New Beginning in Washington
Jan 27, 2021 | Lahav Harkov
As Joe Biden began his term as United States President on Jan. 20, the Middle East probably was not foremost on his mind. Domestic issues are dominating the agenda in the US, including coronavirus and picking up the pieces after the attempted insurrection in Washington on Jan. 6, among others.
That means Israelis will likely be in somewhat of a holding position with the US on a wide range of issues to see how things will change.
But there is one issue that will likely come up very soon, and that is Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not even wait for Biden’s inauguration to address it. He and his associates have repeated many, many times over the past two months that the US must not return to the 2015 Iran deal, which outgoing President Donald Trump left in 2018.
The urgency is not only because Iran’s nuclear ambitions are an issue that is always foremost on Netanyahu’s mind, being the biggest external threat to Israel, but because Biden himself has said he would like the US to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the world powers’ nuclear agreement with Iran is called.
To be fair, there are caveats to that return. Biden would expect a return to strict Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. He has written and talked about opening negotiations with Iran to strengthen the deal, while others in Biden’s orbit have referred more specifically to limiting the Islamic Republic’s ballistic-missile program and its malign behaviour throughout the region.
However, at its core, the JCPOA has a major weakness, as far as Israel is concerned. Rather than say Teheran cannot develop a nuclear weapon, it simply delays its ability to do so. At the beginning of the deal, it severely limited Iran’s enrichment capabilities.
But as the years go by, the “sunset clauses” lift more and more limitations, so that by 2030, Iran would effectively face almost no barriers to developing a nuclear weapon under the terms of the agreement.
The question remains as to whether the Biden Administration will recognise Iran’s recent, increasing violations and change course. Since Biden’s terms for a return to the deal include strict compliance by Iran, that return may not even be possible.
But Biden has appointed so many people from the Obama Administration who were instrumental in making the Iran deal happen – such as its top negotiator Wendy Sherman, nominated as deputy secretary of state; National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; former secretary of state John Kerry in Biden’s cabinet, among others – that it seems inevitable they would want to return to what they see as the deal’s former glory.
But the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions regime on Iran has given the US leverage to try to extract greater concessions. It is possible that Biden could negotiate a different, truly effective deal with Iran and call it “a return to the Iran deal” to save face.
The way Biden handles Iran will also likely have an impact on the Abraham Accords, the peace and normalisation agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
The Obama Administration’s Iran policies were a major impetus for Israel and moderate Sunni states to build closer relationships based on intelligence sharing and other kinds of security cooperation in facing their shared Iranian threat. Netanyahu’s outspokenness on the issue attracted leaders in the region to join in a sort of coalition against Iranian aggression. The Trump Administration fostered those advances into open, public, official ties between Israel and its friends in the Gulf, and others followed.
It is possible that shared opposition to Biden’s Iran policies could have the same effect. But it seems more likely that without the US providing incentives, America being party to the JCPOA will do what it did in 2015: bolster secret partnerships.
That being said, Biden has spoken very positively about the Abraham Accords and has said he would like more Arab and Muslim states to recognise Israel.
He may encourage them to do so, though it is still unlikely he will put the same emphasis the Trump Administration did on what it viewed as one of its greatest foreign-policy achievements.
Where Biden is highly critical, and has been throughout his nearly 50-year career in Washington, is on the settlement issue.
For the past four years, the Trump Administration not only didn’t care where Israel built homes for its citizens, but encouraged the development of communities in the West Bank by declaring settlements to not be illegal per se and proposing a peace plan in which Israel would retain them all.
Now, it is likely that every announcement related to West Bank settlements will be met with criticism from Washington.
It is important to emphasise that Biden may have been vice president under Obama, but he is a different person. The many Obama alumni who Biden has appointed may be different when they follow “the spirit of the commander,” the Hebrew phrase for echoing a leader’s behaviour.
Biden and Netanyahu do not have the deep personal antipathy that Netanyahu and Obama felt toward one another, even if Biden has been critical at times.
“Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you,” Biden has said publicly on multiple occasions.
Israel, of course, is not just Netanyahu. But when it comes to Biden’s sympathies, the Jewish state will be fine in that regard no matter who wins Israel’s election in March. Biden has called himself a Zionist and has a strong record of positive statements and votes in Israel’s favour.
Furthermore, defence cooperation between Israel and the US is not in question.
But that issue, along with settlements, the Abraham Accords and others, will likely be put on hold for now, while the Biden Administration gets its footing and tries to bring a deeply divided America back from the brink.