29 October 2020

President Donald Trump has, in many ways, changed the way the United States of America does business in the Middle East, an expert addressing a symposium said here on Tuesday.

Jonathan H. Ferziger, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council, said that Trump has given Israel everything it wanted. “If Trump wins again, this is likely to continue. But the question is whether the Palestinians will join the peace process and receive investment, or find themselves alienated to the point that they stage another uprising,” he said.

Ferziger also said that although Trump can count on the support of evangelicals and other Christian groups, Jewish and Muslim populations in the US are more likely to vote Democrat. “Trump essentially marginalized the Palestinians before launching the Abraham Accords while Biden is likely to maintain the current policies with some adjustments,” said Ferziger.

Ferziger was addressing the e-symposium – Presidential Elections 2020 & Shifting US Policies Toward the Middle East – attended by prominent experts and Middle East watchers worldwide. Alya AlJneibi, Research Assistant at TRENDS Research & Advisory, delivered the opening remarks while Jason Campbell, a Project Researcher with the RAND Corporation in the United States, moderated the session.

Yossi Halevi, a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Israel, discussed the prospects for future US policies under Trump or Biden toward the Iranian nuclear deal. “If Trump were to be re-elected, there is a suspicion that he might try to reach his own “grand bargain” with Tehran. The extent to which Trump tries to do this would depend on his advisors,” Halevi said.

According to Halevi, both Biden and Harris have openly supported the Iran deal and have argued that the US withdrawal from the agreement was a major mistake. “The kind of deal Biden-Harris agreement with Iran involves will depend on whether the Democrats also take the Senate. It should be borne in mind that foreign policy would not be a priority for Biden-Harris, though this could change in time,” he said.

On the subject of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said that a new Trump administration would like to proscribe the entire Muslim Brotherhood be more likely to target individual violent groups linked to the organization.

“It is highly unlikely that a Biden administration would target the Brotherhood, out of fear that such a policy would antagonize large sections of the populations in Middle East countries,” he said. Schanzer also said that the differences between the Gulf countries are significant enough to be addressed, “notably Qatari support for groups like the Taliban or the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas.”

Anne Speckhard, the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism in the United States, commented on counter-terrorism issues. She emphasized that ISIS continues to be a threat, with its former operatives dispersed across many countries.

“Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has allowed Tehran to build up a new stockpile. Biden criticized the Soleimani killing, though he did agree to Soleimani being brought to justice. Biden is likely to focus on renewing the Iran deal in some form. In terms of the Israel-Palestine issue, Biden supports a renewed peace process and is likely to take a more active role in the mechanics of a possible deal,” she said.

According to Alberto Fernandez, Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), many in the US see the Middle East region as a lost cause that has cost much in lives and money over the last 20 years.

“Though the US does not want to leave the region, it wants to reduce its footprint. Whether this actually comes about depends on the course that events take. It is important to note this sentiment, as it will inform the policies that either a Trump or a Biden administration will follow,” Fernandez said.

He also said that Ankara’s role in the region is problematic and will see increased attention from the White House, especially if this issue falls to a Biden administration to manage.

Prof. Klaus Larres of the University of North Carolina said that if the Democrats take the Senate and the White House, they would have a free hand in promoting their policies. A clean sweep in the election could bring its problems, as was seen when Obama first came to power.

“Initially, their main focus would be on the domestic situation in the US. In foreign policy, Biden will initially focus on key alliance relationships, not least those with NATO and the European Union. After that, his main priorities would be relations with Russia and China, within which he may develop more constructive relations with both of these powers,” Prof. Larres said.

Experts agreed that the Trump years had seen a great deal of disruption, and many of the assumptions we previously held about US foreign policy have been overturned. There is some concern over how this approach will develop if Trump returns to the White House.

The E-Symposium was live-streamed on the TRENDS YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/TrendsRA and other social media platforms.

Middle East USA