Berkowitz: Biden win could harm normalization deals with Israel

“I am nervous, if I am just being completely honest,” said Avi Berkowitz, special representative for international negotiations to US President Donald Trump.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US president special adviser Jared Kushner, and Special Assistant to the US president Avi Berkowitz (photo credit: MATTY STERN / US EMBASSY JERUSALEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US president special adviser Jared Kushner, and Special Assistant to the US president Avi Berkowitz
A victory for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would harm the burgeoning normalization deals between Israel and its Middle East neighbors, US Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz said in an interview published Thursday.
“I am nervous, if I am just being completely honest,” said Berkowitz, who is assistant to US President Donald Trump and a special representative for international negotiations.
Berkowitz was careful to laud Biden for his support for the Abraham Accords, under whose umbrella Israel last month normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“I was appreciative when the Biden camp put out a positive statement of support for the accords, because it actually showed that this is something that has bipartisan support in the US,” Berkowitz said.
At issue, he warned was the potential that a Biden presidency would return US policy toward Iran to one of appeasement.
“A different administration would continue to pursue sort of an appeasement-type strategy with Iran and whether its intention is so or not, it is hard to imagine that that would not have negative ramifications on the normalization efforts,” Berkowitz said.
He spoke during the virtual Kohelet Policy Forum’s conference entitled, “The Abraham Accords: Towards a New Middle East” that was filmed last week. The event was also sponsored by the Israel Hayom newspaper and the Shiloh Forum.
During his talk Berkowitz credited the Trump administration’s strong stance against Iranian aggression for softening the ground for the deals and uniting Israel with its neighbors.
“I think that if you are in a world where the US is isolating its partners and allies in the Middle East, it becomes a lot more difficult to capitalize in the ways that we were able to, and so that is just a significant fear of mine that I hope would never be realized, because I think it could not be more important that President Trump be the one in charge of these things,” Berkowitz said.
He assured the audience that the Trump administration still philosophically supports the annexation of West Bank settlements, even though it agreed to suspend sovereignty in favor of Israeli normalization deals with Arab countries.
“The notion of applying Israeli law to areas of the West Bank, is not something that we fundamentally disagree with, in fact it is something that we fundamentally would support,” Berkowitz said.
He referenced the portion of Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that allowed for Israel to annex 30% of the West Bank. The US then agreed that the plan could be suspended in exchange for the Abraham Accords, which allowed for Israeli normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“What became apparent was that in order to capitalize on this momentous historic opportunity, it was necessary to suspend a component of the vision for peace [annexation,]” Berkowitz said. “Now that is not to say that in the foreseeable future it [annexation] could not come back and it is not to say that we fundamentally disagree with what our position was initially, and in fact we still stand behind that position and it is very important to us, and I think everyone should understand that, but understanding that certain opportunities arise when they do and taking advantage to capitalize on them, i.e. the Abraham Accords, was also paramount in this case,” Berkowitz explained.
“For the time being the application of Israeli law has been suspended so that we can focus on capitalizing on normalization and peace agreements,” he said.
The US had found that the region had tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that countries there were interested in normalized ties with Israel. These countries disagreed with the Palestinian reaction of the Trump administrations’ peace initiatives.
Ultimately Palestinian “inability or unwillingness to engage was seen by a lot regional partners as an inappropriate way to handle discourse,” Berkowitz said.
In contrast, the Trump administration showed the “world that Israel can make peace, and did make peace with UAE and Bahrain.”
He credited Trump and Kushner for bringing the deals to fruition, noting that the breakthrough was possible because of the relationship those two men had with leaders in the region.
Trump showed that the US was an ally that could be counted on through its relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Berkowitz said. That was followed by the US decision to exit the Iran deal, he added.
“I think it was a real sense that the person across was someone you could really trust and even if Israel and the UAE didn’t know each other, they knew each other but didn’t have the degree of comfort with one another,” he said.
Berkowitz explained that additional Arab countries would likely normalize ties with Israel, but did not name any specific countries.
“I hope more countries come aboard,” Berkowitz said.
“I have obviously seen the news stories about Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Oman, and other countries as well, but I prefer to allow whichever countries we may be talking with the privacy to actually really have these free discussions without the fear of things being leaked in ways that could harm the deals,” he said.
On a personal note, Berkowitz said that his road to the White House began in 2011, when he played basketball with Jared Kushner, who is now Trump’s senior adviser and his son-in-law.
“It wasn’t even at the buffet, but actually on the basketball court and I didn’t know who he was at the time, but we got talking and we won a few games together and after that he offered me to come work for him at Kushner Companies, and the rest has been a very very exciting history.”