Australia/Israel Review, Featured


Editorial: The next US administration

Oct 27, 2020 | Colin Rubenstein

Election 2020 Political Volatility

 

There is a great deal at stake in November’s US elections – both for the US and for the wider world. Amidst one of the most acrimonious and polarised campaigns in memory, playing out between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden, it is worth remembering that, overall, what unites Americans is still greater than what divides them. 

Part of the US consensus is a firm backbone of bipartisan support for Israel and, more broadly, Western interests in the Middle East. That consensus is under greater threat than it has been in many decades, but is nonetheless far from broken. 

In the Democratic party, the advances by far-left or progressive candidates hostile to Israel and traditional Western interests in a smattering of congressional primaries, and spearheaded by the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, are worrying. However, a calm assessment of the larger picture is warranted.

Sanders lost convincingly to a career centrist in Biden.

Progressive victories in congressional primary races have received huge media coverage but have been mostly opportunistic and symbolic and confined to inner urban areas with large Democratic majorities.

The overall picture is perhaps better indicated by last year’s non-binding congressional resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which passed by a vote of 398 to 17, with five abstentions. 

Most voters in swing districts in the US Congress – which are the ones that decide elections – are, by nature, centrist. As Washington Post political columnist David Ignatius noted in February: “The left-wing of the [Democratic] party… got the attention… But it was the centrist candidates who swung Republican districts into the Democratic column and thus delivered the House for Democrats in 2018.” Ignatius offered two examples – Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin and Conor Lamb from Pennsylvania. Both attended the pro-Israel AIPAC Policy Conference this year.

Quite simply, anti-Israel posturing is anathema to the vast majority of Americans, including Democrats.

Meanwhile, despite a divisive domestic record, the Trump Administration can point to Middle East policies that have been innovative, led to clear successes and should inform future administrations. Far from setting the Arab street aflame as critics warned, the decisions to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, remove financial incentives for Palestinian intransigence, and promote a vision of two-state peace grounded in current realities led to September’s historic and transformative Abraham Accords. These treaties are not only bringing peace and normalisation between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, but transforming the whole Mideast geopolitical landscape, with more Arab and Muslim countries expected to follow.

Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal was an important step that led to applying maximum pressure on Iran, including a possible pathway for a renegotiated agreement. It is essential to close the dangerous loopholes and major gaps in that deal which Iran has been using to both continue its long-term plans to develop nuclear missiles and supercharge destabilising behaviour and support for terrorism in the region.

Differences between Democrats and Republicans over Trump’s handling of the Iran nuclear threat conceal the fact that wariness over Iran is bipartisan, with 88% of Americans currently holding an unfavourable view of the country, according to Gallup.

On Israel, regional Middle Eastern concerns and threats like Iran, the majority of Democrats and Republicans do not disagree greatly on the broader strokes of foreign policy, only on how to best achieve their common goals. 

An exception to this was the Obama Administration’s Iran deal, a 180-degree turn that never had the support of Congress – or indeed public opinion, according to polls.

Should Biden prevail, he would be wise to reconsider his stated intent to have the US return to the JCPOA, and then seek a renegotiated deal – a sequence which would dangerously weaken US leverage. 

Hopefully, potential Biden administration policymakers will reflect on current realities and take new developments since 2015 into account. Iran has violated not only the JCPOA, but the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well, and had its pretence of seeking a peaceful nuclear program destroyed thanks to the Iranian nuclear archive seized by Israeli intelligence in 2018.

Likewise, in terms of peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians, a Biden administration would need to adapt to a fundamentally changed landscape. The advent of peace and normalisation between Israel and an increasing number of Arab and Muslim countries has rendered the old paradigm, whereby the Palestinian issue had to be resolved before Israeli-Arab normalisation could occur, obsolete. The opposite today appears much more plausible – Arab-Israel normalisation might be key to initiatives leading to a future peace deal with the Palestinians. 

Biden’s unqualified support for the Abraham Accords, much like his announcement that he would keep the US embassy in Jerusalem, indicates this process of accepting current realities is well underway.

Regardless of who the next US president is, there is good reason to hope and believe that the next administration will:

1. Sustain the military and financial pressure on Iran’s regime to curtail its violent, destabilising activities and agree to a new deal which genuinely ends Teheran’s quest for nuclear weapons; 

2. Support Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait in their battle against both Iranian threats and transnational Muslim Brotherhood subversion and violence encouraged by Turkey and Qatar; 

3. Build on the Abraham Accords, expanding the circle of Arab and Muslim partners with Israel, while recognising the limited and negative role accorded the Palestinian issue by the Arab states. 

4. Recognise the reality that Palestinian promotion of hate education and terrorism is an ideologically-driven phenomenon that must be confronted to make peace possible, not a product of despair which must be appeased. 

5. Continue to invest in the extraordinary US-Israel relationship, based on both shared values as well as shared interests, which has brought much larger benefits to the United States than costs. 

Regardless of who wins on Nov. 3, if the next US administration follows these guidelines, not only the US and its Middle East allies, but most of the world, including of course Australia, will benefit significantly. 

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