The first few weeks of the Biden administration have seen a flurry of activity in all directions. Issuing an unprecedented number of executive orders, ranging from the climate crisis to COVID-19 vaccinations, the new president has quickly overturned many of the policies installed by his predecessor and is rapidly forging his own vision of the future path of the United States.
Biden’s limited focus on foreign policy has been aimed primarily on Russia, China and the military coup in Myanmar. As The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov pointed out, in his first foreign-policy speech last week, Biden didn’t mention Israel or the Iran nuclear threat once.
In Israel, much has been made of the lack of contact thus far between Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a sign he is possibly moving away from the policies of former president Donald Trump when it comes to facing the Iranian nuclear threat and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Biden’s appointments of officials connected to the Obama administration – including Robert Malley, who is known as a strong advocate of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, as the US special representative to Iran – have only added to the apprehension being expressed in Jerusalem.
Statements and decisions emerging from Washington over the last few days reveal a mixed bag for Israel, indicating that, like in his domestic housecleaning, Biden is planning to do away with some of Trump’s policies but not necessarily others.
The US would not lift sanctions on Iran to get Tehran back to the negotiating table, Biden told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, adding that Iran must stop enriching uranium first.
A senior US official later said Biden meant Iran had to stop enriching beyond the deal’s limits of 3.67% under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, not that it had to stop enriching entirely before the two sides might talk.
“There is nothing changed in the US position,” the official said. “The United States wants Iran to come back into [compliance with] its JCPOA commitments, and if it does, the United States will do the same.”
Earlier on Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran would return to compliance with the JCPOA only if Washington lifts sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Whether one of the sides will soften its stance remains to be seen. But it’s an encouraging sign that Biden is not going to be a pushover to entice Iran back to the deal signed during president Barack Obama’s administration.
Another issue close to Israel that has seen a supportive response from the US is the ruling by the International Criminal Court that it has jurisdiction to open probes against Israel for war crimes.
“We have serious concerns about the ICC’s attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel,” the State Department spokesman said late Friday after the ICC announcement was made.
On the other side of the coin, the announcement on Monday that the US was returning to the United Nations Human Rights Council, three years after Trump withdrew over what his administration called “bias against Israel,” is troubling but expected.
Former US ambassador David Friedman criticized the proposed move, calling it “terrible policy.”
However, a State Department official said the decision to return to the Geneva-based body on an observer basis was “the most effective way to reform and improve the Council... to engage with it in a principled fashion.”
There is logic to joining a forum in order to change it, just as there’s logic to signing an agreement with a belligerent state in order to better monitor it and prevent it from achieving its nefarious aims. But it’s not a view that Israel has subscribed to as part of its policy to contain its enemies. If such moves are to happen, they need to be done from positions of strength, not appeasement.
The challenge awaiting Jerusalem now is how to coordinate and work with a new administration that does not share the ‘no daylight’ approach of its predecessor. Going head to head against these policies is one way. Quiet diplomacy and working together behind the scenes to arrive at a mutually agreeable destination is another. Before choosing the former, Israel should consider the latter.