What to expect from Joe Biden’s Middle East policy

The Jerusalem Post asked Washington experts how they think the Middle East fits into Biden’s priorities.

US President Joe Biden gestures after disembarking from a plane upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
US President Joe Biden gestures after disembarking from a plane upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
WASHINGTON – Since Saturday, when US news networks projected that Joe Biden would become the next president, leaders across the Middle East have been trying to understand how the president-elect would approach the region.
How soon would he reenter the nuclear agreement with Iran? Will he propose a peace initiative to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what will happen to the normalization agreements that the White House is currently trying to broker between Israel and additional Arab countries?
The Jerusalem Post asked Washington experts how they think the Middle East fits into Biden’s priorities.
David Makovsky is the director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute. In 2013-2014, he worked in the Office of the US Secretary of State, serving as a senior adviser to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Dennis Ross is a former special assistant to US president Barack Obama and is the counselor and William Davidson distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute.
How high will the Middle East be in Biden’s priorities?
Makovsky: “America is going to be focused on COVID, and even if they get to a vaccine, the economic implications are incredible. And then you’ve got domestic issues like climate change and healthcare, and you’ve got a foreign policy challenge like how do you deal with China? There’s going to be a macro policy environment, which is going to mean that we’re going to have a lot on his plate, and people need to calibrate their expectations.”
Schanzer: “Biden is set to inherit many domestic challenges that I think will push the Middle East further down the priority list. From dealing with COVID to rebuilding the economy to dealing with the political divide here at home, these are big issues. And I think there is a real mandate to not focus abroad, but to keep things focused here. Hopefully, the presidency will oversee the distribution of a vaccine, for example. These are huge domestic challenges and issues that will require the president’s attention. So I think the Middle East will seem less pressing, at least for the first year, or maybe two.”
Ross: “The domestic issues are going to be the priority. COVID-19 will be one, two and three. We may well have a surge in new cases of up to 200,000 by the month of May next month. So his focus is going to be on addressing that, containing that until you have the availability of widespread treatments and vaccines.”
When will Biden try to reenter the Iran nuclear agreement?
Makovsky: “The president-elect has said that he would like to renew JCPOA, but only once Iran comes into compliance, and they have not been in compliance, because they’ve been enriching at a much higher level. So that’s going to take time. I tend to believe that it’s not a carbon copy.
“The most important phrase is when Biden said ‘we got to lengthen and strengthen.’ That has been Israel’s main critique – that the sunset provisions on restrictions on enrichment have been too short. So when you say I want to lengthen and strengthen, you’re saying you want a longer sunset clause.
“People should not assume that whatever was done with JCPOA 1.0 was going to be repeated with 2.0. There’s a learning curve for everyone.”
Schanzer: “The Iran issue will come up relatively soon. I think there is still a debate within the Democratic foreign policy establishment about the wisdom of returning to the JCPOA, attempting to establish some kind of new framework.
“The interesting things to watch will be personnel. Looking to see who comes in: Are they the former architects of the JCPOA or are they different people? Are they identified with the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party or do they represent the centrists?
“The Israelis and the Emiratis and the Bahrainis are now able to speak with one voice, if they do not like what they see. And so I think this new alliance that we’re seeing that is forming in the Middle East could have some influence on America’s future Iran policy. It felt like Israel was speaking out alone last time, when it raised objections; this time, I don’t think that would be the case.”
Ross: “I expect it will be a difficult negotiation to get back into the JCPOA. You’re looking at what will be a negotiation that will take some time.
“I think, for a Biden administration, its first position is not to reach out to the Iranians; its position will be to restore a common position with the British, French and the Germans. And that’ll be a common position not only on the nuclear issue, but on ballistic missiles and also Iran’s regional behavior.
“Anyone who thinks that there’s going to be a kind of instant move back to the JCPOA – the Iranians are already out there publicly saying that they want compensation for the cost of the maximum economic pressure campaign from the Trump administration, meaning they want sanctions released before they come back into compliance.
“It’ll take time for them to come back into compliance. They have 10 times the amount of fissile material on hand, low enriched uranium stockpile than they had when they implemented the JCPOA. They have to dilute that or ship it out of the country, and that takes time. It will take at least four months.
“You’re talking about late May, early June. That coincides with their presidential election. And we’ve often seen that in the period running up to the presidential elections, they seem not really willing to be doing much on the outside, at least in terms of diplomacy. Anyone who thinks there’s going to be a kind of instant move to restore the JCPOA is ignoring that it’ll take time for the Iranians, that we don’t know exactly what they’re prepared to do in terms of resuming diplomacy.”
What will happen to the White House-brokered normalization agreements?
Makovsky: “I believe he will build on the normalization with the Arabs. This is one of the few issues where he did not oppose President Trump. He thought it was a great move. And I think he understands that the Abraham Accords can be a bridge and not the bypass road.
“This is an important development. And just as the Emirati breakthrough stopped the West Bank annexation, maybe here, too, every step the Arab states take towards Israel, Israel will take a step towards the Palestinians, but it will be a gradual thing. It will not be overwhelming and immediate.”
Schanzer: “I do think that there is a realization among Biden advisers and among the foreign policy community in general that there are real opportunities for peacemaking in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords. We’re looking at the possibility of Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, maybe Qatar, and that doesn’t even include some African or Asian states as well. A future Biden administration would almost certainly look to capitalize on those opportunities. The only question really is whether there would be equal time or equal effort spent on the Palestinians.
“And there’s no reason to ignore the Palestinians. One can pursue these peripheral agreements, these normalization agreements, and at the same time engage with the Palestinians. I actually think that it gives any administration leverage. When the Palestinians see that other countries are following in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain and Sudan, I think it will be something that encourages compromise. Hard to imagine they ignore the trend, even with the temptation to throw out everything that Trump did. This one seems like it would be very hard to do so.”
Ross: “I think others will follow suit, but they’ll do it in more of a step-by-step fashion. The Palestinians also have to recognize they’re being left behind, and that Arab states are making it very clear they will no longer allow the Palestinians to determine whether or not they can pursue their own interests by dealing with Israel.
“There’s something broader that’s going on right now. And that’s why this process of normalization will continue. But it won’t necessarily continue quite the same way where you suddenly have Arab states coming in and saying, ‘All right, we’re going to completely normalize with Israel.’ I think you’ll see them do lesser steps. But they will also probably say, ‘Look, when we take the step, what we’d like to see you do with the Palestinians’ – and say, ‘we’re not giving 100%, so we’re not asking you for 100%.’ But this actually creates very fertile ground for a new administration to broker understandings and use that to break the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians.
What are the chances that Biden will introduce a peace initiative with the Palestinians?
Makovsky: “I tend to believe in the first period he’s going to want to work to end the Palestinian boycott. I tend to think it’ll be more like taking symbolic steps in this regard, things like the [opening of the American] consulate [in Jerusalem] and to see what is possible with resuming humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.
“But this will also depend on what goes on the Hill. And I think the Palestinians would be smart to make this possible by changing their laws in terms [to comply with the] Taylor Force [Act], to work on a compromise plan that would allow for a welfare system that would avoid giving money to relatives who are perpetrators of violence.
“I don’t think anyone is rushing to go do something that is going to fail again. We saw the US tried with Clinton in 2000, Condoleezza Rice in 2007, and then the effort of Kerry in 2014 and now the Trump plan. Four times to try to solve the whole thing. So I tend to think that nobody’s going to rush into this.”
Ross: “I don’t think that he feels this is a period where the prospect of a big new breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians is very high. That doesn’t mean that he won’t favor diplomacy, because I think he feels that when there’s no diplomacy, you leave a vacuum. We had no direct political talks between the Israelis and Palestinians since the spring of 2014. The instinct is not going to be to launch some big new initiative which is certain to fail at this point.”