During the closing weeks of the US presidential campaign, there was a moment in Arab-Israeli peacemaking that summed up why Donald Trump is one of a kind. Having brought reporters into the Oval Office to announce a breakthrough agreement between Israel and Sudan, the president decided to put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an awkward position.
“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi?” he asked on the open phone line to Jerusalem, using nicknames for his Democratic Party opponent and the Israeli leader. “Somehow, I don’t think so.”
So much for diplomatic protocol! Even for Trump, who delights in disrupting the White House behavior norms, it was surprising to watch him try to prod a foreign head-of-state into publicly criticizing Biden, who may indeed become president once the November 3 election ballots are tallied.
Netanyahu managed to sidestep the trap of getting pulled into the noisy vortex of American politics. “Well, Mr. President,’’ he said. “One thing I can tell you is that we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America, and we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.”
Netanyahu’s deft response illustrated the high stakes for Middle East policymakers in the 2020 US election. Over the past four years, Trump has dramatically redirected the American approach toward conflict with the Palestinians in Israel’s favor and paved the way for open relations with member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The election results will determine whether Trump gets the leverage of another term in office to drive forward his “Deal of the Century” and broker a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement. On the other hand, if Biden wins, he will likely change course again and bring back strategies familiar from the Obama administration.
Based on my presentation at an October 27 TRENDS Research & Advisory E-symposium on the 2020 elections, this paper sets out some of the major differences in Middle East policy between Trump and Biden. Even though the balloting is scheduled to take place on November 3, it could take days or even weeks to determine the winner, both because of delays that are expected in tallying votes due to the Covid-19 pandemic and because of a ferocious legal battle brewing if the results are close.
Trump’s tilt toward Israel
That Oval Office phone call was tricky for Netanyahu because he knew he owes Trump a lot in political terms. There is little question that the US president has done a great deal over the past four years to merit Netanyahu’s appreciation. And being Trump, he wanted to hear Netanyahu say it. While he talked about the dramatic but extremely delicate Sudan deal, the president’s question applies across the Middle East landscape.
In so many ways, this president has changed the way American foreign policy addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict and the process of trying to make peace. Across the board, Trump has given Netanyahu almost everything he’s ever wanted. In contrast, he has completely alienated the Palestinians, who have been fervently praying he will lose to Biden.
If Trump wins re-election, his tilt toward Israel will probably continue, but he might find a way to bring the Palestinians into the equation. As we saw in June 2019 at the US-sponsored conference in Bahrain, investors are standing by, offering to pour some $50 billion into the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem if the Palestinians come on board.
On the other hand, a second Trump term could reinforce the sense of hopelessness one finds among Palestinians today. It could catalyze a wave of violence that would not only destroy hopes for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but force all other parties to duck for cover. When the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site, is seen as under threat, the conflict resonates across the Muslim world, making cooperation with Israel seen as poisonous. The Palestinians have made no secret of their hopes for a Biden victory and recently issued a report detailing how much they feel the odds are stacked against them under Trump.
“It is regrettable that after years of efforts towards peace, the current US administration, through its biased approach and its deviation from international law, supports illegal and discriminatory policies and practices of an occupying and colonialist power. By these actions, the US has sabotaged decades of efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace.” 
Palestinians praying for Biden
It will be interesting to see if officials from the United Arab Emirates, such as Ambassador Yousef Al-Otaiba in Washington, can insulate the Abraham Accords against the Palestinians’ rage. At the heart of the Israel-UAE agreement, which was similarly announced by Trump from the Oval Office in August, was a commitment to put aside its plans for annexing almost 30 percent of the West Bank. That didn’t stop Palestinian officials from condemning the pact with Israel as a “stab in the back” by the Gulf nation. By contrast, Al-Otaiba wrote in a front-page column for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonoth that postponing annexation was “perhaps the most immediate and significant outcome” of announcing the accords.
“This creates time and space, fresh dynamics and energy, for the peace process. It maintains the viability of a two-state solution as endorsed by the Arab League and the international community. It bolsters Jordan’s stability and reaffirms its importance in future initiatives. In this spirit, the UAE will remain an ardent and consistent supporter of the Palestinian people – for their dignity, rights, and their sovereign state. They must share in the benefits of normalization. As we have for 50 years, we will forcefully advocate for these ends. Now, we will do it directly, face to face, and empowered with stronger incentives, policy options and diplomatic tools.”
The challenge for Netanyahu is that Biden could win. That’s what most of the polls showed before the election, so Netanyahu had to take the possibility of Trump losing into consideration in anything he said that could widen the policy gap between Israel and the Democrats. When Netanyahu told Trump, “We appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America,” it was clear he was paying close attention to the polls that indicated the Trump Show might be on the verge of being canceled.
One principle that both Israel and the Gulf states have tried to cultivate over the years is bipartisanship, the idea that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket and that when it comes to the United States, you try to maintain strong ties with both Republicans and Democrats. This is an assumption that’s being tested in the 2020 presidential election as never before. If Biden wins, how do Arabs and Israelis deal with the US in a post-Trump world? Among the challenges is how to follow up on the Abraham Accords: expand their scope to promote flourishing commercial ties between Israel and Arab countries, mainly if Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states cooperate.
Iranian threat in the background
Behind all this diplomatic activity is the issue of Iran. It was the threat of the Islamic Republic developing a nuclear bomb that brought Israel and the Gulf states together more than anything. After Trump pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Obama administration negotiated with Iran in 2015 – along with China, France, Russia, the United King, and Germany – Biden has clearly shown that he wants to rejoin it.
“… I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions while also addressing other issues of concern… I will also take steps to make sure US sanctions do not hinder Iran’s fight against Covid-19. And on day one, I will repeal Trump’s disgraceful travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries, among others.”
While Netanyahu may owe a political debt to Trump, it is also apparent that the president had domestic political reasons for showering affection on Israel. The Trump campaign has presented Abraham Accords as one of the administration’s signature foreign policy achievements. Even opponents give him credit for breaking the ice in enabling Israel to engage with the Gulf states openly after years of secret ties. At least at this stage, we’re seeing broad political, commercial, and people-to-people relations between Israel and the UAE, compared to the chilly government-to-government connections that have always characterized the treaties with Egypt and Jordan. In extolling the agreements on the day they were signed at the White House, Trump said he is confident the Palestinians will ultimately join in if he gets a second term in office.
“And this is peace in the Middle East without blood all over the sand. I say it: Right now, it’s been blood all over the sand for — for decades and decades and decades. That’s all they do, is they fight and kill people, and nobody gets anything. And this is — this is strong peace, really strong peace, far — and it’s a different way. We went in the back door, but I call it going in the very smart door. We went in the smart door, and we’re getting people. And the Palestinians will absolutely be a member. I don’t say that with any bravado. I just tell you the Palestinians will be a member at the right time. At the right time.” 
Mideast policy doesn’t swing voters
Trump’s problem is that the Arab-Israeli agreements don’t seem to have made many Americans change their minds about him. By and large, foreign policy doesn’t play a very significant role in how Americans vote. Coronavirus, unemployment, and racial divisions between Blacks and whites carry much more weight than what happens in the Middle East, or for that matter, in Russia and China. Trump is popular among Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians, but those preferences were already factored into the American political calculus.
Polls have shown that somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of American Jews vote Democrat. That’s quite a contrast with the sentiment inside Israel, where some 63 percent of Israelis say that they hope Trump gets reelected. It’s important to recognize that Muslim voters in America also favor Democrats. According to a poll by the Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR), some 71 percent said they would vote for Biden, while 18 percent were for Trump.
Jews, though, represent only about 2 percent of America’s population of 330 million. Muslims are just over 1 percent. The biggest pro-Israel voting bloc is the evangelicals, who comprise about 20 percent of Americans. Roughly 85 percent of them are likely to vote for Trump.
A Biden photo inscription
So how does Biden compare with Trump on the Middle East? One clue points to some difficult days ahead if Netanyahu continues as prime minister. Politicians love to display autographed pictures on their walls of all the foreign leaders they’ve met. Biden says he once got a request for such a photo from Netanyahu. He sent it back with the inscription, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”
What does that tell us about Biden? In part, he wants to show that after a 47-year career in Congress, he knows everyone. On Israel, Biden likes to talk about how he’s had face-to-face meetings with every prime minister since Golda Meir, whom he met during a visit to Israel days before the 1973 war. Biden was later the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and over the years, he has had a great deal of interaction with Netanyahu. Does Biden really love Israel’s prime minister, who has always been a lightning rod for controversy? I don’t know. Biden’s a pretty affable guy. But the fact that he says they don’t agree on anything is certainly an indication that we could be headed into a renewed era of confrontation. It was pretty clear after eight years that President Obama and Netanyahu did not love each other.
The Saudi question
As far as Israel’s relations with the Gulf, Biden welcomed the Abraham Accords and will probably try to expand them if he becomes president. The question is, how this is going to shake out for the next phase, involving Saudi Arabia. Unlike Trump, Biden is likely to bring up questions about human rights with the Saudis and sharpen US criticism about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is something that was finessed by Netanyahu and probably earned him points in the Saudi Royal Court. Addressing Khashoggi’s killing by Saudi operatives in Turkey two years ago, Netanyahu said: “What happened at the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and should be duly dealt with. At the same time, it is essential for the region’s stability and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”
That pretty much expresses how Trump looks at the Gulf as well. He has always made the point that US-Saudi relations are transactional. Trump is not one to lecture other countries on their human rights behavior. Let’s remember that Trump’s first foreign trip after his inauguration in January 2017 was to Saudi Arabia. Later, he welcomed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the White House, holding up a sign that showed that Saudi Arabia had agreed to spend $12.5 billion on American weapons and security equipment. Trump ruled out punishing the kingdom for Khashoggi’s killing, saying that would put at risk $110 billion in military sales to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and other military contractors, as well as $340 billion in other investments.
As a candidate, Biden said US policy toward Saudi Arabia would significantly change if he becomes president. “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Saudi Kingdom,” he said. “I will defend the right of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence.” Judging from the campaign statement, it’s reasonable to expect that there are clearly going to be some difficult moments with Saudi Arabia if Biden becomes president.
Working with the Palestinians
Another area where Trump has dramatically changed US policy is in dealing with the Palestinians. Among the actions he took was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv, which is where most countries keep their diplomatic presence in Israel. This is largely because Israel captured the eastern part of the city in the 1967 war and the United Nations considers it occupied territory. The US Congress passed a law in 1995 to move the embassy, but the action had been postponed every year since, because US presidents thought it would touch off a violent Palestinian response. It took Trump to do it anyway. In the end, the embassy move provoked a lot of international diplomatic protests and rioting in the Gaza Strip but not the extreme explosions of violence that had been predicted.
Biden says he’s not going to reverse the embassy move, though he will probably take steps to patch other things up with the Palestinians. Those could include restoring some of the foreign assistance money cut off by Trump and allowing them to reopen the diplomatic office in Washington that Trump ordered shut down.
Another Trump signature move was recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This was one more step that many had warned would lead to violence, but again it didn’t happen. As long as Syria remains a pariah and maintains its close ties with Iran, a Biden administration probably won’t want to inflame the issue and reverse Trump’s action.
Courting the Evangelicals
It is no exaggeration to suggest that Trump’s pro-Israeli actions aim to solidify his support among the Christian faithful rather than the Jews. The president said that outrightly on a summer campaign stop in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
“We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That is for the Evangelicals. You know it is amazing with that. The Evangelicals are more excited about that than Jewish people. It is incredible. But we did. We did that. And Golan Heights, do not forget Golan Heights.”
Netanyahu agrees that courting the Evangelicals is a much more effective strategy than trying to appeal to the broad spectrum of Jews in America who are firmly in the Democratic camp. The Israeli prime minister regularly appears either in person or by video hookup at the annual convention of Christians United for Israel, which mobilizes Evangelical support behind the Jewish state. Speaking to the 2017 event in Washington, Netanyahu said Israel owes its members a debt of gratitude.
“And you, the supporters of Israel… the many millions in the United States and elsewhere. Christian friends of Israel, you are always there for us. We have no better friends on earth than you.”
Reaching out to Evangelicals was a radical turnaround for Israel, which historically treated fundamentalist Christians with suspicion, even passing laws to prohibit missionary activities. Now the government enthusiastically promotes the Friends of Zion organization that built a $20 million museum and heritage center in downtown Jerusalem to chronicle the history of Christian support for Israel. Before the US president visited Israel in 2018, the organization bought space on 42 billboards across the city with the message: “Trump Makes Israel Great.”
What would Biden do?
Given the new Gulf-Israel alliance, what would a revamped Middle East peace process look like under Biden? Trump’s innovation was essentially to take the Palestinians out of the equation, to make a peace proposal so radioactive, so stacked in Israel’s favor as to make it impossible for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to accept. Once Trump’s proposed agreement was unveiled last January and rejected by the Palestinians, it cleared the way for the real deal-making to advance, with the UAE, with Saudi Arabia, and with other Gulf states, which culminated in the signing of the Abraham Accords.
Among the ingredients in Trump’s comprehensive peace deal is that the Palestinians would get their state but that Israel would annex almost 30 percent of the West Bank where most of its Jewish settlements are located. If Biden is elected president, it will be a challenge for Netanyahu to walk back an offer that the Israeli settlers have already pocketed. It certainly seems like another path to a stalemate, similar to the last round of peace talks under Secretary of State John Kerry that broke down in 2014. That failure left Martin Indyk, head of Kerry’s peace team, so disheartened that he declared Middle East peace efforts “hopeless” and acknowledged the “heartbreak” of devoting most of his career to them. “It’s time to end the farce of putting forward American peace plans only to have one or both sides reject them,” Indyk wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
If he reaches the White House, prospects are slim for Biden to push Israel in the opposite direction after Netanyahu was given a White House stage at the September 15 signing ceremony to declare that the old formula of land for peace is dead and buried. On the other hand, some new variables would help Biden in addressing the Middle East if he wins the election. Among them is the prospect of new leadership for the Palestinians.
Mahmoud Abbas is 85 years old and he will likely be replaced in the next four years. Among his possible successors are younger Palestinian leaders who may show more flexibility than Abbas has demonstrated in negotiating with Israel. Another variable is the prospect of the Gulf states actively promoting a solution to the conflict with Israel. Whether it’s through financial support or actual participation in the negotiating process, direct Gulf involvement in the peace talks could be a game-changer.
After Trump’s four years in the White House, the Middle East’s stakes in the 2020 election are high. The differences between Trump and Biden are night and day. Whatever the results, they will likely profoundly impact the region’s most pressing conflicts involving Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians. Trump may call him “Sleepy Joe” and Biden may have some deep affection for Israel’s prime minister. But in terms of Mideast foreign policy, if Biden wins the 2020 presidential election, we should pay attention to the words he wrote on his photo with Netanyahu: “I don’t agree with a damn thing you say.”
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