As America’s nerves frayed in the immediate post-election period, Israeli leaders were immediately preoccupied with whether, when, and exactly how to acknowledge the awkward standoff.
A rush to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden risked offending President Donald Trump, a high-risk likelihood even at the best of times. To do so now, as he alleged electoral fraud, could well have been seen as the ultimate betrayal and humiliation, with frightening consequences.
Trump had been a steadfast supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump took major flak internationally and domestically for that, but goodness gracious, he had delivered: moving the Embassy to Jerusalem; pulling out of the JCPOA; and negotiating multiple normalization treaties with Gulf nations that were—publicly, at least–foresworn enemies of Israel just a few years ago.
Once Biden declared victory, it took Bibi another 12 or so hours to offer his plaudits, though notably not referring to him as president-elect. Just Joe Biden. All this made for much-anguished parsing among the Israeli media, who seemed to compete with one another to predict the dire outcome of it all. But that’s where it began and ended. No doubt the messaging was well co-ordinated, likely accounting for the prudent delay.
The real issues in the immediate future are how the Biden Administration positions American interests vis a vis Iran and, in particular, the JCPOA. Trump’s Iran adviser, Elliott Abrams, was dispatched over the weekend to Israel to engage in a series of meetings and briefings with top Israeli officials, including, of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu. Media reports indicate that, in its final two months, the Trump Administration will issue a barrage of sanctions against Iran in coordination with Saudi Arabia and, likely, other Gulf states. The focus of such sanctions will be to impact the development of the Iranian ballistic missile system and, generally, to frustrate the incoming administration’s instinct to pander to the Iranian regime, a la Obama.
The Iranian economy is on the finest knife-edge, more imperiled than at any time during Obama’s tenure. Perhaps the hope of the Trump Administration is that sharpening the blade a touch more could be lethal and tip the balance, forcing Iranian capitulation on certain civil liberties and human rights issues, and further pressuring the increasingly besieged tyrannical regime in Tehran.
Biden and his team have been very clear regarding their intentions to “reopen” the JCPOA for renewed American leadership and participation pending Iranian compliance with its terms. The incoming administration has also telegraphed a desire to support the realization of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Each of those sweeping positions is code for a radical re-alignment of Mideast geopolitical policy from the Trump years; basically, reverting to the so-called “Obama doctrine”, which was far from a raging success in its eight-year lifespan.
Biden enters the White House at a time when the strategic and commercial alliances in the Middle East have been utterly transformed from what they were four years ago. Among his earliest tests will be whether he understands the gravity and irreversibility of this change. Obama turned his back on traditional U.S. allies in the region, causing a deep mistrust to set in and harden. Biden cannot just walk back into the room and flick the switch. The centrality of Palestinian statehood to Middle Eastern reality was the foundation of Obama’s approach to the region. That “reality” no longer exists. The Gulf states have made clear that they recognize a permanent Israeli presence in the region and urge the Palestinians to do so, too.
Without fresh eyes and policies, Biden risks the humiliation of a very downgraded relevancy in the region. The same old same old just won’t cut it.