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Biden’s first 100 days in office: What do they mean for Israel?

CM 29/04/2021

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 Sleepy who?

Throughout the last US presidential election cycle, Donald Trump denigrated his challenger, Joe Biden, by calling him “Sleepy Joe.” Trump’s aim was clear: to present Biden as old, uninspired and lacking any energy, fire or verve.
Boy has Biden’s first 100 days in office, a historically defining period in almost every US president’s term, proven that wrong. The new US president’s first 100 days were jam-packed with COVID-19 relief, legislative initiatives and programs indicative of a president not sleepy, but rather insomnious.
Biden was viewed largely during the campaign, and even after the election before he was sworn into office, as a largely transitional figure. It was widely thought that his presidency would be equivalent to that period in the day after the dark of night recedes but before the sun rises: A “transitional” administration.
The 78-year-old Biden used his first three months in office, however, to show that he aims not to be a transitional president, but rather a transformational one.
The multi-trillion-dollar initiative he rolled out in a speech before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night – for job-creation, infrastructure construction, climate change adjustment and educational reform – rival anything the US has seen since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
Those who viewed Biden as a caretaker president until a new generation of Democrats could take over have been proven dead wrong.

Interestingly, however, one area where Biden has not gone into the hyperactive mode is when it comes to Israel. During his first 100 days there have been dramatic domestic initiatives, and even some significant foreign policy actions and statements that have signaled a significant change of policy: such as calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer,” sanctioning Chinese officials over Beijing’s Hong Kong policy and recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
However, when it comes to Israel, Biden’s first 100 days have been fairly predictable. The Biden administration is renegotiating with Iran in the hopes of reentering the nuclear deal, as Biden said he would do. It has restarted payments to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, as was widely expected. It has not publicly highlighted disagreements with Israel, as was hoped.
As Eran Lerman, a former deputy head of the National Security Council and now vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said, Biden’s first 100 days “have certainly not been the nightmare of a progressive assault on Israel’s positions and interests” that some had feared.
Lerman pointed out that voices heard two weeks ago at virtual J Street conference calling for increased pressure on Israel and restricting military aid are not the voices being echoed by the Biden administration: not by the president himself, nor by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin or US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan released a statement after his meeting in Washington this week with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, saying that the US “remains unyielding in its commitment to Israel’s security and will work to strengthen all aspects of the US-Israel partnership.” Full stop, with none of the “ifs” and “buts” that the party’s progressive wing – the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warrens, Ilhan Omars and Rashida Tlaibs – would have liked to be inserted.
Nevertheless, Lerman said, Biden’s first 100 days also drew the curtain on some “serious open questions, some quite serious issues that need to be resolved.”
Eytan Gilboa, a professor of communications and international relations at Bar-Ilan University and an authority on US-Israel relations, picked up on some of these issues, saying that the biggest problem for Israel during Biden’s first 100 days is the keen US interest in reentering the Iranian nuclear deal.
Gilboa, who teaches international negotiations, says he tells his students that if in negotiations “you show too much enthusiasm, then you strengthen the other side. It’s like if you go to buy a car, and you are very enthusiastic to buy the car, the other side will say, ‘Ok, pay more.’”
Gilboa said that this happened to the US in the previous Iran negotiations from 2013 to 2015, and is happening today as well. The Biden administration, he said, has not learned from mistakes it made in the previous round of negotiations, probably because the same actors who were responsible for the last agreement are busy trying to resuscitate the new one, and are hell-bent on proving that they were right all along and that Trump was wrong for walking out of the deal.
EVEN THOUGH Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Ben-Shabbat were in Washington this week for talks with their counterparts, Gilboa said he is not sure how much information about the negotiations the Americans are really sharing with Israel.
“The Biden administration wants to create the perception of consulting with Israel, of sharing information with Israel. They need to this because of domestic concerns,” he said. “They need to cultivate as much political and public support for the deal as possible, and don’t want to see Israel – like last time – again coming to the US and conducting a campaign against it.”
Gilboa said that while the Americans may not have learned the lessons of the 2013 to 2015 negotiations, it is incumbent upon Israel to do so. And one lesson Jerusalem needs to internalize is that it is not enough to say what you are against, you must also make clear what you are for.
“Israel should be saying that it is not against the agreement, that it is in favor of an agreement, and then say what needs to be in it,” Gilboa said.
Instead of saying why the previous deal was a disaster and why the next one is likely to be the same, Israel should be presenting alternatives and saying what needs to be in a future agreement: that there should be more inspection of nuclear sites, that it needs to include Iran’s ballistic missiles, that the question of what to do with the uranium already accumulated inside Iran be addressed.
Gilboa pointed out that former US president Barack Obama, in selling the deal, was wont to say that Israel was the only country in the world opposed. This, he said, was false, since the entire Sunni Arab world, with the exception of Syria, was also opposed. Israel needs to make sure this time that the world understands that Israel is not the only country in opposition, and that if the Sunni states themselves won’t come out and publicly say this, Israel needs to do what it takes to get them to do so.
SIMA SHINE, an expert on Iran issues who worked previously at the Mossad and the National Security Council and who currently heads the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies, said at a symposium held by her think tank this week on Biden’s first 100 days that it is clear if Iran and the US return to the nuclear deal, “that changes the balance of power in the region.”
Under the Trump administration, she said, there was a sense that there was an anti-Iranian front, “which the US was leading.” With the US intent now on moving back into the agreement, she added that this sense is dissolving, as evident by reports that the Saudis and Iranians recently held talks in Iraq.
The lesson for Israel here, according to Shine, is that its relations with the Gulf States need to rest on more than solely common cause against the Iranian nuclear threat.
Another speaker at the conference, INSS managing director Udi Dekel, who served for years in senior intelligence and planning positions in the IDF, said that one change that has come about during Biden’s first 100 days is that the road to Washington is no longer seen – as it was by many during the Trump presidency – as running through Jerusalem.
The UAE, Sudan and Morocco, for instance, all received long-sought after benefits from the US after signing agreements with Israel – the agreements with Israel were a way to get those benefits. While Dekel said that the Biden administration has paid lip service to the Abraham Accords, nothing has been done in its first 100 days to expand them, and no new countries are jumping on board in the expectation that this will vastly improve their relations with the US.
Israel needs to understand that in the Biden administration America’s foreign policy focus has shifted from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, he said. It is no coincidence that the first world leader invited to Washington was Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, as a way of sending a message to China. If that message wasn’t clear enough, at a joint press conference the two men committed themselves to working together to deal with challenges from China.
Likewise, Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 is a further indication of how the Middle East is starting to fade from Biden’s view. One of Israel’s goals, Dekel said, must be to convince the Biden administration not to completely withdraw all its troops from the region, including in eastern Syria – an important buffer zone preventing Iran from gaining a land bridge all the way to the Mediterranean.
The first 100 days have shown an administration, Dekel said, that doesn’t want to be involved in the Palestinian issue. “It is their 77th priority,” he said, adding that Israel should be careful not to take any unilateral steps that could draw the Biden administration into an issue it prefers avoiding at this point.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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