs in Israeli settlements; changed guidance to label Israeli products from these areas as “made in Israel”; and became the first top U.S. official to visit an Israeli settlement.
Pompeo is considered a potential Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential election and his place at the forefront of changing U.S. policy in favor of Israel is likely to be a major selling point of his campaign.
While Netanyahu has publicly lauded Pompeo's service in the Trump administration, the prime minister is unlikely to take a hard line against Biden compared to how he confronted President Obama over the issue of settlements and Iran.
“The Obama-Netanyahu relationship was combative in large part because of Netanyahu,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Bush administration.
“Will Netanyahu want to have that same relationship with Biden? I think the answer is no. We know that Biden, during his long career in the Senate, had a very close relationship with Israel, Israeli leaders, and it was not just a political relationship, he has made clear that Israel is in his heart and not just in his head.”