Election Day Repercussions: Trump and Obama Envoys talk Middle East

Trump, Biden faceoff presents voters with two starkly different views for America and the Middle East

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver joint remarks on a Middle East peace plan proposal in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver joint remarks on a Middle East peace plan proposal in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020
US President Donald Trump and his surrogates have placed a focus on Trump’s pro-Israel bona fides, largely in an effort to shore up the incumbent evangelical Christian voting base. The Trump administration’s unconventional and controversial approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone in recent weeks from a diplomatic laughingstock into one that has genuinely altered the narrative and direction of a long-stagnant peace process, with the announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates would normalize ties. This at the mere cost to Israel of “suspending” its potential application of sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) – something long-promised by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but a maneuver he always seemed unwilling to undertake. If President Trump secures a second term in the White House, can his “Vision for Peace” – expanded Israeli sovereignty in exchange for a restricted Palestinian state and economic incentives – actually become reality in some form?
“The ones who most have to accept it are the Israelis and Palestinians. It is unlikely one could put forth a plan that is widely accepted by that audience,” Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s former Middle East envoy, told The Media Line. “It took a great deal of time to study the conflict, learn from past efforts, deeply engage with the leadership throughout the region (after all they are the next most relevant parties) and to write a very detailed plan. And of course, we wanted to be sure we released it at a time that gave it the best potential for success. As to whether the historic UAE-Israel announcement potentially revives the Trump vision, right now it depends on the Palestinians. Unless and until the Palestinian leadership gets its house in order, particularly between Hamas and the PA, and unless and until they are willing to negotiate realistically and in good faith, directly with Israel, and not resort to trying to get other countries and organizations such as the UN to circumvent direct negotiations with Israel, little can be done on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that is a choice that the Palestinian leadership has made in the past with other peace efforts as well, to the significant detriment of the Palestinians. What the UAE-Israel deal does show is that the Arab-Israeli conflict can actually be resolved, even if only on a piecemeal basis, without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Greenblatt.
Some claim that the Israel-UAE deal may have actually been brought on by the prospect of Trump losing the upcoming US presidential election to former Vice President Joe Biden – the theory being that with Biden leading in the polls, Netanyahu hedged his bets and thought it safer not to start off a top-level relationship with Biden on the wrong foot following the application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, especially given the diplomatic victory with the UAE that Netanyahu could present to critics as well worth the price of putting sovereignty on the backburner again. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials are reportedly concerned that Biden will hold their feet to the fire in a way that the Trump administration hasn’t.
“Everybody has to contribute to a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and everyone has responsibilities,” former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told The Media Line. “And neither party has always done what they could do and needs to do and should do to get to that outcome. As president, Biden would be a partner to both but also hold both to their responsibilities to make those contributions. That means sometimes you have tough conversations with both sides, but you’re a partner to both in helping them achieve those goals that can actually serve their interests and America’s,” said Shapiro, who served in former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Whereas Trump cut all American funding to the Palestinian Authority and shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington as a result of the PA leaders’ vocal refusal to take part in Trump’s peace outline, Biden plans to restore the transfer of aid and re-engage with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. A lingering question is what it would take for Biden to bring the Palestinians back to the table, or what entry fee the PA might have to pay to re-engage with Trump in light of its reduced leverage following the Israel-UAE accord.
“The door to the White House has remained open since the Palestinians cut ties back in December, 2017,” Greenblatt told The Media Line. “President Trump and the team working on this peace effort are dedicated to the mission. If the Palestinians come back in good faith, they will be welcomed. This group does not characterize the cutting of ties as ‘bad blood.’ Their goal is to achieve peace if it is achievable. There is no entry fee because of the Palestinian leadership’s behavior. That is not how they operate. The only entry fee is a willingness by the Palestinians to negotiate realistically and in good faith,” said Greenblatt.
“You know, it’s hard to say what the relationship with the Palestinian Authority might look like in five months (when Biden would be inaugurated),” said Shapiro. “There are many things that could happen between now and then, and various hypotheticals to consider, with unstable governments both in Jerusalem and Ramallah. What Biden has said is that he believes Trump has made some serious mistakes that lessen the chance of two states, that lessens the prospect of a conflict resolution that keeps Israel secure and Jewish and democratic and gives the Palestinians a state of their own and fulfills their rights. Biden wants to restore the relationship with the PA, restore vital assistance and build to a restart of negotiations. At the moment, it may only be possible to keep two states alive for a later negotiation,” said Shapiro.
Putting aside the Palestinian Authority for a moment, what will America’s relationship with Israel look like come late January? The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu and his coalition would much prefer Trump to Biden. While Trump can credibly point to his pro-Israel bona fides, there is concern in Israeli government circles over his administration’s significant sales of arms to Middle East players, Trump’s cozy relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his plan to remove large numbers of American troops from a critical multinational peacekeeping force in Sinai and his general reluctance to send and keep US soldiers in the region. All that notwithstanding, a Netanyahu-Biden relationship would look to be complicated, at best. Netanyahu and Biden’s former boss, Obama, had a notoriously frosty and, at times, hostile partnership. Even the Obama/Biden defense assistance package to Israel – the largest arrangement ever for an American ally – was overshadowed by the fallout over disagreements about the Iran nuclear accord and an anti-Israel United Nations Security Council resolution that Obama refused to order vetoed in the closing days of his presidency – one that pro-Trump Israelis still point to as a reason to distrust any Obama foreign policy insiders.
“Water doesn’t flow under the bridge twice. We’re talking about six years after the [Obama-era Secretary of State] John Kerry [peace] negotiations,” Shapiro told The Media Line. Kerry was seen by the Netanyahu government as antagonistic toward Israel in peace talks, in constructing the Iran nuclear accord and in defending the lack of a US veto of the aforementioned Security Council resolution. “Things have happened on the ground and they need obviously need to be dealt with. Attitudes have changed. And so nothing will be exactly the same, but many of the same commitments to Israel’s security remain,” Shapiro said, citing Biden’s pledge not to condition American defense assistance to Israel, despite a push by the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party to do so.
“I don’t agree that the memorandum of understanding (the document that laid out Obama’s Israeli defense aid package) was overshadowed by Obama and Netanyahu’s personal problems,” Shapiro told The Media Line. Shapiro helped negotiate the MOU, seen as a monumental achievement by Netanyahu at the time. “Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for many years. They have a friendship and they work together. They’ve been through the positives and the disagreements. But Biden prioritizes the relationship beyond personalities. He prioritizes the partnership, the joint benefits of the bilateral relationship – security, intelligence, joint training, technology, sustaining regional stability. He would work with whoever the Israeli prime minister is, as politicians in both countries come and go,” Shapiro said.
The Middle East looks a bit different now than just a few weeks ago before the Israel-UAE deal. What it looks like come Inauguration Day on January 20 is unknowable. But, there is no doubt that leaders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have picked their favorites. A second term for Trump would almost certainly bring about increased pressure on the Palestinians, but a mercurial president who one day brings maximum pressure on Iran and on the next promises a deal with the ayatollahs within a month of his re-election brings a certain uneasiness to the American-Israeli relationship. Biden’s more balanced approach and experience could calm simmering tensions and bring a sense of certainty to the equation, but the formula for peace he intends to follow has failed consistently for decades in doing anything but managing the conflict and often making it worse.
The Middle East is a region where nothing stays the same for long. And a place where an adept diplomatic hand is required. Such is the contrast between Trump and Biden, and why the coming election will likely have a profound and immediate effect on what comes next for Israel and the Palestinians.
Read more at The Media Line.