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JCRC Video: What’s Next? Israel and Middle East Policy After the U.S. Election

Shoshana Bryen

In a Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Relations Council discussion last week, on the critical issue of “What’s Next? Israel and U.S. Policy After the Election,” former Ambassador Dan Shapiro, a Democrat active with the Biden campaign, laid out a counterintuitively moderate set of likely policy goals and approaches to Israel and central issues in the region.  Shoshana Bryen, director of the Jewish Policy Center, and a long-time defense and foreign policy analyst, was quick to poke holes in his overarching presumption that a Biden agenda would be a return to a purely benign, helpful set of policies.

Shapiro began the colloquy by seeking to assure the audience that Joe Biden loves Israel now and has always loved Israel. “Very few political figures are as emotional about Israel as Joe Biden is,” he said. Biden “considers himself a Zionist.” He has been to Israel many times; has known all the Prime Ministers since his first term in the U.S. Senate; supports Israel with military hardware, joint training, and equipment like Iron Dome.

The Biden that Shapiro describes is someone who “views supporting Israel as natural and fundamental to U.S. values.” He views Israel as a valuable U.S. ally, and will take relations “to the next level.”

That would include more arms sales, joint training, expanding technological co-operation, in military fields, including drones, and tunnel discovery, as well as medical technology related to Covid 19, among other things.

Ambassador Shapiro placed this plan in the “steady, upward trajectory of co-operation,” embodied by “Bush, then Obama, then Trump, now Biden.” One might question whether Israel, or her supporters see that Obama/Biden era alliance as steady, upward, or even particularly co-operative…

Finally, Shapiro claimed that a President Biden will “reaffirm strong U.S. commitment to a two state solution,” which, he said, “is the only outcome that will secure Israel’s long term security. Shapiro buffered this assertion by noting that this “doesn’t mean a return to unsuccessful negotiations,” and it may not be a near term effort.

And, he averred, Biden will build on President Trump’s normalization agreements in the region.

“Where you think you’re going depends on where you think you’ve been,” was Mrs. Bryen’s opening response. A major reason for current regional ‘normalization,’ in the form of the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords, in which Bahrain and the UAE both agreed to open diplomatic, cultural, economic, etc. relations with Israel,  she explained, is that the Gulf states saw the previous Obama Administration’s emphasis on building up Iran as a regional power, as a serious threat to their own security.

The new thing in the Abraham Accords, Bryen emphasized, is that the UAE and Bahrain have made a deal with Israel that is not contingent on Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians about their end political status. This, she noted, represents an evolution in the Sunni Arab world’s political calculus. In the past, many Arab national leaders have been willing to forego their normal national interest to support the political aims of the (corrupt, uncooperative) Palestinians. Now, they have moved to act on their real national interests, including getting the benefits of potential military alliance against Iran, and economic benefits of economic development, trade and tourism with Israel.

Furthermore, these leaders have done the work of educating their people about potential benefits of these arrangements, instead of leaving the issue to the emotional, easily riled, “Arab Street.” That is, there is a still a “street,” which is the local term for public opinion. “But it doesn’t care about getting rid of Israel. It cares about economic growth, and peace.”

Bryen reminded the audience that, despite Joe Biden’s love for Israel, the “Obama Administration blundered into the Arab Spring, in 2012, supporting forces it didn’t understand. 600,000 Syrians ended up dead, and half that nation’s population remains in exile, because Barack Obama wanted to appease Iran.”

“So, now they are choosing an alliance with Israel,” she said, “for their own ends.”  Trump’s breakthrough will become the context for whatever comes next with regard to a Palestinian state.

But, she warned, the Biden administration will have to avoid being sucked into the new European “Quint,” group of five, whose goal is to push a Palestinian state, at Israel’s expense.

Shapiro surprisingly agreed that Arab supporters are tired of Palestinian behavior.

Other topics discussed included the plan for the U.S. to sell the UAE F-35 planes, and how that might affect Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge;’ the degree to which Iran could ever have been trusted to abide by any promise not to build nuclear weapons; and, in response to an audience question, how likely it is that President Trump will order a nuclear strike on Iran in the waning days of his administration.  (Not likely, was the consensus.) For this and more, please watch the video above.