Not all of Trump’s Israel policies are built to last

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: How much of this will remain in place if Democratic candidate Joe Biden is elected president next week?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attend Wednesday’s ceremony in Ariel that extended Israel-US scientific cooperation agreement in West Bank and Golan Heights. (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attend Wednesday’s ceremony in Ariel that extended Israel-US scientific cooperation agreement in West Bank and Golan Heights.
(photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/REUTERS)
In the weeks preceding Tuesday’s US presidential election, it has seemed like the Trump administration made one Israel-related announcement after another.
It started in August with peace and normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which led the Trump administration to push states throughout the Middle East to be part of the dramatic changes in the region.
But the pace really picked up in the last week. First, Sudan announced on Friday it was establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. Then, on Wednesday, the US acted on its declaration last year that settlements are not necessarily illegal by signing an agreement with Israel that would fund scientific, agricultural and industrial research and cooperation taking place in Judea, Samaria, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Next, the State Department is expected to move to allow people born in Jerusalem to have “Israel” written on their passports.
As US President Donald Trump himself has admitted more than once, these moves are not just about foreign policy; they appeal to his base of Evangelical Christian voters. That explains why so many of these moves were lined up right before the election.
This, of course, came after years of moves by Trump that were very popular with Israelis during his term in office, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and acknowledging Israeli sovereignty on the Golan. For the Israeli Right, in particular, there was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration on settlements. And then there was Trump’s peace plan, presented in January, which checks off all the boxes for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s must-haves for Israel’s security and would allow Israel to extend its sovereignty to 30% of Judea and Samaria.
Then there’s the Trump administration’s policies toward the Palestinians, which are not nearly as much of an object of focus in Israel, but still have a major impact. The US cut funds to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, with the State Department calling it “irredeemably flawed.” The US shut down the PLO’s Washington mission, with the State Department saying the office was meant to be used to promote peace with Israel, but the PLO was making no effort on that front.
Just as important as any practical moves was the administration’s shift in thinking about Israeli-Palestinian peace, viewing the Palestinians not as the wronged party and perennial victims, but as people who expect to be given aid and international support without making any effort to improve their situation. The Palestinians’ decades of recalcitrance had a price. Trump’s message to them was the same as it was to many other leaders around the world: We’re not footing the bill anymore, until you do your part.
HOW MUCH of this will remain in place if Democratic candidate Joe Biden is elected president next week?
Pompeo’s declaration that settlements do not inherently contravene international law may have been something that a Biden administration could have allowed to stand, but this week’s agreement between Israel and the US, updating existing research cooperation agreements to include territory Israel controlled after 1967, likely changed that, because it means the US can use taxpayer money in those areas.
Israel Policy Forum policy director Michael Koplow pointed out that “it was declarative before, but as of [Wednesday] it actually has tangible policy consequences.... There are definitely going to be people who are upset about US taxpayer dollars being spent beyond the Green Line. The agreement makes it more likely the entire structure is revisited.”
The new agreements also mean the US is not in line with the European Union, whose agreements with Israel all exclude Judea, Samaria, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Biden has put an emphasis on healing US relationships with allies that were bruised during the Trump era.
Biden has long opposed settlements, more generally, and that opposition goes back to his first term in the Senate, according to a diplomatic cable first published by Channel 13’s Nadav Eyal this month.
Biden often talks about his 1973 meeting with then-prime minister Golda Meir, quoting her as saying: “We Jews have a secret weapon in our battle with the Arabs. We have no place else to go.”
What Biden doesn’t usually mention is that, according to the cable, he suggested Israel unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and told Meir that Labor’s policy of building settlements is a form of creeping annexation. He also said most senators are cowed into not criticizing Israel in order not to upset Jewish voters.
Nine years later, Biden brought up the topic of settlements again in a meeting with then-prime minister Menachem Begin on Capitol Hill, a meeting described in a New York Times article with the headline “Mood is ‘angry’ as Begin meets panel of Senate.”
“The bitterest exchange was said to have been between Mr. Begin and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware,” the article reads. “He said Israel was losing support in this country because of the settlements policy.”
Soon after the meeting, Begin said that Biden “more than hinted – that if we continue with this policy, it is possible that he will propose cutting our financial aid.”
This meeting is also when Begin famously said: “I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”
Though Biden’s confrontations over settlements were mostly not as angry or dramatic as the one with Begin, they continued over the decades, including when he was vice president, and he is likely to continue to press Israel on this issue. Unilaterally extending Israeli sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria as delineated in the Trump peace plan would be a nonstarter for Biden.
At the same time, Koplow posited that Biden’s priorities will lie elsewhere, and he “will be surprised if it’s an issue elevated the way it was in the early days of the Obama administration, which asked the Israeli government for a moratorium on all settlement construction outside east Jerusalem.... It ended up bogging US and Israel down on tit-for-tat arguing. I don’t think anyone viewed that period as something that was effective.”
When it comes to the Abraham Accords, Koplow thought Biden would pursue more deals, though not “with the same zeal as President Trump,” in light of the Trump administration moving to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.
“If that’s the price going forward, I’m not sure it’s a price a Biden administration would be willing to pay,” he said.
Koplow said Biden would be likely to tie normalization to the Palestinians, but not make it depend on their approval or any other action by them.
“The UAE tied normalization to the suspension of annexation.... That was an arrangement in which the norm was explicitly tied to something in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. And you have Bahrain, where it was simply normalization. To the extent a Biden administration will keep pursuing these agreements, it is more likely to look like the UAE side than the Bahrain side of it,” he said.
And finally, Trump-era policies directly toward the Palestinians would likely change under a Biden administration.
Biden is likely to restore funding that can be sent to the Palestinians, consistent with the Taylor Force Act, which cuts funding to the Palestinian Authority as long as it pays terrorists and their families.
Koplow said Biden would try to reopen the PLO mission to Washington, though there are different legal interpretations as to whether that would be possible under US laws passed in recent years.
When it comes to the US Embassy move to Jerusalem, Biden has said he will not have it go back to Tel Aviv. Biden voted in favor of moving the embassy when the bill went through Congress in 1995, but this year, while saying he won’t reverse the move to Jerusalem, he called it “shortsighted and frivolous” in that it wasn’t done in conjunction with jump-starting negotiations toward a two-state solution.
Biden also said that he would reopen the US Consulate in east Jerusalem, which serves Palestinians and which the Trump administration merged with the US Embassy to Israel last year.
Some of the Trump administration’s announcements on Israel were declarative actions that Biden could easily reverse, such as recognizing sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Koplow said Biden’s position on the Golan is “an open question.”
“I’m pretty sure he hasn’t spoken about it publicly and I don’t have a sense as to whether that is something he or his inner circle would think is worth overturning or not,” Koplow said.
The Trump administration brought about a long list of changes in US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians over the last four years. Whether they will last for the next four will depend on the results of Tuesday’s vote.