The start of the Biden administration in the US has aroused fears among many Israelis, chiefly on the political right, alongside hope in the opposite camp. Donald Trump's term as president brought far-reaching changes in the Middle East, but his personality and his sometimes problematic actions cast a shadow over some very successful, deadlock-breaking moves.
Can Trump's Middle East policy be isolated from the other aspects of his term, particularly the events of the two months following the election, culminating in his supporters' assault on the Capitol? Can his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on combating climate change be seen as of one piece with his withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran?
All these things stemmed from the former president's personality: populism alongside out-of-the-box thinking, aggressiveness and controversial statements alongside the smashing of fixations among policy makers in Washington. In my view, therefore, each policy move needs to be examined from the point of view of its effects and results. And looking back, Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, who was highly esteemed in large parts of the world, and broke new ground on the climate issue and others, failed miserably in our region, with his democratization initiatives, inability to prevent the Syrian slaughter, and the concession to Iran on terror and missiles in exchange for a temporary pause in its nuclear program.
The effects of Trump's policy on the Middle East have been dramatic, and will continue for some time. And as far as Israel is concerned, the long-term changes are clearly for the better, with reservations concerning the Palestinian arena. The Palestinians, along with the Israeli left, argue that Trump made more distant the two-state solution that is essential to peace, gave legitimacy to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and to Israeli demands for sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, and moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem without exacting any diplomatic price from Israel. On the other hand, this US policy broke through the prolonged impasse on the issue and made the Palestinians understand that the stagnation worked against them.
This is the main reason that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) finally decided to hold elections for the Palestinian parliament and the presidency. Discontent is growing on the Palestinian street, and the feeling is that the Palestinian Authority is failing to bring about a reasonable standard of living for its citizens because of its mismanagement. Many Palestinians would be happy to receive the economic advantages offered by the Trump's Plan of the Century, but for the time being that is off the agenda, other than the part to do with peace agreements between Israel and the Gulf states, Morocco, and Sudan.
These agreements have brought about massive strategic change in the region, with far reaching economic, diplomatic, and security implications, and in fact have changed the Middle East unrecognizably. In general, Israel strengthened its international status and the cliché that the way to Washington's heart lay through Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu squeezed this lemon to the last.
On the economic plane, here's a statistic: in the last two months of 2020, agreements were signed on exports from Israel to the UAE and Bahrain, and via them to Saudi Arabia and other countries, to the tune of NIS 1 billion.
These are only initial agreements, and the expression the sky's the limit Is not a worn-out cliché in this instance. The UAE has joined the EastMed pipeline project involving Israel, Cyprus, Egypt and Greece, a highly significant strategic alliance.
On the security front, close and official allies of Israel are being armed with the latest weaponry (yes, the F35 combat aircraft is an example) in Iran's backyard, just tens of kilometers from it. This is a game-changer for the strategic balance in the region. In Iran itself, the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement has shaken the Islamic terrorist regime, made it lose hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, a large part of which would have gone to strengthening terror organization such as Hezbollah, and at the same time extreme steps were taken against it, such as the assassination of arch-terrorist Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
What will Joe Biden do? Will he change the picture? The new president has brought back into key positions several of Obama's people, among them some who were directly involved in the nuclear agreement with Iran, such as Wendy Sherman. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also served in a senior role under Obama, but in the past few weeks several calming signals have been sent Israel's way. Last week, Blinken said in the Senate that Jerusalem was Israel's capital, and that there was no intention of returning the US embassy to Tel Aviv.
He also said that the new administration was ready to return to negotiations with Iran on the latter's nuclear program, on condition that Iran met its obligations, and he stressed the commitment of the US to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He made clear that the intention was to achieve a better and stronger agreement, after consultation with friends of the US in the region, among them Israel and Saudi Arabia. On the Palestinian question, he said that the new administration was committed to the two-state solution, but admitted that it was a challenging issue.
A free translation of his remarks is that the US will probably cancel several of Trump's measures: financial aid to the Palestinians will be restored; the Palestinian mission in Washington will be reopened; and an effort will be made to renew contacts at various levels between the Palestinians and Israel. Any substantial move, however, will wait for the results of the election in Israel, and for the formation of a new government, which is by no means a certainty. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have also announced elections, and if they take place, the Americans will wait until the picture becomes clear, and to see what sort of link there will be between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Negotiations will be renewed with Iran, partly because the Europeans are pressing for it, and there is some chance that a new agreement will be achieved. This will be a test for the Israeli leadership, in its ability to influence such an agreement, particularly in preventing Iran from enriching uranium for a longer period, halting the flow of cash to terror organizations, and restricting Iran's long-range missile project.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 24, 2021
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