Thursday, January 21, 2021


Vic Rosenthal's weekly column

As I write this, preparations are underway for the swearing-in ceremony of a new President of the US. Nobody truly knows what this will mean for us in Israel. Caroline Glick, who can be depended on to see the dark side – often, unfortunately, correctly – finds Biden’s appointments of numerous former Obama officials, some of whom are demonstrably anti-Israel, to be evidence that the new administration will return to the almost maliciously anti-Israel policies of the Obama Administration.

On the other hand, as Bret Stephens notes (in a masterful piece that I hope will be required reading for Biden and his people), the situation has drastically changed since Obama pursued his diplomatic assault on Israel. Everything is different (except perhaps the Palestinians). Israel, Iran, the Arab nations, and the situation in the USA have all undergone significant changes. The damage to American interests from continuing Obama’s policy today would be even greater than in 2008-2016.

But not all politics is rational, as history amply demonstrates. Bad regimes sometimes follow policies dictated primarily by the misapprehensions, prejudices or even obsessions of their leadership rather than the interests of their nations. The Obama Administration was one of those.

Indeed, its interpretations of the intentions of the Palestinians and the Iranian regime – which could be determined simply by paying attention to their words – were so far from reality that I often found myself asking, “stupid or evil?” Did American officials really think that the Palestinians would be satisfied with a peaceful state alongside Israel if only the right concessions were forced out of us? Did they really believe that the agreement with the Iranians would prevent them from getting nuclear weapons, or even significantly slow them down?

There was also an ideological element, a clear affinity of Obama himself to the Muslim opponents of Israel that was demonstrated by the speech he delivered in Cairo shortly after his inauguration. There was his comparison of the Palestinians to black Americans, one of the worst possible analogies. And there was his antipathy for our Prime Minister, which he famously shared in an off-mike chat with the French president. Taking all this into account, one can be excused for thinking that one of the deliberate objectives of Obama’s policies was to weaken and hurt Israel.

While these personal characteristics of Barack Obama do not apply to Joe Biden, he does seem to believe in the traditional (and wrong) principles of American Middle East policy, such as the primacy of creating a sovereign Palestinian state in bringing normal relations to the region. He agrees with Obama that Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria are “illegitimate and an obstacle to peace,” a position that the State Department reversed under Trump.

American policy toward the Palestinians, going back to the Clinton Administration, has always been to provide ample financial aid to them and get Israel to make concessions up front, both territorial and practical (like freeing jailed terrorists). And Obama’s Iran policy was heavily front-loaded with financial benefits to Iran. One would think that professional diplomats would understand why this strategy failed over and over. Both the Palestinians and the Iranians have objectives that they cannot be paid to give up. Giving them presents only made them ask for more, and in both cases they used the money to pay for terrorism.

The non-professionals of the Trump Administration did understand this. They reversed course and applied economic pressure to both the Palestinians and the Iranian regime, in order to create leverage for negotiations. Unfortunately, the policy hasn’t been in place long enough to tell if it will work, but the desire to be “not-Trump” may cause the new Administration to end sanctions on Iran and re-fund the PA and UNRWA – making failure a certainty. Biden has already promised to restore Trump-suspended payments to UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, thus continuing the decades-long growth of a hostile population of heavily indoctrinated, stateless welfare clients.

We can also expect a resumption of objections from the US against Jewish construction in Judea/Samaria and Eastern Jerusalem, joining the chorus from Europe. It wouldn’t surprise me if another unannounced but near-total freeze on construction will soon go into effect.

In more encouraging news, recent comments by Anthony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, indicate that he doesn’t intend to reactivate the Iran deal immediately. Nevertheless, we should watch for any loosening of the Trump-applied sanctions on Iran as an indication of the likely direction the administration will take.

Israel has been engaged in a “war between the wars,” against Iranian installations in Syria. The Trump Administration did not interfere. I expect that attacks against these targets will be less frequent under the new administration. A warning sign will be if they stop entirely.

I had hoped that Israel would utilize the last weeks of Trump’s term to destroy the Iranian nuclear installations, perhaps even with American help; but apparently our PM and the IDF believe that their lower-level activities are effective enough that such an ambitious project wasn’t needed. We might regret this later; I will be very surprised if it happens under Biden.

All of the above is based on the assumption that the “moderates” in Biden’s administration, including Biden himself, will be in control. And here is where the real scary stuff begins.

Biden is 78 years old, older than any other American president at the time of his inauguration (Trump was 70 and Ronald Reagan was not quite 78 at the end of his second term). He certainly does not appear to me, admittedly a non-professional, to be at the top of his game … or worse. Even if he remains as president for a full term, it’s hard to imagine that he will be calling the shots. His vice president, Kamala Harris, is an unknown quantity in the area of foreign affairs. And there are strong forces that will be trying to exert their influence on the administration – unfriendly ones.

One is the left wing of the Democratic party, which supported Bernie Sanders for the presidency, and which is strongly anti-Israel. The other is the Obama organization.

When Barack Obama left the White House, he did not retire from politics and retreat to his home state, like so many other ex-presidents. Rather, he bought a home in walking distance to the White House, and transformed his highly effective campaign fund-raising organization into a social action group, with both domestic and foreign policy goals. It’s hard to believe that he will not try to exert influence over the new administration.

I believe that Israel will be able to work with an administration that is somewhat less friendly than that of Trump, as long as it is honestly interested in regional peace. Israel will present the evidence – which is overwhelming – that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons; indeed, is developing them now. Together with its new allies in the Arab world, it will argue that continued maximum economic and diplomatic pressure is the most effective way to stop Iran, short of war.

I believe also that Israel will be able to convince such an administration that the real reason for the lack of progress with the Palestinians is their refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state with any borders. We will explain that the development of Israel’s relations with other Arab states means that Palestinian sovereignty can be delayed indefinitely, until the Palestinians are prepared to accept the legitimacy of the nation state of the Jewish people.

But if the American administration undergoes a sharp turn toward the left, either as a result of a takeover by the left wing of the Democratic Party or from the influence of the Obama organization, we could see a return of Obama-era pressure for concessions, restrictions on our actions, and appeasement of Iran.

We’ve made a great deal of progress in the past four years. It would be a shame if it were reversed.

We’ll find out in the next few months.

-- Victor


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