Monday, January 25, 2021

Now that Biden is president, Israel and the Jewish community look on as the various pieces of his new administration fall into place, waiting to see what this means for both the Jewish community and for Israel.

Everything becomes part of the cup of tea leaves that Jews are trying to read.

One of the things that got this process going in earnest was the change made to the Twitter account of the US Ambassador to Israel. 

Last Wednesday, the account suddenly read:

The question was: why change it to US Ambassador to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza?

Legal Insurrection quotes from the original article in the Washington Free Beacon which sounded the alarm:
The change in title marks a significant shift in policy toward Israel. The United States has for decades declined to take a policy position on the West Bank and Gaza territories, maintaining the Israelis and the Palestinians must decide in negotiations how the areas will be split up for a future Palestinian state. By including Gaza and the West Bank in the ambassador’s portfolio, the Biden administration appears to be determining that neither area is part of Israel—a move that is certain to rile Israeli leaders. [emphasis added]
In the end, it apparently turned out to be a false alarm, as the page was quietly changed back to "US Ambassador to Israel" and WFB updated their article accordingly. No one knows if it was the work of an overeager staffer or whether Twitter accidentally refreshed the old page.

But this is a good example of the eagerness to jump at the most trivial indication of Biden's new Middle East policy, especially in terms of what policy changes we should expect, especially when it comes to Iran.

Attention dutifully went back to following the procession of Biden nominees for various positions within his administration.

Biden's new National Security Adviser is Jake Sullivan.

Last May, Sullivan co-wrote an article in Foreign Affairs about America’s Opportunity in the Middle East, which advocated
a phased approach that delivers nuclear progress up front and creates space to address regional challenges over time. Under such an approach, the United States would immediately reestablish nuclear diplomacy with Iran and salvage what it can from the 2015 nuclear deal, which has been fraying since the Trump administration abandoned it in 2018. The United States would then work with the P5+1 and Iran to negotiate a follow-on agreement. In parallel, the United States and its partners would support a regional track.
It is to be expected that Sullivan supports some kind of return to the Iran deal, albeit cautiously.

On the other hand, Sullivan also praised the Abraham Accords back in September, saying it was a "positive accomplishment" that was "good for the region, it’s good for Israel, it’s good for peace" while balancing that with "we should praise this deal for what it is but not for more than what it is...It’s been a long time coming. This is not a bolt out of the blue."

But over the weekend, when Sullivan spoke by phone with Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat, the White House released an oddly phrased statement that
They discussed opportunities to enhance the partnership over the coming months, including by building on the success of Israel’s normalization arrangements with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

She also pointed out that while in Israel it was reported that
The two agreed to discuss soon the many topics on the agenda including Iran, regional issues and advancing the Abraham Accords.
in the White House statement, there was no mention of Iran at all.

There are those tea leaves again.

And then there is Tony Blinken.

During his confirmation hearings last week, Tony Blinken -- Biden's choice for Secretary of State -- was asked about Biden's Middle East policy.
The Biden administration would consult with Israel and Arab allies before taking any action regarding returning to the Iran deal, though he admitted that he "believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would too"
But we would use that as a platform with our allies and partners, who would once again be on the same side as us, to seek a longer and stronger agreement, and also as you and the chairman have rightly pointed out, to capture these other issues, particularly with regard to missiles and Iran’s destabilizing activities. That would be the objective.

Having said that, I think we are a long way from there. We would have to see once the president-elect is in office what steps Iran actually takes and is prepared to take. We would then have to evaluate whether they were making good—if they say they are coming back into compliance—[on] their obligations, and then we would take it from there. But in the first instance, yes, we absolutely will consult with you, and not only with you, I think as the chairman suggested, it’s also vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and with our partners in the region, to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries. [emphasis added]
First of all, Blinken seems to be taking an awful lot for granted about getting Israel and the Gulf Arab states on board negotiations with the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East.

Secondly, his metaphor about engaging US allies "on the takeoff, not the landing" implies a willingness to push those US allies off the plane -- if not under the bus.

And Blinken is nothing if not a party man, who claimed during his confirmation hearing:
In my judgment, the JCPOA, for whatever its limitations, was succeeding on its own terms in blocking Iran’s pathways to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. [emphasis added]
But overall, the general consensus does seem to be that Biden's picks for his staff have been reassuring on the issue of Iran.

Except for one.

There are indications that Biden could pick Robert Malley as his special envoy to Iran, which Eli Lake describes as a reason to believe that Biden’s First Foreign Policy Blunder Could Be on Iran. The problem is that Malley favors talks with Iran as the only way to get any results, and claims that pressure does not work.

Lake demurs:
More important, the notion that Iran’s regime does not respond to pressure is a talking point of the Iranian regime, especially Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. It also happens to be false. Obama’s maximum pressure campaign between 2011 and 2013 ultimately coerced the regime to enter open nuclear negotiations with the U.S., China, Russia, France, Germany and the U.K. [emphasis added]
More to the point, appointing Malley would directly contradict statements that Biden made just last year while on the campaign trail:
Biden himself during the campaign has said he would support targeted sanctions to punish Iran for human rights abuses, developing ballistic missiles and support for terrorism. And Blinken and Sullivan have committed to working with regional allies to press Iran to change its ways. What message would it send if the administration’s envoy to Iran believes no Iranian leader could ever agree to stop making war on its neighbors?
Part of Biden's problem is that he is beholden to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, one that favors the Iran Deal and supports for a Palestinian Arab state on the one hand and is antagonistic to Israel and Saudi Arabia on the other, and is not impressed by the Abraham Accords either.

However, he said the Biden administration would “take a hard look at” some of the “commitments” that were made in tandem with those accords.
Is Biden going to try to thread this needle -- both in terms of his Middle East policy abroad but also in terms of satisfying his progressive base that expects to be rewarded handsomely for their support?

And if he does make this attempt, will he succeed?
Or are we already seeing signs of it beginning to unravel?


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