Joe Biden offered a preview of his Middle East policy throughout the 2020 campaign. He promised to reverse many of the policies adopted by his predecessor and, in his first 100 days as president, he began to make good on many of his pledges so there were no major surprises. Some advocates for Israel were leery of Biden’s commitment to Israel and worried he would revert to policies they found objectionable adopted by President Obama. Erstwhile allies like Peter Beinart had the opposite concern, calling Biden’s record on Israel “alarming” and worrying he would restore the pre-Obama pro-Israel Democratic consensus on Israel.
Not surprisingly, Biden hired many former officials from the Obama administration as well as other experienced foreign policy hands. Despite his pledge of bipartisanship, he appointed no Republicans to senior positions. Abe Silberstein noted that “Biden filled key foreign policy roles with people critical of both Israeli policy and certain American foreign policy principles that favor Israel” who are “all highly qualified to serve in their roles,” but many “are not particularly known for their background on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and “not expected to change the general policy direction of the administration, which is moderate and generally attentive to Israel’s concerns.” On the other hand, some of the appointment, he said, “sent an important signal to younger and more progressive generations of Democratic policy aides and advisors: Don’t be afraid that good faith advocacy for justice and human rights will be seen as a professional liability down the line.”
Biden has appointed several Jews, including at least two children of Holocaust survivors, to cabinet and senior positions. Those who are likely to have input on Middle East policy include Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellin, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and CIA Deputy Director David Cohen.
One indication of the administration’s efforts to mend fences with Arabs and Muslims in the United States as well as abroad has been his appointment of Arabs, Muslims, and supporters of the Palestinians. He also chose individuals involved in negotiating and supporting the Iran nuclear deal. Several of his picks attracted criticism from the pro-Israel community, primarily from people and organizations to the right of the mainstream. The controversial picks include:
- Reema Dodin as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. She will be the most senior Palestinian-American woman to ever serve in the executive branch. Her past involvement as a Palestinian activist as a student alarmed some supporters of Israel.
- Hady Amr as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He served as a Fellow at the Brookings’ Doha Center for Qatar.
- Robert Malley as U.S. Special Envoy on Iran. He has been a frequent critic of Israel and a vocal supporter of the Iran nuclear deal.
- Colin Kahl appointed but not yet confirmed for Undersecretary of Defense. He is another supporter of the Iran deal.
- Samantha Power as head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Power was Obama’s ambassador to the UN and a harsh critic of Israel.
- Wendy Sherman as Deputy Secretary of State. Sherman negotiated and continues to support the Iran deal.
- Jake Sullivan as National Security adviser. Sullivan was involved in initiating secret talks with the Iranians.
- Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence. She signed a letter urging the Democratic Party to change its platform to include language opposing settlement expansion and
occupation,and supporting Palestinian rights.
- Maher Bitar as senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council. Bitar, a Palestinian American, was on the board of the anti-Zionist group Students for Justice for Palestine.
- Former Secretary of State John Kerry as White House special envoy on climate. Though not directly involved in Israel-related issues, he was a vitriolic critic of Israel and negotiator of the Iran deal in the Obama administration.
Perhaps as a reward for voting overwhelmingly for Biden, and a desire to demonstrate a new attitude toward Arabs following what some viewed as four years of hostility, the State Department declared April “Arab American Heritage Month.”
For Israel, the number one, two and three most important issues are the threats from Iran. Biden was unequivocal throughout his campaign that he intended to return to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), which was signed while he was vice president and which he has vigorously defended. He said, for example:
- “I have no illusions about the challenges the regime in Iran poses to America’s security interests, to our friends and partners and to its own people. But there is a smart way to be tough on Iran.”
- “I will make an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
- “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
- “We will continue to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region…. America will also work closely with Israel to ensure it can defend itself against Iran and its proxies. We will continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran’s human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.
- “If Iran chooses confrontation, I am prepared to defend our vital interests and our troops. But, I am ready to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran takes steps to show it is ready too.”
Supporters of the deal, especially progressive Democrats, were urging him to quickly ease sanctions on Iran and rejoin the JCPOA. Critics, including the Israeli government, cautioned against making any concessions to Iran and insisted that instead of returning to what they consider a loophole-filled agreement Iran never complied with, Biden should retain sanctions until Iran agrees to a tougher deal that would include restrictions on Iran’s sponsorship of terror, ballistic missile development, and malign regional activities.
As a first step, the P5+1, the UnitedStates, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia agreed to convene a meeting in Vienna on April 6, 2021, to discuss how to bring both the United States and Iran back into compliance.
During the Vienna talks, the United States and Iran agreed through intermediaries to establish a working group to discuss the lifting of sanctions imposed by President Trump. A second working group will focus on how to get Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the news by noting that “history has taught us that agreements like this with extremist regimes are worth as much as garlic peel.” He also warned the negotiators that Israel would not be bound by “an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction.”
He added, “Today we have a state, we have the power to defend ourselves and we have the natural and full right as the sovereign state of the Jewish people to protect ourselves from our enemies.”
Early reports suggested that Robert Malley, who is leading the negotiations, is prepared to offer what Michael Hirsh called “a Goldilocks-style deal: just enough sanctions relief so Iran will return to the pact but not so much that it would leave Biden vulnerable to attacks from hard-liners at home, including those in his own party who oppose any concessions at all to Iran.”
The administration has talked about removing sanctions that went beyond those originally associated with the JCPOA, which, Hirsh says, Trump added as “poison pills” to prevent Biden from returning to the agreement.
Hirsh noted that the sanctions Trump imposed on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Co., and the National Iranian Tanker Co. “would invalidate the deal’s effects because these companies would be banned from international commerce” and deny the Iranians the revenues they need. Moreover, he said, removing sanctions on the central bank would be politically risky because of its supply of funds to Hezbollah and Hamas. Nevertheless, reports indicated the administration was considering lifting sanctions on all three as well as those on steel, aluminum, textiles, autos, shipping, and insurance.
Biden may feel pressured to reach a quick deal because on May 21, 2021, a deal will expire under which the IAEA allowed Iran to keep nuclear inspection data. After that date, Hirsh reported, “Tehran has said it will destroy the data, very possibly torpedoing the nuclear agreement.”
David Pollock of the Washington Institute observed that the good news is that “unlike the Obama administration that most of them were previously part of,” Biden’s team “seems focused almost as much on Iran’s non-nuclear activities as on its nuclear ones.” He said, the bad new is “their actual policy toward those non-nuclear challenges are mostly carrots with few sticks. “The result, no doubt unwittingly, is that the U.S. is emboldening and empowering Iran on the Mideast regional level, rather than containing it.”
On April 9, 2021, the intelligence community published its Annual Threat Assessment, and concluded that Iran “is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.” It also said:
Meanwhile, hostilities were escalating between Israel and Iran as they attacked each other’s ships and an explosion, widely blamed on Israel, occurred at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility. Afterward, Shane Harris noted, “in a sign of how rapidly intelligence may be overtaken by events, hours before the report’s public release, a senior Iranian official announced a major jump in the country’s enrichment of uranium, [from 20 percent] to 60 percent purity.
The disclosure of Israel’s attacks on Iranian ships was apparently the result of a leak from the administration. “In doing this,” Professor Eytan Gilboa argued, “Biden signaled that even if negotiations fail, he will not countenance an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and opposes an Israeli military strike. As it did in 2015, the U.S. administration is tacitly reassuring Iran that it need have no fear of a military attack. Because it has received this reassurance, Tehran will feel free to take tougher positions in the negotiations.”
In an effort to counter concerns the administration is contemplating easing sanctions before Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East, told Jewish American leaders on April 23, 2021, “Until we get somewhere and until we have a firm commitment, and it’s very clear that Iran’s nuclear program is going to be capped, the problematic aspects reversed and back in a box, we are not going to take any of the pressure off.” He said the administration is “not going to pay anything upfront just to get a process going. We have to see from the Iranians a fundamental commitment and agreement to put their nuclear program back in a box that we can fully inspect and observe.”
McGurk added: “We have worked with the Israelis every day in the security realm, in terms of their freedom of action - protecting themselves - as something fundamental to us.... There is no disagreement on where we want to go - Iran can never get a nuclear weapon, period. There’s some disagreement about the kind of tactics you might use to get there. But we agree on a lot more than we disagree.”
While negotiations continued, Iran upped the ante by enriching uranium to 63% purity.
At the end of March 2021, the administration announced it was providing $15 million in coronavirus assistance and another $75 million in assistance for infrastructure, health, and civil society groups. At the beginning of April, the administration informed lawmakers that it would give the Palestinians $40 million for law enforcement and security and another $10 million for peacebuilding programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Some members of Congress said providing aid violated the Taylor Force Act which prohibits U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it ends its pay-to-slay policy of providing stipends to terrorists in Israeli jails and the families of suicide bombers. Secretary of State Tony Blinken denied this, “President Biden was actually in Israel about a mile and a half from Taylor Force when he was murdered,” Blinken said, “and he spoke out about that immediately and has been a forceful advocate for doing justice by Taylor Force and making sure that we are making good on the obligations that we have under the Taylor Force Act.”
The State Department also announced resumption of support for UNRWA. The department said the contribution of $150 million to the agency was needed for UNRWA services. It also justified the reversal of policy by stating “the United States needs to be at the table to ensure that the reforms advance efficiencies and are in accord with our interests and values.”
Contradicting the State Department’s claim that the aid aligns with the interests of our allies, Israel’s foreign ministry said of the aid to UNRWA, “Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution.” Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, was more explicit: “I have expressed my disappointment and objection to the decision to renew UNRWA’s funding without first ensuring that certain reforms, including stopping the incitement and removing anti-Semitic content from its educational curriculum, are carried out.”
An administration official subsequently said: “UNWRA has made clear their rock-solid commitments to the United States on the issues of transparency, accountability, and neutrality in all its operations.... And what neutrality means in the context of the United Nations is zero tolerance for racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.”
UNRWA has made, and failed to deliver on similar promises in the past and, as a result the European Parliament adopted a resolution in April 2021 condemning the organization for teaching hate and violence in PA schools. UNRWA ignored similar resolutions adopted the year before and, Norway becamse the first EU nation that voted to cut financial assistance to the agency because of the anti-Semitic and violent content of its educational materials.
The resumption of aid also came despite a Government Accountability Office report that found the U.S. government had not properly vetted all of its Palestinian funding recipients for U.S. antiterrorism criteria as required by law.
If the Palestinians and peace process advocates hoped the resumption of aid was an indication of an interest in quickly jumping into a new push for a two-state solution, they were disappointed. “Aside from taking a few small steps to reorient the U.S. position away from the heavily pro-Israel tilt it took under Trump — including restoring some modest aid to the Palestinians — Biden and his team are signaling that the conflict is simply not a priority,” Nahal Toosi observed in Politico.
As of mid-April 2021, Biden had not yet spoken to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even though he has spoken to Netanyahu. According to media reports, Abbas rejected an earlier offer of a call from Blinken, saying he wanted to hear from the U.S. president directly.
Lower-level officials are in contact with their Palestinian counterparts, but Biden has not named an assistant secretary of State for the Middle East yet. For now, Hady Amr, a deputy assistant secretary of state is the top official engaged on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Toosi noted the principal National Security Council officials responsible for the Middle East, Brett McGurk and Barbara Leaf, are specialists on the Gulf states.
It came as no surprise, since he also had telegraphed his position during the campaign, that Biden did not reverse Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Palestinians and their supporters were upset, however, that he did not reopen the consulate in Jerusalem that had served essentially as the U.S. embassy to the Palestinian Authority when he restored the aid programs.
He also did not meet their expectation that he would reopen the PLO office in Washington, a move which faces legal obstacles because of congressional legislation that would expose Palestinian officials to U.S. anti-terror lawsuits. The law makes the Palestinians liable for $655.5 million in financial penalties against them in U.S. courts if they open an office in the United States.
The administration upset both Israelis and Palestinians with changes to the State Department’s annual human rights reports. Toosi noted, “Under Trump, that report’s references to the occupation were cut; Biden aides brought back the reference, but primarily in what were historical statements or statements attributable to entities other than the United States. The Biden administration also did not revert to the pre-Trump title of the Israeli-Palestinian section: “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” Instead, it stuck with “Israel, West Bank and Gaza.”
When asked about the language in the report, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “It is a historical fact that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war.”
This position is seen as problematic by Israel and its supporters because the more accurate description is that the West Bank and Gaza are disputed areas.
Another shift toward the Obama approach that Israel and its advocates feared is the renewed expressions of evenhandedness that equate the actions of a democratic state, Israel, with a non-state run by an authoritarian regime (there was an election, but PA President Abbas is now in the 16th year of his four-year term). This was typified by several statements urging Israelis and Palestinians to avoid actions that threaten the possibility of a two-state solution. This was a thinly veiled warning to Israel regarding settlements. Biden made no secret during the campaign of his opposition to any expansion of settlements or
One development beyond the administration’s control which could throw a wrench into the plan to restore ties with the Palestinians is the PA elections scheduled for June. Polls suggest that Hamas could win the election, as it did in 2006, and U.S. law prevents engagement with the PA, or financial assistance, if the terrorist group is part of the government. The U.S. and the Europeans have consistently said they would not negotiate with Hamas unless it meets three conditions which they have refused to meet: renouncing violence, publicly recognizing Israel, and committing to previous agreements with Israel. The Israelis have been equally insistent they will not negotiate with a government including members of Hamas. Hence, an election that brings Hamas to power would end administration hopes of returning to talks about a two-state solution.
Reporters at State Department briefings have also been trying to coax the spokesperson to indicate whether BIden supports policies implemented by President Trump. For example, a reporter asked if the administration regards Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, whether Americans born in Jerusalem can list Israel as their country of birth, whether a two-state solution would result in Palestinians having a capital in East Jerusalem, and whether the U.S. recognized the Golan Heights. Spokesperson Ned Price’s answer to all the questions was “there’s been no change on our position.”
In another briefing, Price was asked if the administration believes settlement activity hurts prospects for a two-state solution. “We believe when it comes to settlement activity that Israel should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. That includes the annexation of territory. That includes settlement activity.” Then, to reflect the new evenhandedness, he added, “We’ve been equally clear when it comes to the potential actions of the Palestinians, whether that is incitement to violence, providing compensation for individuals in prison for acts of terrorism. That, too, moves us further away from a two-state solution.”
While Price was justified in saying pursuit of a two-state solution is consistent with the interests of the United States, he went further and claimed it was also “consistent with the values and the interests of Israelis and also Palestinians.” This echoes the Arabist view that the United States, not the citizens of Israel, knows what’s best for Israel.
Another concern of Biden critics was that he was not enthusiastic about building on the Abraham Accords negotiated by his predecessor. The biggest “prize” would be the establishment of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Biden’s decision to recalibrate U.S. ties with the kingdom, however, could make that less likely or possibly give the administration leverage to encourage the Saudis to normalize ties. The U.S. posture toward Saudi Arabia and Iran is also driving the Saudis and Israelis closer together, though not to the point of formal diplomatic relations.
Biden’s decision to reconsider the sale of F-15s to the UAE also raised alarms and there was some concern a refusal to go through with the transfer might undermine the accords. In April 2021, the administration decided to go ahead with the sale but some members of Congress still hoped to block it.
The president was also being pressured to reverse Trump’s recognition of the Moroccan government’s claim to the Western Sahara, which was part of the negotiations that encouraged Morocco to restore ties with Israel. Critics like R. Joseph Huddleston, Harshana Ghoorhoo, and Daniela A. Maquera Sardon say Trump’s action was contrary to U.S. and international policy toward the longstandig conflict in the area and “demonstrates that U.S. foreign-policy now favors power over law and unilateral action over cooperation” and would allow other occupiers to expand their territories in contravention of international law.
According to Nicolas Niarchos, “Morocco has reportedly held off on implementing the deal with Israel, and is waiting to see whether the new Administration adheres to the Trump-era plan to open an American consulate in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla, viewing it as a bellwether of U.S. intentions.”
Blinken has tried to reassure Israel and its supporters of the administration commitment to build on the Abraham Accords, saying in April 2021, “The United States welcomes and supports the recent normalization agreements,” adding, “We will continue to urge more countries to normalize relations with Israel – and will look for other opportunities to expand cooperation among countries in the region. As a result, I expect Israel’s group of friends to grow even wider in the year ahead.”
The United States fiercely defended Israel throughout Trump’s term and did not allow any anti-Israel measures to be adopted in the Security Council. Critics worried that Biden might revert to Obama’s position which culminated in a controversial abstention on Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements.
Biden’s Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the Security Council in March 2021, the Biden administration would stand by Israel, especially if it was singled out, and said the Security Council should be discussing threats to international peace and security. She reiterated U.S. support for a two state solution and, in a return to a pre-Trump policy of evenhandedness, declared that both sides should take concrete steps towards the two-state formula and avoid unilateral actions, including settlement, demolition, violence and incitement. Thomas-Greenfield also announced the administration’s intent to reopen diplomatic channels with the Palestinians.
In another reversal of Trump policies, the administration announced its intent to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council, initially as an observer. The Trump team considered the HRC a “cesspool of political bias” where Israel is regularly condemned by council members who are among the worst human rights abusers, and whose own actions, along with those of other serial human rights violators are ignored. Mark Cassayre, Biden’s representative in Geneva explained the justification for the change in policy: “We know that this body has the potential to be an important forum for those fighting tyranny and injustice around the world. By being present at the table, we seek to ensure it can live up to that potential.”
The Trump administration announced the imposition of economic sanctions against International Criminal Court (ICC) officials “directly engaged in investigating U.S. personnel or allied personnel against their state’s consent, and against others who materially support such officials’ activities.” Though the Biden administration opposed the ICC decision to open an investigation of Israel, it also revoked the sanctions.
Biden announced plans to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. More relevant to Israel, however, is his decision to remove some military capabilities and forces from the Gulf region as part of a shift in emphasis from the Middle East to other theaters, particularly Asia. The Pentagon has removed at least three Patriot antimissile batteries from the area meant primarily to protect U.S. forces, including one from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. An aircraft carrier and surveillance systems are also being moved.
As part of the reassessment of ties with Saudi Arabia, the United States is halting aid to support its war in Yemen and considering other moves to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
It is not yet clear if Biden will also reduce or remove American forces from Syria and Iraq. Any change in U.S. deployment in those countries could impact Israel’s security by emboldening Iran and providing Tehran with an opportunity to fill the vacuum and accomplish its goal of creating a land bridge across Syria and Iraq to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, which would facilitate its ability to transfer weapons and forces to southern Lebanon and the Golan front in Syria.
A report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies noted, “The U.S. and its local partners currently hold blocking positions that have closed two of the three potential land bridge routes across the Middle East. The U.S. garrison at al-Tanf in eastern Syria sits astride the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus, obstructing one route. In addition, U.S. forces and their local partners in northern Syria block the northernmost route.” The report emphasized the importance of disrupting this land bridge because “Tehran’s goal is to subvert the regional order, export its revolution, and displace the U.S. as the leading egpower in the rion.”
Secretary Blinken restated the U.S. commitment to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Anti-Semitism, sending a message the administration will take the danger of anti-Semitism seriously and recognize certain criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
During the campaign, Biden also made clear his opposition to boycotts direct at Israel. “I’ve been clear: the calls here in the United States to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel are wrong. Period. The BDS movement singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — in a way that is inconsistent with the treatment of other nations, and it too often veers into anti-Semitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices.”
As of April 2021, Biden still had not named an envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism to replace Trump appointee Elan Carr.
Tensions in Israel flared in early May as Palestinians rioted on the Temple Mount during Ramadan and other protests turned violent in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem over a decision to evict Palestinians illegally living on Jewish land. The violence escalated dramatically beginning May 10, 2021, when Hamas began to launch hundreds of missiles from Gaza into Israel, hitting not only areas near the border but reaching Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. On May 12, Biden spoke to Netanyahu and condemned the rocket attacks and
conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians. The secretaries of state and defense made similar remarks in conversations with their counterparts.
The United States twice blocked proposals for a UN Security Council joint statement on the violence because it would be “unhelpful” in de-escalating the situation. The statements focused on criticizing Israeli actions and failed to condemn the rioting by Palestinians or missile barrages by Hamas.
A Palestinian Islamic Jihad official, Ramez Al-Halabi, admitted Iran’s role in supporting the violence:
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