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Dramatic changes ahead: US election, succession of Iranian, Palestinian leaders

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As Israel and America contemplate how to deal with an increasingly assertive Iran and the escalating security situation along Israel’s borders, they also must prepare for significant changes in the not too distant future that will profoundly transform the Middle East landscape.

America and its allies will be confronted with two significant changes in Middle East leadership that will happen with the deaths of octogenarians Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, 83, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 80. No one lives forever, after all.

Add to this eventuality the uncertain ramifications of America’s 2020 presidential election on its foreign policy going forward — testing the resiliency of the U.S.-Israel relationship — and the years following could shape up to be a watershed time for the Middle East.  

Who will be the next Iranian Supreme Leader, and will he continue to have absolute control over the regime? Or, will the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps leadership force the Assembly of Experts to rubber-stamp one of their own, a more acquiescent Supreme Leader for their economic and political interests, becoming the de facto leaders of the Iranian “revolution”? 

The message to American leadership should be that no matter who comes out on top — the odds-on favorite is Ebrahim Raisi, head of the judiciary — Iran still will practice dissimulation, no matter how many smooth-talking foreign ministers they dispatch to Europe. 

Expansionism will remain the byword of Shiite revolutionary ideology. The best one can hope for is to “manage” Iran; internal regime change is the only possibility of changing Iran’s relationship with the West. Hopefully, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can successfully influence President Trump to go in with eyes wide open if he negotiates with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.

Any new agreement that does not rein in Iran’s support of terror, money laundering, missile development, entrenchment in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and human rights abuses would mean Iran remains a permanent threat to America and her allies. Any nuclear deal should include U.S. inspectors on the ground, with 24/7 access to Iranian facilities, and a total and permanent dismantling of Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium. 

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abbas, meanwhile, is a heavy smoker with a long history of medical issues that have sparked succession talk. After reports last year that his health was deteriorating, Abbas this spring flew to Germany for a “routine” medical check-up, his office said. 

His death, however, when it happens will create a vacuum that will bring to the fore a power struggle within the PA, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Fatah (formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement), as well as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A civil war likely will follow, violent and unpredictable. That will invite in other destabilizing forces, especially from Iran and its proxies that are now entrenched in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 

The list of potential successors provides little optimism. Longtime Fatah cronies such as Mahmoud al Aloul, Jibril Rajoub and Saeb Erekat offer more incitement of violence. The most popular candidate is Marwan Barghouti, currently in jail for murdering Israelis,   while the current prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, led the delegitimization campaign against Israel. Two wild cards are the former PA Gazan security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, who is shunned by the Fatah leadership, and Gen. Majid Faraj, the current head of the PA intelligence service, with whom Israel has a working relationship. 

The next Israeli coalition government must prepare for the possibility that the next American president could be a Democrat who is hostile to Israel, or that President Trump could distance the U.S. administration from Israel if they do not embrace his Middle East peace plan. It is not far-fetched to think that if a progressive Democrat becomes president, the U.S. might follow the European Union in supporting Palestinian expansionism into Area C of the West Bank, against the Oslo Accords, to help facilitate a Palestinian state, vote against Israel at the United Nations and cut U.S. military aid and security cooperation.

Israel can’t choose the next American president, but it can lay the groundwork to appear less partisan, while acknowledging that its current public relations too often have proved ineffective. The next government must learn that it needs to make its case continually that it is an essential American ally, vital to U.S. security interests, and shares U.S. democratic values. Israel must increase its investment in its foreign relations budget. A dangerous, combustible combination might be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a Democratic U.S. president and Congress. 

Israel must anticipate that, after the 2020 U.S. presidential election, whoever wins may withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, changing the Middle East playing field and leaving Israel feeling more isolated.

It is commonly understood that an American withdrawal from Syria could be disastrous for our Syrian Kurdish allies who fought against ISIS. But not well acknowledged is that if the Syrians, Iranians and Russians retake Idlib province in Syria, the last stronghold of rebels, millions more Syrian refugees could flow into Europe, creating instability and potentially further Islamization of Europe.

American diplomatic and strategic planners too often appear to be surprised by events in the Middle East. Reactive foreign policy undermines security interests by decreasing our ability to help shape events. Although it may be unfair to criticize the intelligence failures that did not foresee the Arab Winter, there are some eventualities such as U.S. elections and the deaths of Abbas and Khamenei that will occur, sooner or later, and strategists cannot claim there was no way to prepare for the changes they will bring about. 

In the Middle East, preparing for inevitable changes is a prescription for strategic success.

Eric R. Mandel is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and policy groups on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Ali Khamenei Arab-Israeli peace Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Iran Iranian proxies Israel Mahmoud Abbas Mike Pompeo Palestinian militant groups Palestinian nationalism

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