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Middle East: Quick start for Biden diplomacy

Middle East: Quick start for Biden diplomacy
© Gage Skidmore

Secretary of State-designee Anthony Blinken and his team are about to inherit the strongest foundation in decades for achieving enduring peace in the volatile Middle East. This has come about as America's closest and only market democratic ally in the region, the State of Israel, is establishing diplomatic and commercial relations with its Arab neighbors. This is a regional realignment that offers new possibilities for U.S. security interests if the next administration is prepared to meet them with appropriately original policies.

Saudi Arabia and others are apparently close to joining Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan in the recent peace agreements, known as the Abraham Accords. The Abrahamic partners’ interests are clearly aligned when it comes to blocking Iran from ever becoming a nuclear power and halting its sponsorship of terror and other regional misadventures. But there are also positive strategic incentives for them: access to Israel’s world-leading medical, agricultural and cyber security technologies and avenues to diversify their oil-dependent economies.

These agreements are tracking to yield a broad coalition that could offer real leverage to the U.S. and other Western allies for transforming the flawed JCPOA Iran nuclear understanding into a real and permanent nuclear non-proliferation agreement, and otherwise managing Iran — now urgent as ever with Iran vowing retaliatory response to last week's assassination of their top nuclear weapons engineer, Moshen Fakhrizadeh. Resolving regional tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims may be a long way off, but the momentous alignment of Israel and its Arab neighbors might open the door if the United States and others support the process. Israel and its partners might also be well-positioned to play a meaningful diplomatic role in the coming negotiations to reshape economic relations between the market democracies and China.

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It would be a mistake for the Biden administration to pick up where the Obama administration left off in the region four years ago, when it entered a nuclear agreement that — at best — slowed instead of prevented Iran’s nuclearization; and it condemned Israeli development policy in the West Bank territories that Israel recaptured in the defensive 1967 six-day war (Israel was so relieved to have recovered those biblical areas that it agreed to designate them “disputed,” which the Palestinians later re-described as “occupied”). That would please the ayatollahs and Palestinian Authority: Both have made aggressive statements about their expectations from Biden, suggesting they think the new administration will be a pushover on both issues.

There is a basis for optimism that the Biden administration will adapt to benefit from recent developments, though the initial signals are mixed. The president-elect has decades of experience and relationships across the Middle East; he is a principled centrist who works across communities to build consensus and get things done. While he might share Obama's humanist values, he doesn’t seem to posses the same ideological predisposition to helping Iran “share the neighborhood” with Israel's Sunni Arab neighbors. Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisOde to Mother's Day Warren says she'll run for reelection to Senate In honor of Mother's Day, lawmakers should pass the Momnibus Act MORE's stated position on the JCPOA has favored negotiating to improve it, but talk by other incoming officials of a “strategic review” of U.S.-Saudi relations and quick return to the JCPOA would seem to be “leaning on the wrong side of history” — to quote an Obama favorite. 

On the Palestinian issue, Blinken has advocated restoring financial aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA); it is unclear how this would be done in the context of the Taylor Force Act which revoked aid to the PA in response to its abusive misappropriation to supporting terror and indoctrination. Blinken has also demonstrated sensitivity to the persistent existential threats facing Israel, stating that U.S. aid to Israel "should never be used as leverage to influence Israel's policies toward Palestinians."

Meanwhile, Emiratis and other Arabs visiting Israel for the first time are expressing surprised delight that the welcome they're receiving in Israel — including the Muslim call to prayer in the streets of Tel Aviv — is profoundly different from what they been led by the Palestinians to expect for the past 70 years. The Arab neighbors are removing the shackles of misperception and enjoying newly discovered freedom and opportunity for themselves in Israel. The Palestinian "issue" has moved from precondition to footnote, but it still persists as a distraction in the United States, at the United Nations and elsewhere.

The next administration is positioned to step right in and benefit from the positive momentum. As for the Oslo Accords that have languished for the past 27 years, land has been given by Israel in the hope of peace and returned only with disastrous violence in both Gaza and the West Bank. The PA has rejected many offers without ever, over decades, offering an alternative. The outgoing U.S. administration sought to clarify the PA's intentions by establishing pre-conditions to final border status arrangements, including that the PA renounce the indoctrination and financial compensation of terror, and accept the rule of law — all essential to any civil society, even in the Middle East. Why would a Biden Administration not want to build on those terms of engagement, which basically transform "land-for-peace" to "peace-for-peace"?

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Israel has every incentive to engage the incoming administration in a positive spirit (also demonstrating earnestness toward Saudis who are still at least superficially concerned with the Palestinian issue), starting with fully consulting on the background and logic of these recent developments, a basis for re-engaging with the PA toward the two-state solution. Consideration should be given to shortening the previous administration's four-year timeframe for the PA's compliance with the final status pre-conditions and to accelerated infrastructure investment in the territories.

If Ramallah fails to step up quickly, Israel and its partners would be reasonable to conclude that Palestinian leadership is simply not interested in a final status agreement legitimizing Israel's right to exist and that they conceived the entire Oslo process as a fig leaf behind which to continue the historical resistance to Israel's very existence. In that case, Israel might consider withdrawing from the Oslo Accords, dismantling the PA, and pursuing an independent approach to improving the lives of West Bank Palestinians by integrating them (with community self-governance) into Israel's economy and society. If it comes to that, the Abrahamic partners and United States might even consider persuading the Hashemite Kingdom to re-instate West Bank-resident Palestinians' Jordanian citizenship it abandoned back in 1988.

Daniel J. Arbess is CEO of New York-based Xerion Investments, and an active venture investor, philanthropist and social entrepreneur in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Atlantic Council and was a co-founder of No Labels, which promotes bipartisan solutions in American politics. Follow him on Twitter @danarbess.