By Solomon D. Stevens
In spite of his proclivity for courting right-wing extremists and fanning the flames of prejudice (including Judeophobia) in the United States, Donald Trump ushered in a dramatic new era of progress for Israel and its place in the Middle East. He supported Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong view that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and spearheaded the drive to deemphasize the importance of the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians. What will happen now that Joe Biden has become president?
We have some indications of what will come, based on early actions of the Biden administration, but we also have to take the perspective of the Democratic Party into consideration. Biden’s new secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, has stated that the U.S. would like to return to the Iran deal struck by Obama and other nations in 2015, provided that Iran ends its violations of that agreement. Blinken has said that if Iran ends its violation of the 2015 agreement, there are still issues that need attention, which probably is a reference to Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its support of conflict in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
This is a very measured approach to the idea of returning to the agreement, but it does not go far enough. Iran has made it clear for years that the destruction of Israel is a clear goal of its regime. Is any agreement with such a regime likely to make Israel safer? Biden’s early announcement of his willingness to rejoin the JCPOA signals an eagerness to return to the agreement that could be reckless. And the Democratic Party as a whole (not everyone in the Democratic Party) is even less cautious than Biden.
Trump’s decision to leave the Iran deal was a unilateral decision, and he made no real attempt to engage with Iran after withdrawing from the agreement. America is stronger when it works with allies, and refusing to engage with Iran doesn’t by itself help Israel. Trump didn’t really have an Iran policy; he simply rejected Obama’s Iran policy. But America should not abandon Israel by rejoining the JCPOA simply to reject Trump’s unilateralism. We need to see a Biden Iran policy that begins with an understanding of how dangerous Iran is — not only to Israel, but to the entire Middle East.
The Abraham Accords did not only normalize relations between Israel and Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. They recognized a new reality in the Middle East: The Palestinian conflict is no longer seen by a growing number of Arab nations as central to progress in the Middle East. But there are still many in America who see the Palestinian cause as the most important issue in the Middle East. However, the Middle East has changed. Even Saudi Arabia, which has long supported the Palestinian cause, may be on the verge of changing direction.
Biden and the Democratic Party are, on the whole, still holding on to what James Durso has called the “Palestine centric approach” to the Middle East. This is a mistake. Biden needs to understand that abandoning the “Palestine-centric approach” is even more likely to create a real dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians than holding on to that old approach, because it deprives the Palestinians of leverage that they have often used to refuse reasonable accommodations that would be better for their people than their own leadership will allow. But the Democratic Party is dominated by the old approach. A Pew opinion poll found that only 27% of Democrats are more likely to support Israel than the Palestinians. And progressives in the party are more likely to be critical of Israel than ever before. Some progressives, such as Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, openly support the BDS movement.
At the very least, Biden should avoid forcing a Palestine-centric approach on a Middle East that has moved on. The best way to do that is to support the countries and people in the region as they work on their problems. Rather than returning to a discredited “peace process,” he should work with Israelis, Palestinians and a growing number of receptive Arab nations to build a stronger region. This does not mean abandoning concern for the Palestinian people, but it does mean denying them a veto power over all progress in the region.
Solomon D. Stevens has a Ph.D. in political science from Boston College and is the author of the book, “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.”