How should Joe Biden deal with Middle East issues? – opinion

I have not yet been approached by Biden’s transition team, but will offer my first thoughts here anyway.

Democratic 2020 US presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at his election rally, after news media announced that Biden has won the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Wilmington, Delaware, US, November 7, 2020 (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
Democratic 2020 US presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at his election rally, after news media announced that Biden has won the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Wilmington, Delaware, US, November 7, 2020
At the request of past transition teams of newly elected US presidents, I have written policy briefs on what new administrations should do regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have not yet been approached by Biden’s transition team, but will offer my first thoughts here anyway. I’ll begin with regional issues and conclude with the non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The most important regional issue is, of course, Iran. Objectively speaking, and against popular opinion in Israel, President Donald Trump’s policy on Iran has been a complete failure. Iran is closer to a bomb today than it was when Trump became president. Iran has increased its stockpile of enriched uranium five to eight times more than allowed in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA, commonly known as the “Iran nuclear deal.” Biden needs to get the US back into a multilateral agreement with Iran with international coalition partners. The US must ensure that Iran re-reduces its stockpile of uranium so that it is far away from the “break-out” quantity sufficient for a bomb.
The US must ensure that stringent monitoring and verification mechanisms are fully in place with greater vigor than in the original plan. The US can use its willingness to get back into the agreement and should improve the verification mechanisms of the JCPOA. Israeli concerns regarding the 10-year period of the agreement have been clouded by Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignoring that Iran, unlike Israel, is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which would prevent Iran from ever building a nuclear weapon.
It is true that Iran and other states have violated the NPT in the past. That is why, in addition to renewing the US’s commitment to the JCPOA, the US, with its allies, should strengthen the abilities of the NPT to monitor and verify that all member states are complying with the strictest regulations of the treaty. Iran’s compliance should be linked to the removal of the sanctions that Trump imposed after the US left the agreement. And the new Administration, in its rebuilding America’s role with its allies, should ensure international support through the United Nations.
The Gulf Cooperation Council
Trump’s anti-Iran policies brought the US closer to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. This has had a direct positive impact on the peace and normalization agreements between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. We cannot take that achievement away from Trump. Those agreements should be strengthened, with the US fully committed to the containment of Iranian ambitions and exploits in the region.
The US, with its allies, must enter into another round of negotiations with Iran on the issue of ballistic missiles and regional terrorism. This is not part of the JCPOA but should be brought to the table by the new administration. These issues are of direct concern to the Saudis, the Emiratis and others in the Gulf, and of course, to Israel. There are no guarantees that Iran will be open to negotiate these issues, but a new administration in Washington has a new opportunity to make achievements where previous administrations failed.
The Saudis in particular must be given assurances by Biden that Washington continues to see the essential role the Saudis play in stabilizing the region, and that with the impending shift in generational leadership in the kingdom, the US strongly supports reforms being pushed forward by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. I believe it would be wise to emphasize to the UAE and to the Saudis that the US also sees a central role for them in assisting on the Israeli-Palestinian track as well as in the economic development of the entire region.
REGIONAL COUNCIL for Security and Prosperity
On the regional level, it is essential to continue to strengthen the US relationship with Egypt and Jordan and to engage with them directly in advancing peace in the area. The US should consider the establishment of a regional peace forum including Israel and the Arab states that have, and will enter in the future, peace and normalization agreements. With the assistance of the UAE and Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt have a central role to play on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Egypt and Jordan have played important roles in the past, usually to mitigate crises when they arose. They can play a much more central role in creating a regional pact for security and prosperity from which all of the states will gain, including the Palestinians.
The Palestinians
I assume that the Biden administration will renew full contacts with the Palestinian Authority. It will renew US financial assistance to the PA and to UNRWA and will allow the PLO to reopen its office in Washington. I also assume that the new administration will reopen the US Consulate in east Jerusalem, which is the main US government avenue for engaging with the Palestinians. I fully support these steps. The next most important thing the US can do in the Palestinian arena is to assist in the preparation of elections that must take place very soon.
Palestinians have not been to the national polls since 2006, and elections are long overdue. There needs to be election reform, political-party reform, voter registration, and most importantly, voter education. The Palestinians also need to figure out how to conduct free and fair democratic elections without opening the door to political parties that don’t believe in democracy and seek to destroy the chances of Palestinian democracy developing. This is a very delicate issue, and US-Palestinian engagement on this could be useful and productive.
The US-Israel agenda is clear and Biden will not stray from accepted norms over many years. That includes the very tight US-Israel security relationship in all of its many levels. The Biden administration should go back to the policy of defining clear lines that should not be crossed by Israel regarding settlement construction. While I believe the two-state solution might no longer be possible based on the Oslo paradigms, it would be counter-productive for Israel to continue to the policy encouraged by the Trump administration of massive construction outside of the settlement blocs. Biden needs to establish understandings with Israel on this issue.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process
The best advice I can give to the Biden administration is to not start a new US-led peace process. The best thing that the US can do for Israel and the Palestinians is to let them both know the US expects them get back to direct negotiations, and that the US recognizes the best Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been those that took place when they were alone together in the room. The worst Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been those “mediated” by the United States.
The US should always be prepared to offer support, politically and materially, when the parties require it to close agreements and to implement them. However, the US should not initiate a new peace process that it leads. That would only build expectations and be counter-productive. The US should strongly encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to reengage and utilize their regional partners, rather than Washington, to assist.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.