Middle East/North Africa

New Israeli envoy arrives in Washington, turning page on Trump era

Jewish Community Center, Israel, Bomb threat
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Israel’s new ambassador to the U.S., Gilad Erdan, began his tenure in Washington, D.C., on Thursday with his appointment coinciding with the inauguration of President Biden.

He replaced Ambassador Ron Dermer, who held the position for seven-and-a-half years and who helped shape the Trump administration’s dramatic shift on U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East.

Erdan, who will hold dual roles of Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and United Nations, said he is committed to working with the Biden administration on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

“I am entering my position as Israel’s Ambassador to the world’s most important country and Israel’s most important ally,” Erdan said in a statement.

“Under my leadership, Israel will continue to work closely with the United States and cooperate with the new administration in its agenda to defeat the coronavirus and tackle climate change, a subject that is extremely close to my heart,” he added.

Erdan is the second ranking member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud political party, and his position in Washington is viewed as a direct extension of Netanyahu.

Erdan is expected to present his credentials to Biden, a traditional ceremony for an incoming diplomat but one that will undoubtedly be different in the era of COVID-19. The date for a meeting is not yet set, according to the Israeli embassy.

He will be a key voice as the Biden administration works toward engaging Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions in an effort to bring the U.S. back to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, aimed at preventing Tehran from achieving capabilities to build a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu opposes the U.S reentering the deal, arguing that the deal does not go far enough to constrain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions which are an existential threat to Israel, and celebrated former President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018.

For Biden, Israel’s opposition to the U.S. engaging with Iran will be bolstered by key ties in Washington with Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’s envoy in the U.S., and Bahrain’s ambassador to the U.S. Abdullah Bin Mohammad Bin Rashed Al Khalifa — relationships formally brokered by the Trump administration under the agreement known as the Abraham Accords.

Al Otaiba developed a close relationship with Dermer while he was the Israeli envoy in Washington.

And both the UAE and Bahrain have spoken out about their expectation of being included by the Biden administration on discussions of engaging Iran over constraining its nuclear program.

While Biden has long expressed strong support for Israel and said the U.S.’s commitment to its security is “ironclad,” his administration is expected to review many of the drastic policy shifts that occurred under the Trump administration, a move that is likely to draw opposition from Israel.

This includes the Biden administration’s commitment to reengaging with the Palestinians, who hope the president will resume funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the primary assistance program for Palestinian refugees that Trump cut off U.S. aid for in 2018.

Israel welcomed the move at the time and has long criticized the agency as contributing to perpetuating the status of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Israel-Arab war and including their decedents as benefactors of refugee status.

Another key move made by the Trump administration that Israel welcomed was former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to recognize Israeli settlements in the West Bank as part of Israel, a major reversal of U.S. policy.

Most of the global community considers the settlements illegal under international law. In addition, Pompeo OK-ed U.S. investment in the settlements — which was previously blocked — and allowed for exports from Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the U.S. be labeled as “Made in Israel”.

Other key issues include how the Biden administration approaches the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, an organized effort to pressure Israel through political, cultural and economic boycotts over its policies toward the Palestinians.

Pompeo issued a directive at the State Department labeling the movement as anti-Semitic and directed the agency to draft up a list of non-governmental organizations supportive of the movement that would be barred from receiving State Department funding.

There is bipartisan opposition to boycott, divestment and sanctions in Congress, but Democratic lawmakers are split over the implications of legislating against the movement over concerns of infringing on First Amendment rights.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, said during his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he and the president are “resolutely opposed” to the movement and that it “unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel, it promotes a double standard and a standard we do not apply to other countries.”

But Blinken also said that he respects the First Amendment rights of Americans “to say what they believe and think.”

Blinken also said during his confirmation hearing that the Biden administration will keep the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Trump moved the embassy there from Tel Aviv in 2018, which was celebrated by Israeli officials as legitimate recognition of Jerusalem as the country’s undivided capital.

Most of the international community that have relations with Israel maintain their diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv, recognizing that Jerusalem’s final status should only be determined through comprehensive negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, who hope to establish a capital of a future Palestinian state in the city. 

Tags Antony Blinken Benjamin Netanyahu biden administration Donald Trump Israel Israeli-Palestinian conflict Mike Pompeo
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