14 Dec 2020

Dealing with Democrats: Guidelines for Israel and the Gulf countries

Yossi Klein Halevi

Over the last four years, Washington actively shared the strategic goals of the UAE and Israel on containing Iranian regional aggression. The US withdrawal from the Iran deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the re-imposition of crippling sanctions and the conceptual reframing of the Iranian regime as the region’s greatest threat (rather than a potential stabilizer as President Obama had hoped), all ensured strong American backing for the emerging relationship between Israel and the Gulf states, culminating in the Trump administration’s key role in creating the Abraham Accords.

The return of the Democratic Party to the White House and possibly to a Senate majority (to be determined in two run-off elections next month) requires a reassessment of how the emerging UAE-Israeli a relationship should deal with Washington.

The good news is that both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have expressed support for the Abraham Accords, and we may expect strong affirmations of friendship for Israel and the Gulf countries from a Biden-Harris administration. Biden and Harris have visited the region a number of times, understand our challenges and are stalwarts of the mainstream Democratic Party’s pro-Israel wing.

The warm friendship of the president-elect and vice president-elect toward the Jewish state will ensure that the often-bitter debates between Israel and the Obama administration are unlikely to be repeated. Joe Biden is not Barrack Obama. One telling example occurred in 2010, when a minor Israeli government official announced the construction of 1,600 housing units in an East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood. The announcement coincided with the arrival of then Vice President Biden in Israel – though, as it later emerged, the timing was an unfortunate coincidence.

President Obama took personal offense and denounced the Israeli announcement in language seldom heard from an American president against Israel, creating the worst crisis in American-Israeli relations in years. Yet Biden himself, after condemning the move and symbolically arriving late to a dinner with Prime Minister Netanyahu, quickly reaffirmed the unbreakable bonds between the two countries, in marked contrast with Obama’s ongoing public pique. Biden too opposes Israeli settlement expansion, not any less than Obama, but he prefers to settle disagreements with Israel privately and is loath to publicly embarrassing an ally.

The tussle over Iran

The less good news is that, for all the warmth likely to emanate from Washington toward the UAE-Israeli relationship, we are likely heading to a clash over how to contain Iranian activities in the region. Both Biden and Harris are on record advocating a return to the JCPOA, even as they acknowledge that some as-yet unspecified adjustments in the deal will be necessary.

The challenge in the coming months is to create a realistic strategy that acknowledges the likelihood of an American return to negotiations with Iran, and a new version of the Iran deal. Meeting this challenge will require a joint UAE-Israeli initiative – together with allies in the international community – based on presenting an alternative version of the Iran deal that respects the region’s security needs and is not based on the wishful thinking of the past. One of Israel’s tactical mistakes in opposing the Iran deal in 2015 was its failure to present an alternative vision for a better deal, allowing President Obama to take the high ground and accuse Israel of opposing any deal at all. This time, we need to embrace the principle of a deal – but one that takes our security concerns seriously.

The Biden administration, along with the American public, needs to understand that the Abraham Accords has changed the region’s balance of power and present a credible strategic vision. In place of the Obama administration’s dangerous illusion of an Iranian-imposed regional stability, a new force for regional stability has emerged.

The Abraham Accords, then, present us with a strategic advantage we lacked in the first round of the struggle to prevent the Iran deal. In 2015, Arabs and Israelis failed to present a united public front. This time, a joint Arab-Israeli case against a return to the JCPOA in its previous form (or cosmetically modified) will carry substantial strategic and moral weight. This is an advantage that must be maximized.

             In the coming struggle over a future Iran deal, the UAE-Israeli relationship has one more advantage that we lacked in 2015. Then, we warned of the disastrous consequences to the region of a financially empowered and internationally legitimized Iranian regime, and we denounced Obama’s vision of a “responsible” Iranian regime as a dangerous illusion. But it was our word against Obama’s and our warnings were not yet substantiated. Now, five years later, we have seen the dire results of the Obama administration’s fantasies. The damage wrought to the Middle East by the Iranian regime is no longer theoretical. Our case this time has been proven by reality. The burden of proof has shifted to the deal’s supporters.

Reality, though, has not chastened the deal’s most vocal supporters. In a series of op-eds and statements to the media, former Obama officials insist that Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal poses the real danger to the region, allowing Iran to resume its nuclear program. Obama officials, in other words, claim to understand the region’s security interests better than Arabs and Israelis themselves.

This patronizing attitude ignores what is evident to Arabs and Israelis: that the grand bargain of the Iran deal was a historic disaster, ensuring that the Iranian regime would become the rising conventional power in the region, threatening the stability and very existence of its neighbors. In exchange for a massive infusion of foreign funds and the tacit agreement of the international community to turn a blind eye to Iranian aggression, the Iranian regime agreed to put a temporary brake on its nuclear program, even as the regime was allowed to remain on the nuclear threshold. Finally, the “sunset clause” all but ensured eventual breakout. In other words, the deal allowed Iran to become an immediate conventional power, in exchange for merely deferring its goal of becoming a nuclear power. Needless to say, the deal proved irresistible to the Iranian regime.

The Trump administration’s Iran policy ended that fool’s bargain and created a dynamic of economic and strategic pressure on the Iranian regime. True, Iran is openly moving toward nuclear capability, but now, we are resolutely facing what would have in any case been an unavoidable confrontation once the sunset clause took effect. Had Iran not been confronted now, we would have been forced to contend with an expansive regime both conventionally empowered and on the brink of nuclear capability.

It is surely understandable why, in the aftermath of the disastrous Iran deal, Israel and the Gulf states tended to regard the Democrats with suspicion, while embracing the Republicans as strategic allies. Just consider this tweet from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif aimed at the Gulf states: “A sincere message to our neighbors: Trump’s gone in 70 days. But we’ll remain here forever. Betting on outsiders to provide security is never a good gamble. We extend our hand to our neighbors for dialog to resolve differences.” Behind the pretense of an outstretched hand is a not-so-subtle threat: When Trump is gone, you’re on your own.

For all our gratitude to the Trump administration for its Iran policy, both Israel and the Gulf states need to be mindful of how deeply Democrats detest Trump and his circle, and how greatly Trump has harmed American values and discourse. What is about to happen in Washington is no mere transfer of power from one party to another. The politics of American civility have been undone by Trump’s systematic assault on traditional norms. The result is that America is experiencing a political change that is in some sense closer to a restoration than an election.

Our cautious message therefore needs to be: We have no intention of becoming enmeshed in American political affairs. But from our very specific vantage point in the Middle East, we know that Trump got at least one thing right. Even as the Democrats inevitably begin undoing Trump era’s decisions, restoring the Iran deal should not be part of that process.

Is a new deal imminent?

How committed will the Biden administration likely be to restoring the Iran deal? Amos Hochstein, a former senior aide to Biden, told an Israeli TV interviewer that renewing the deal was “high on his agenda.” and that Biden would move quickly. “I believe that in the first months we’ll either see him rejoin the deal fully, or what I would call “JCPOA-minus,” meaning lifting sanctions in exchange for suspending some of the Iranian nuclear programs [developed] in the past three years.”

Still, despite that and other press reports claiming that the new administration will prioritize negotiations with Iran, others close to Biden insist that foreign policy initiatives are not likely to be a major priority, at least not initially. The immediate priorities facing the new administration will be managing the epidemic, renewing the American economy and healing the deep schisms within American society. This administration will be less invested in an Iran deal than the Obama administration, which saw the deal as the centerpiece of its foreign policy and, along with Obamacare, its most important legacy.

“The Biden administration will be about creating a Biden legacy, not resurrecting the Obama legacy,” one former Biden aide who has remained close to his campaign told me recently. “Biden felt betrayed by Obama when he supported Hillary Clinton as the heir to his legacy. And Obama did nothing for Biden until relatively late in this campaign. Biden is his own man. He doesn’t owe Obama anything.”

One additional factor to consider is the rising tension in the region, especially in the wake of the assassination of the head of Iran’s military nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. This could create a sense of urgency in the Biden White House to defuse tensions with Iran. Yet, if Israel and Arab nations are united in their determination to prevent a return to the old deal and present a credible alternative plan, this is a battle that can be won.

            During the lead-up to the 2015 nuclear deal, the Obama administration repeatedly misled Israeli and Arab governments, denying the existence of negotiations altogether. The administration promised to do nothing behind the backs of their allies that would compromise their security and disregard their strategic concerns). Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington during the Obama years, recently wrote that Israeli and Arab leaders were “consistently lied to about the negotiations’ existence.” The bitter experience leading up to the deal, no less than the deal itself, has left a deep residue of suspicion in the Middle East toward the Democratic leadership. Even as we give a new Democratic administration the benefit of a clean start, we need to inform the Biden government that that previous mode of behavior is not acceptable among allies.

            The most important condition for America’s re-engagement with Iran, then, is to include those countries most directly affected by the outcome – the Arab states and Israel – into the negotiating process. That alone can ensure that the flaws of the JCPOA won’t be repeated.

Dealing with the Democratic Party

During the US election campaign, the Democrats tended to dismiss the historic significance of the Abraham Accords which were widely identified in a politically polarized America as a Trump administration initiative. The Democrats were obviously determined not to grant President Trump an electoral advantage. One typical response was an editorial in The New York Times which downplayed the accords as something less than a real peace agreement, since the UAE, Bahrain and Israel never fought a war.

            The New York Times editorial missed the true historic significance of the Abraham Accords. This is the first peace agreement between Israel and Arab countries that is not merely formal but based on genuine normalization of relations. In offering a model of real peace between Israelis and Arabs, the Abraham Accords could be a precedent for other peace agreements in the region, including, eventually, an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Unlike Republicans generally, Democrats tend to care, sometimes passionately, about the Palestinian issue. In dealing with a Democratic administration, Israel and the Gulf states will need to make the case that the Abraham Accords, far from allowing us to bypass the Palestinian problem, in fact offers the best hope in years for an eventual two-state solution. This is crucial for establishing, among Democrats, the moral credibility of the Gulf-Israeli relationship.

It is amply clear by now even to the most optimistic believers in the Oslo process that, left to their own devices, Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not manage to negotiate an end to the conflict in this generation. But some kind of agreement may be possible within a regional context, with the active cooperation of Arab states – and that is precisely the framework that the Abraham Accords can provide. For the first time, Israel can speak of “Arab allies”, a concept that still seems almost surreal for many Israelis.

As the new reality penetrates Israeli consciousness, and Israelis realize that they are no longer alone in a hostile region, the siege mentality that has helped Israelis cope will begin to ease. To some extent that has already happened. Shortly after the signing of the Abraham Accords, a poll showed strong support among Israelis in favor of a two-state solution. Though still short of a majority, it was the highest percentage in recent memory.

When Israelis feel embraced, they tend to be more forthcoming in peace talks. Before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s journey to Israel in November 1977, the Israeli public was overwhelmingly opposed to concessions in the Sinai. However, when Sadat stood at the Knesset podium and declared his willingness to accept Israel into the region, he won over a majority of Israelis, preparing the way for the withdrawal from Sinai.

So too, Israel’s willingness to enter into negotiations with Yasser Arafat followed a series of dramatic breakthroughs for the Jewish state in its relations with the international community. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the entire former Soviet bloc, and most of Africa, renewed relations with Israel. China and India established relations with Israel for the first time. As Israelis felt less besieged, they began to reconsider certain political taboos, including negotiations with the PLO. In his inaugural speech to the Knesset as Prime Minister in 1992, Yitzhak Rabin urged Israelis to end their siege mentality and join the emerging new world order. That optimistic atmosphere gave birth to the Oslo process.

Conversely, when Israelis feel under siege they tend to turn to hardline responses. That is what happened when, in November 1975, the UN General Assembly voted on a Soviet-initiated resolution to declare Zionism as a form of racism. (The Zionism-racism resolution was repealed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.) Many Israelis expressed their anger by embracing the settlement movement, which until then had failed to achieve significant momentum. Three weeks after the Zionism-racism resolution was passed, thousands of Israelis marched into the West Bank and squatted near an abandoned Ottoman railway station, demanding the creation of a settlement there. This is our response to the UN, a young Likud Knesset member named Ehud Olmert told a journalist at the march. Until then, successive Israeli governments had resisted the demand to settle in Samaria, the northern West Bank, but now, in the wake of the Zionism-racism resolution, the government relented. The settlement movement still celebrates that event as its breakthrough moment – and it was achieved in no small measure thanks to the UN vote.

One of the most significant achievements of the Abraham Accords is to end the absurdity of a Palestinian veto on the right of Arab countries to act on their own interests and seek relations with Israel. In that sense, the Abraham Accords is the fulfillment of the policy begun by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, who invited the Palestinians to join the peace process but deprived them of the ability to sabotage Egyptian-Israeli relations.

Though the Abraham Accords denies the Palestinians a veto on Middle East peacemaking, it may open new possibilities for renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The Abraham Accords provides the psychological atmosphere that could encourage Israelis to renew the peace process with the Palestinians. That possibility should be explored with the Biden administration even as Israel cautions Biden against repeating the mistake of the Obama administration, which indulged Palestinian intransigence and applied almost all its political pressure on Israel alone. That approach only hardens Israeli positions and shifts the Israeli public further right.

Palestinian leaders will likely receive greater sympathetic hearing in a Biden White House than they did in the Trump White House.  However, if they are anticipating a return to the Obama years, they are likely to be disappointed. While Biden and Harris will oppose settlement expansion, they may be expected to hold Palestinian leaders accountable for their actions that undermine peace – such as publishing school textbooks that teach hatred for Jews or paying generous pensions to the families of imprisoned or slain terrorists.

Struggle for the Democratic Party

            One of the crucial divides in American politics today is between moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party. In that struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, the Middle East is a key battleground issue. For many progressives, the villain of the region is not Iran but Saudi Arabia; so too, many progressives view the Jewish state not as a valued ally but a colonialist occupier.

            Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries was a crucial victory for the moderates who, at least for now, decisively hold the upper hand. Yet a small but vocal and charismatic group of young progressive members of Congress — the so-called “Squad”— has gained national prominence and strong support among young people. The Squad is under attack from centrist Democrats for alienating many mainstream voters from the party with their militant rhetoric and socialist agenda. Still, its members will likely become an increasingly prominent force in Democratic politics for the foreseeable future.

For the Israeli-Gulf relationship, aligning with the moderate majority within the Democratic Party is crucial in pursuing its strategic interests. In presenting a strategically credible and united front on Iran, along with a morally credible position on the Palestinians, we will strengthen our ability to form strong partnerships with moderate Democrats. Israel and the Gulf states have many friends among the Democrats in Congress and within the White House. In this new era of American politics, nurturing bi-partisan support in Washington is essential for our ability to thwart a nuclear Iran and its malign spread in the region.

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Shoshana Katz This seems like a very well balanced article.
Zvi Dagan I agree!

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