Biden’s foreign-policy appointments and what they might mean for Israel

November 24, 2020 by Israel Kasnett -
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Former U.S. Vice President and President-elect Joe Biden has announced his choices for some of the key positions in his administration when he takes over in January.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Credit: Joe Biden/Facebook

Biden’s likely victory has created a wave of murmurs in Israel’s halls of government that he would follow what was seen as Obama’s hostile stance with regard to Israel, and his efforts to create daylight between the U.S. and the Jewish state. The question, therefore, is whether or not these key appointees will work to assuage Israeli fears.

According to Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, U.S. Secretary of State appointee Tony Blinken “is not a newcomer to the Middle East.”

“This is good news,” said Inbar.

He noted Blinken’s record with regard to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saying he is “on record” demanding an extension of the sunset clause that determined when international restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would end—an issue Israel was strongly concerned with as well.

Inbar pointed out that Blinken is the adopted son of Holocaust survivors, and perhaps as a result, is also “sensitive to Israel’s concerns.”

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American politics and foreign policy, as well as a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, expressed more concern. He told JNS that while Blinken is an expert on national security, “there are two problems for Israel.”

The first, he said, is that Blinken was involved in the JCPOA negotiations. The second is that he worked as deputy secretary of state together with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the failed 2014 effort to bring the Palestinians and Israel together at the negotiating table.

Both of those issues are viewed by Israel’s right-wing establishment as having been wrongly handled by the Obama administration and not keen to see a Biden administration revisit them with the same foreign-policy approach.

“The question is whether the lessons of Kerry’s failed efforts will have carried over,” said Gilboa.

He noted that Biden is building a team of people in whom he trusts, can rely on and can work together as a team.

At 43, National Security Advisor appointee Jake Sullivan would become the youngest-ever to fill the key position.

Sullivan is considered an expert in national security; he succeeded Blinken as Biden’s national security adviser. He was also former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff during Obama’s second administration.

According to Gilboa, Blinken and Sullivan “both have the same ideas and experience.”

Sullivan was involved in the secret talks with Iran, “so this is something to be concerned about,” noted Gilboa.

Michele Flournoy, Biden’s likely appointee for Secretary of Defense, served as under-Secretary of Defense during the Obama years. In the last four years, she worked closely with Blinken.

Thus, Blinken, Sullivan and Flournoy have all worked together in the past on the same issues, a key advantage from Biden’s point of view.

Gilboa said Israel should be concerned with these appointments “since all three were heavily involved in the Iran issue and the failed Palestinian negotiations.”

‘There is a lot of concern in the Middle East’

With regard to Biden’s choice for Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Gilboa noted that since she is a former ambassador to Liberia and assistant secretary of state for Africa, “she is mainly interested in Africa, international organizations and multilateral diplomacy.”

“This should also be an issue of concern for Israel,” he added, “because Obama approached multilateral diplomacy and the U.N. organizations as legitimate organizations. He demonstrated this when he returned the United States to the UN Human Rights Council, which is a joke.”

“While [former President] George W. Bush recognized it as being highly politicized, corrupt, ineffective, anti-American by nature, directed by the worst human-rights violators in the world, Obama returned the U.S. to this organization,” said Gilboa.

Gilboa also noted that Blinken is in favour of alliances with like-minded states such as those in Europe.

“Biden has expressed interest in reviving close relations with the European Union, which is bad news for Israel,” said Gilboa. “We know the E.U. We know these countries. They are in favour of concessions to Iran, and they still believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the major source of all problems in the Middle East.”

Turning to the Gulf states, some of which have warned Biden against returning to the nuclear deal, Gilboa said that “there is a lot of concern in the Middle East, especially among the Arab Sunni states about the Biden administration. Many think it will be some modified version of the Obama administration. We will have to see.”

He pointed out that Israel is now concerned with who Biden will appoint as ambassador to Israel and whether Biden will appoint a special representative for the Palestinians, which would indicate his willingness to go beyond just gestures.

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