Trump’s Middle East Friends Brace for Biden

Rising from the rocky terrain of the Golan, a sign welcomes visitors to the future site of “Trump Heights.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a new settlement there to thank an American president who broke with international convention to endorse Israeli sovereignty over Arab land. Yet one of the settlement’s main organizers is already warning that Donald Trump’s name could be replaced.

“It depends on his place in history,” says Uri Heitner, a campaigner for Israeli settlement of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. “It could become a cause for shame.”

From the early months of his administration, Trump seemed to offer Israel and regional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey the foreign policy shifts they desired, finding personal affinity with rulers criticized in Congress for human rights abuses. 

Now, some leaders are trying to capitalize on a uniquely friendly White House before a possible change in U.S. leadership: they’re pushing for advanced weapons and strategic advantages to try and salve the potential transition to Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden. Of most concern to Israel and Gulf Arab states is the possibility the U.S. will reenter the nuclear accord with Iran.

“A lot of piled up requests are coming in from friends and partners,” said Barbara Leaf, U.S. ambassador to the UAE until March 2018. “All of these Gulf governments know very well that if Biden wins and the Democrats take the Senate, they’re going to have a whole different set of calculations with a very changed political landscape.”

When Trump arrived in the White House in 2016, Islamic State still controlled swaths of Iraq and Syria, the Arab-Israeli peace process was frozen, and the Iran deal had put America’s Arab allies on the defensive. From Egypt to Saudi Arabia, trust was low after the Obama administration endorsed the 2011 uprisings against U.S.-allied dictators.  Four years on, the Middle East is a different place.  

Trump withdrew in 2018 from the Obama-negotiated Iran pact, reinstating sanctions in a maximum pressure campaign that irked European partners but pleased Iran’s Arab rivals.  Trump’s decision to assassinate a top Iranian commander hit its regional operations without eliciting the retaliation some critics warned of.  Islamic State was defeated, bolstering Trump’s commitment to withdraw troops from Syria and Iraq. 

Israel arguably got the best deal with Trump recognizing its sovereignty over the Golan. His administration moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, a step predecessors said should follow an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner unveiled a peace plan so favorable to Israel it was dismissed by many as unworkable, and, like the embassy move, sure to provoke uproar.

The backlash never came. Instead, the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel weeks before the U.S. vote, handing Trump a pre-election boost though he’d cut aid to Palestinians, closed their diplomatic mission and sidelined their bid for statehood, once the region’s touchstone issue. Iran emerged as the main fault-line in the new Middle East.

“I don’t think that Trump meant to influence the Middle East. He meant to control American involvement,” said Haim Tomer, a former official at Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.  The shifts were largely due to regional developments, but Trump took “advantage of the opportunity.”

Yet Trump’s allies have also been blindsided by sudden shifts, like the decision to quit Syria, and the inconsistencies of an Iran policy that saw him raise economic pressure, then flinch from action when Saudi oil facilities and Gulf shipping traffic were attacked. 

“You have, on the one hand, throwing sanctions on Iran, talking a big game, but then you find [the U.S.] hesitant — because it has contradictory policies. It wants to go after Iran but it’s not willing to go after Iran outside Iran,” said Prince Talal Al Faisal, a Saudi businessman and junior royal.  Trump’s approach in the Middle East was better than his predecessor’s, and worked “to a degree,” he said, “but they need a more comprehensive strategy going forward.”

The realization that the U.S. would not ride to the rescue prompted policy rethinks in the UAE, which withdrew from the disastrous Yemen war and unveiled ties with Israel, formalizing a relationship based partly on mutual mistrust of Iran. It hopes that deal will sweep away U.S. reservations over its request to buy Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 warplane.

“These dealings were already taking place, they just weren’t always in the open,” said David Mack, a former U.S. ambassador to the UAE who also worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.  “The difference now is that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain said: ‘Oh, we could get favors from the U.S. by doing this more openly.’”

And while Trump’s popularity in Israel is soaring, longer term, his policies may not have the intended consequences. Sidelining the Palestinian bid for statehood means Jews will be increasingly outnumbered in what they’d envisioned as a Jewish state, leaving territorial disputes unresolved and raising difficult questions about the rights of Palestinians living under occupation. 

Trump’s approach “doesn’t solve Israel’s existential problem,” said Mack. “It’s going to be much harder now to rebuild a peace process given how many things have been given away to the Israelis without getting anything in exchange.”

Even under Obama, the U.S. was seeking to extract itself from the region’s conflicts, leaving  a vacuum which other powers — particularly Turkey and Russia — rushed to fill in Syria, Libya Armenia and the eastern Mediterranean. There’ll be a change in tone if Biden wins the Nov. 3 election but, with so much economic and political upheaval to deal with at home, there’s scant indication he plans an about-face.   

For Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and Egypt, relations with a Biden White House would be stiffer; their leaders would face more of the traditional American scolding over human rights and a restoration of the diplomatic norms bypassed by Trump. 

Biden may seek to re-engage the Palestinians but he’s unlikely to reverse the embassy move, or to jeopardize nascent ties between Israel and Arab countries.

The most significant change is likely to come on Iran. Biden’s suggested he’d seek to revive the nuclear pact but also  to toughen it. Renewed negotiation would take time.

“Absent a big crisis, in his first year of office Biden’s eyes would rarely turn to the region,” Eurasia Group wrote in a report.  “Domestically, focus would be on coronavirus stimulus and healthcare, while the U.S.-China relationship and repairing relations with Europe would outstrip the Middle East in importance in foreign policy.”

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