Will US presidential candidates care about the Middle East peace process?

US POLITICS: With so much else on the table, Middle East policy not expected to be a significant campaign issue.

The US and Israeli flags next to one another   (photo credit: Courtesy)
The US and Israeli flags next to one another
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WASHINGTON – In a regular election cycle, the past week would be considered meaningful: The Democratic Party united behind Joe Biden, making him the presumptive Democratic nominee. All of his challengers, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, endorsed him, and former president Barack Obama released a long and detailed message of support. Officially, there is now a head-to-head race. Trump vs Biden.
Indeed, it received attention both domestically and internationally, but the main story in the US, naturally, remains the coronavirus. And as the number of fatalities in the US keeps climbing, the 2020 presidential campaign is not the center of focus as of now.
Historically, foreign policy was considered one of the most critical issues of debate between the Democratic and Republican nominees. Just a few weeks ago, President Donald Trump laid out his vision for the Middle East, recognizing Israel’s right to annex the Jordan Valley and all the settlements in the West Bank. Just two months ago, it seemed that it was going to be a major issue in these upcoming elections.
In a recorded video speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference in March, former vice president Biden emphasized the need to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians and criticized a possible Israeli move to annex settlements.
He also said Israel needs to stop with its threats of annexation and settlement activity.
“That’s going to choke off any hope for peace. And to be frank, those moves are taking Israel further from its democratic values, undermining support for Israel in the United States, especially among young people of both political parties,” he said. “That’s dangerous. We can’t let that happen. We can’t let Israel become another issue that [is a bipartisan point of disagreement].”
But how significant is foreign policy going to be in November? And what role, if any, is the Middle East going to play in the candidates’ campaigns?
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told The Jerusalem Post that it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Middle East policy eclipses the public health challenges in 2020.
“But there are a few things to watch right now,” he added. “One is internal Iranian instability, exacerbated now by COVID-19. Another is Iranian aggression against the US in Iraq, which could escalate. A third area to watch is the Hezbollah project to stockpile precision-guided munitions, which could prompt a preemptive Israeli strike. Finally, there is the question of Israeli annexation of West Bank lands, which could prompt criticism from certain quarters, even if it would have a negligible impact on US interests.”
“[Middle East policy] will not figure prominently,” Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to president Barack Obama, and now William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute, told the Post. “COVID-19 and the economic realities will be the preoccupation [of this election cycle],” he predicted.
“Foreign policy, in general, will factor in, as it relates to getting broader control over the virus and the prospects for economic recovery,” he noted. “Demand for oil will remain depressed, reducing the public’s interest in the region. Iran will try to build pressure on our presence in Iraq, and could miscalculate in what could trigger an American response. The one issue that could come up for debate – dividing the Jewish community and reflecting division between Democrats and Republicans – is Israeli annexation unilaterally in the West Bank.”
What are Republicans saying?
An administration official told the Post that the top priority for the Trump administration is COVID-19, and that “it’s still hard to predict what ramifications it would have.”
The official noted that while it’s “premature” to know what the main issues for the election cycle will be, foreign policy is going to get some of the spotlight.
“The president has a long list of successes over the past few years,” the official said. “He is going to campaign on all of his successes, and much of it has to do with the Middle East: moving the embassy, pulling out of the nuclear deal, bringing our troops home. But what would be precisely the next step when it comes to the Middle East? These are things that are still being considered.”
Matt Brooks is the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). He told the Post that nobody really knows what the issues are going to be, and how the impact of the pandemic is going to affect the 2020 elections.
“As we get back to some level of normalcy, obviously, a lot of the discussion will be about the response and the preparation and how we look forward to coming out of this pandemic situation and get our economy back moving again,” he said.
“I suspect that Biden feels that his strongest suit [is] as a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, [and] he’ll try and talk about it [foreign policy]. We’re happy to have a conversation,” said Brooks. “We are analyzing and comparing the awful treatment of Israel that existed under Obama and Biden, versus where we are with President Trump today.”
Brooks also noted that for Jewish voters, Middle East policy would remain an important topic. “It may not be the No. 1 issue, but there is a threshold test, and they want to know that they’re electing somebody who will stand by Israel through good times and bad times. Someone like President Trump, who they know they can rely on,” said Brooks.
Asked about Biden’s positions compared to progressive candidates such as Sanders and Warren, Brooks said that Biden “can’t have it both ways.”
“If you want to say you stand shoulder to shoulder and you want to run on the record and the accomplishments of the Obama-Biden administration, then you also have to accept that you were part of an administration which was the most openly hostile administration in US history, ever, to Israel,” he noted.
What are Democrats saying?
“Now that we have essentially entered the general election, and as an effort to distract from his colossal failure handling the coronavirus, President Trump will likely tout his Middle East ‘vision’ and actions with regard to Iran as national security accomplishments,” Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told the Post.
“This transparent election tactic – using Israel as a political wedge issue to win over Jewish voters – will fail in 2020 for three reasons,” Soifer continued.
“First, Jewish voters overwhelmingly support Democrats, and are not leaving their political home for a president whose disapproval rating in the Jewish community exceeded 70% before coronavirus.
“Second, Jewish voters know and trust Joe Biden, and believe he shares their values on a wide range of issues, including – but not limited to – support of the US-Israel relationship.
“Third, Jewish voters feel increasingly insecure due to the rise of white nationalism and antisemitism, for which they largely blame Donald Trump.”
Steve Rabinowitz, president and co-founder of Bluelight Strategies, who served in the Clinton administration, told the Post: “As we Jews heard ‘Ma Nishtana’ this Passover week, what makes any of us think this year will be different from any other election year? In all other election years, virtually all the American Jews voted for the Democrat for president, no matter what the Republicans did or predicted in the months and years leading up. This election year will be no different.
“Jews, fundamentally, are Democrats,” he said. “And for the vast majority of us, while Israel is important, it’s not the single most important issue. Not by a lot. And Biden is perceived to be great on Israel, anyway.
“The Biden campaign will also run a targeted campaign aimed at American Jews, beginning, at the latest, with the Democratic Convention, and in addition to what other Jewish Democrats do.
“The Trump campaign may never do that and instead let RJC go it alone,” he predicted.