After a nail-biting vote count, former Vice President Joe Biden has been declared the next president of the United States. Unlike Donald Trump, who entered the presidency with a sparse record on the Middle East (except for his claim that he opposed the Iraq war), Biden is a foreign policy expert who has worked on Middle East issues for many decades. The question arises as to what we can discern from his record, plus his campaign stances, to project what his likely Middle East policies will be.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden has had a long pro-Israel record, but this does not mean that he will ignore the aspirations of the Palestinian people. Biden supports a two-state solution, and during his campaign said he would re-open the Palestinian office in Washington and restore U.S. economic and security aid to the Palestinians, which were both ended by Trump.
Although Biden has said he would not reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and has even given Trump credit for pressing some Gulf Arab states to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, he is also on record stating that a U.S. priority for the cause of peace would be to resume “dialogue with the Palestinians and pressing Israel not to take actions that make a two-state solution impossible.”
The current Israeli government will likely pose a problem for Biden if he attempts to make a major push on the peace process.
But the current Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, will likely pose a problem for Biden if he attempts to make a major push on the peace process. This, of course, would be nothing new to him since the Obama administration, of which Biden was an integral part, strongly opposed Netanyahu’s settlement policies in the West Bank, and clashed with the Israeli Prime Minister over this issue.
The key question is whether Biden will want to expend political capital in pressing the Israeli government to make concessions knowing it will be an uphill struggle. Although he has opposed efforts of the left-wing of the Democratic Party to condition U.S. aid to Israel on human rights issues, Biden, who has known Netanyahu for many years, may opt instead to issue a set of principles on what would constitute a viable two-state solution and re-engage the Palestinians. This could be done with the hope that a more centrist Israeli government would emerge during his presidency, one that would be more inclined to achieve a genuine peace deal.
On Iran, Biden has said he will rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, as long as Iran pursues compliance, but he may not do so immediately. He may try to extract some concessions from Iran before he rejoins the deal, such as a restriction on Iran’s missile development. Biden probably believes he can get some support from European allies on this issue. Maintaining a tough stand on Iran would also win support in the U.S. Congress because Republicans and even some Democrats were opposed to the nuclear deal from the very beginning and would welcome any strengthening of it if he rejoins it.
Biden may tie the U.S. rejoining of the Iran nuclear deal with a settlement of the Yemen conflict.
Biden may also tie the U.S. rejoining of the Iran nuclear deal with a settlement of the Yemen conflict that would include Iran ending its military support for the Houthi rebels. He, like most Democrats, have been critical of U.S. support for the Saudi-Emirati-led war in Yemen.
It is possible that Biden may devote more attention to Yemen than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the former probably has a better chance of reaching a settlement than the latter. The Saudis, who have spent billions on this war and have been criticized in many international circles for their military involvement there because of the high number of civilian casualties, may be seeking a way out. If Biden, as part of a package deal, can induce the Iranians to end their military involvement, that may be a face-saving way for the Saudis to exit the battlefield.
However, there is likely to be a good deal of apprehension by the Saudis towards Biden because he has been highly critical of U.S. support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen as well as the country’s problematic human rights record, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Hence, Biden is unlikely to follow the Trump strategy of embracing the Saudi leadership, but the idea that there will be a sharp drop in U.S.-Saudi relations is probably overblown. The bilateral relationship has weathered many storms since the 1940s, and for strategic and commercial relations, Biden is not going to scuttle them.
Nonetheless, the days of the U.S. turning a blind eye to Saudi policies regionally and domestically are likely coming to an end, and we can expect some outward criticism of Riyadh from the White House.
The days of the U.S. turning a blind eye to Saudi policies regionally and domestically are likely coming to an end.
Similarly, Biden is expected to be critical of the Egyptian government over human rights issues, and the close U.S. embrace of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that was characteristic of the Trump presidency is likely to end. Although U.S. strategic and commercial relations with Egypt will probably continue with some bumps in the road.
Interestingly, Biden is largely in agreement with Trump in believing the U.S. should not be engaged in endless wars in the Middle East and should bring U.S. troops home, but he has emphasized that the U.S. should keep some Special Forces in the region to respond to terrorist threats and other contingencies. Biden is also likely to continue support of the new Iraqi government, hoping that it will be strong enough and inclusive enough to prevent another ISIS-like group from threatening the state once again.
On most issues, therefore, Biden is expected to part with Trump’s policies in the region, but at least initially, there will not be a dramatic break as he assembles his team and determines his priorities.