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Biden faces challenges, opportunities in Middle East

Biden faces challenges, opportunities in Middle East
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The Trump administration is shoring up policy changes long sought-after by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, shifting the ground in the Middle East that will create challenges as well as opportunities for President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE.

Biden will take office at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are further apart on negotiating a two-state solution and as Gulf countries unite with Israel to oppose efforts by the U.S. to re-engage with Iran over its nuclear program.

It’s unclear what role a Middle East peace process will take in the Biden administration, which will also find itself grappling with COVID-19 and a weakened economy. Its foreign policy challenges include rebuilding American relationships with allies abroad and confronting China.

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Iran is likely to be a bigger issue initially.

“The reality is, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not going to be the Biden administration’s top foreign policy priority in the Middle East, it will be Iran,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and who has advised both Republican and Democrat administrations on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

“And why is it the priority? Because it is the only issue, in this entire region, that could create the kind of tensions and escalations leading to military confrontation, not just between Israel and Iran, but potentially between the U.S. and Iran over the nuclear issue.”

Iran has been ramping up its nuclear program, and the new Biden team wants to engage with allies over a stronger international agreement to rein in Tehran's ambitions.

The Iran issue is a priority for Netanyahu as well, who confronted former President Obama publicly and contentiously over his push for a nuclear deal with Tehran and celebrated and supported Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and imposition of a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions. 

Biden has vowed to put the U.S. back in the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement that is broadly opposed by Republicans and is also seen critically by many congressional Democrats.

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Gulf countries that in the last months of the Trump administration launched formal diplomatic ties with Israel are pressing Biden not to re-engage with Tehran.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani told Axios that Bahrain expects to be consulted by the U.S. on efforts to pursue an agreement with Tehran. But in public remarks, he also pressed for renewed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. 

“I continue to emphasize in all my meetings that in order to achieve and consolidate such a peace, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict needs to be resolved,” he said, standing alongside Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoPompeo on CIA recruitment: We can't risk national security to appease 'liberal, woke agenda' DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Dozens of scientists call for deeper investigation into origins of COVID-19, including the lab theory MORE and Netanyahu. “I therefore call for both parties to get around the negotiating table to achieve a viable two-state solution as is also sought by the international community.” 

Biden is unlikely to roll back many of the more consequential policy changes related to Israel that have occurred under Trump, such as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

But Biden has committed to reengaging with the Palestinians, who cut ties with Trump in 2018.

He has said he will restore diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and deliver millions of dollars in security assistance and financial aid to the United Nations agency dedicated to assisting Palestinian refugees, already earmarked by the Senate.

Palestinians are setting themselves up for a fresh start, announcing earlier this month that they are restoring communication with Israel. There have also been reports that they are making moves to end payments to families of Palestinians in Israeli jails on terrorism-related charges.

The Palestinian Authority recently sent ambassadors back to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after recalling them when those nations established diplomatic ties with Israel. 

“They are totally positioning to engage with the Biden administration,” said Ghaith al-Omari, senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They understand that there are some obstacles being put by the Trump administration and they’re trying to try and neutralize some of these obstacles.”

One former U.S. official, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss staffing, said it is important for Biden to quickly replace the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who the official described as “a very negative factor in the prospect of advancing toward peace and in exacerbating problems on the ground.”

Biden’s pick is likely to be someone who is seen as having the confidence of the president-elect, the official said, and someone who can balance the demands of the invested parties — the American pro-Israel communities, both Jewish and evangelical, but also the Arab-American community and pro-Palestinian movements. 

“Whether it’s a professional or political appointment, it’s got to be somebody that is seen to be appointed by Biden and not just by the system,” the official said. 

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Policy shifts under the Trump administration have strengthened Netanyahu’s position.

While Netanyahu “suspended” earlier plans to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank in exchange for opening diplomatic relations with the U.A.E. and Bahrain, the Trump administration — and Pompeo in particular — have legitimized their presence. 

Pompeo reversed a State Department legal decision that viewed the settlements as illegal; lifted restrictions allowing for U.S. investment in science and research programs in Israeli settlements; changed guidance to label Israeli products from these areas as “made in Israel”; and became the first top U.S. official to visit an Israeli settlement. 

“You talked about the fact that for a long time, the State Department took the wrong view of settlements,” Pompeo said to Netanyahu during a press conference in Jerusalem last week.

“Today the United States Department of State stands strongly to the recognition that settlements can be done in a way that are lawful and appropriate and proper.”

The secretary also announced that the State Department will label the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement anti-Semitic and block funding for organizations that support it. Progressive Democrats argue this is an infringement on First Amendment rights. 

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Pompeo is considered a potential Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential election and his place at the forefront of changing U.S. policy in favor of Israel is likely to be a major selling point of his campaign. 

While Netanyahu has publicly lauded Pompeo's service in the Trump administration, the prime minister is unlikely to take a hard line against Biden compared to how he confronted President Obama over the issue of settlements and Iran. 

“The Obama-Netanyahu relationship was combative in large part because of Netanyahu,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Bush administration.

“Will Netanyahu want to have that same relationship with Biden? I think the answer is no. We know that Biden, during his long career in the Senate, had a very close relationship with Israel, Israeli leaders, and it was not just a political relationship, he has made clear that Israel is in his heart and not just in his head.” 

Netanyahu is also likely to take a softer approach with the U.S. as he juggles a mass of domestic unrest, including public unrest over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economy in freefall, declining public trust in government, political stalemate likely leading to a fourth election in less than three years and Netanyahu’s upcoming criminal trial on allegations of corruption, said Shira Efron, policy fellow at the Israel Policy Forum.

“It’s true that Netanyahu was emboldened by Trump, but he is losing his patron and his position on the global map as someone who has a direct line to the White House and can help other countries vis-a-vis Washington,” Efron said. 

“The last minute attempts to lock in gains on the settlement front, Iran and even normalization is an indication, in my view, that those achievements are precarious and not as robust to withstand possible attempts – and we should wait and see if those attempts indeed unfold – to reverse some of them.”