Biden is unlikely to introduce major changes vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians, thinks an Israeli expert, adding that the priorities of the new administration lie elsewhere, primarily in settling domestic problems and striking a deal with Iran.
The inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden later today will have many in Israel biting their nails in anticipation of what his tenure might look like for the Jewish state.
No Change in Sight?
Professor Eytan Gilboa from the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies and a leading experts on US-Israel relations says the new Biden administration will not make many changes to the decisions and moves rolled out by his predecessor Donald Trump.
Such will be the case with the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a city that will likely remain disputed between Jews and Arabs for the foreseeable future. And such will be the case with Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights and the legality of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, two notions that will probably stay off the agenda.
“Security cooperation is not going to change either”, says the professor, referring to the billions of dollars poured into Israel annually, in addition to a number of defence projects that the two nations are working on.
“This is not going to change, just as didn’t during the tenure of Barack Obama [relations with whom were stormy for Israel – ed.]. The reason for this is a series of mutual benefits for both Israel and the US”.
Winds of Change
Yet, Israel does expect changes in other areas, including a different attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood and a soothing approach towards the Palestinians.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris recently stated that the new administration would take “immediate steps” to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, reopen the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, and the Washington mission of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), saying they will work towards restoring the economic assistance to the Palestinians frozen under Trump.
“We will probably see small changes taking place. Biden is likely to restore money to UNRWA [cut under Trump], and will re-open their missions but if the Palestinians are hoping he will bail them out and come up with a serious peace initiative – that is not going to happen”, Gilboa explains.
Biden will have a lot of internal issues to worry about. The raging COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for his country’s healthcare system and economy. The security situation was also given a jolt in the wake of the 6 January siege of the US Capitol by violent Trump supporters during the congressional hearing to confirm Biden’s election victory, meaning the new boss in Washington will need to exert extra effort to overcome the divisions in American society.
This is why the Palestinians are unlikely to top Biden’s agenda. The Iranians with their nuclear programme, however, will surely be in the new administration’s crosshairs.
According to reports, Washington has already started negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear programme, and Gilboa is certain that Biden will want to strike a deal with the Islamic Republic once he assumes office. But despite good will and intentions that task will not be an easy one.
The primary reason for this is Iran’s presidential race slated to take place in June.
“I don’t think any negotiations will happen until Iran decides who will be their next president. The motivation [to seal a deal] is definitely there, as Biden and his people will want to prove that Obama’s deal was good but they are also aware of the holes that agreement had and they would like to avoid repeating them”, Gilboa says, referring to the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018 over perceived flaws.
Another obstacle in the potential deal with Iran could be the latter’s intercontinental ballistic missile programme. Tehran has already stated negotiations on that issue are out of the question, something that is a cause for concern in the US and among its European and Middle Eastern allies.
If the two sides fail to reach an agreement on that issue, the return of a nuclear deal might be in jeopardy. However, if they do, Gilboa says it will likely stir up major concerns in Europe, Israel, and a number of Arab states. And that could push those countries to join forces against a common challenge.
“Biden will probably listen to the Europeans more, unlike Trump. He will also be more attentive to Israel’s concerns”.
It is still an open question as to who will be sitting in that seat in Jerusalem to express those concerns. Israel will hold its own national vote at the end of March, and the future of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not look certain.
But Gilboa is sure that Israel’s interests won’t be damaged regardless of who takes office in the country.
“Of course, relations between Netanyahu and Biden won’t be as intimate and strong as with Trump but they won’t be as low as under Obama. If, however, somebody else takes office, there will be less animosity and tensions between the two governments”.