The US elections: views from the Middle East

November 15, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Israel’s leading television journalist and public affairs commentator Ehud Yaari addressed the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council’s (AIJAC’s) webinar, discussing “The US elections: views from the Middle East”.

Ehud Yaari. Photo: Screenshot

Yaari stated that US President-elect Joe Biden and those likely to form his administration are all good friends Israel knows well, but assuming Biden has other priorities, the question will be who he chooses to exercise Middle East policy. That may be partly determined by which party controls the US Senate.

There are two basic camps among the 2,000 people in his foreign policy campaign staff – those who favour returning to the Obama track and restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and those who would build on the momentum of Israel’s normalisation agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. Yaari expects the latter to prevail.

On Iran, Yaari said, Biden stated on the record that if Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA nuclear agreement, the US will re-enter the deal. Iran now has 12 times the enriched uranium permitted by the deal, has introduced new centrifuges, and is talking about restarting its heavy water plant and moving centrifuges underground.

Therefore, the US return to the agreement won’t be easy, with signs from Iran it will negotiate and bargain over every point, as it is not keen to fully comply.

He explained Iran’s next presidential election is very important, because a win by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) candidate will complete the IRGC takeover of the state. Meanwhile, President Trump is piling on more sanctions in a way he hopes Biden won’t be able to reverse.

Since the US election, Yaari noted, the Palestinian position has dramatically changed. The normalisation deals will make Israel more cautious in its treatment of the Palestinians, but now the Palestinian Authority (PA) will rethink its strategy, because it didn’t work – the Arab states are coming to Israel.

He continued, “So there is an important change in the Palestinian position. Mr Abbas has notified the Biden campaign…that he’s now willing to resume negotiations with Israel under American auspices, no Quartet, no UN…on the basis of the point to which the negotiations under John Kerry, during Obama’s period, reached. Reminder, Abbas has rejected the Kerry outline, and…he told President Obama when he was invited to the White House, ‘I’ll get back to you on this,’ and never did. Now he has informed the Americans, not publicly, that he is willing to go there again, probably in order to say ‘no’ after 100 rounds of further negotiations.”

In parallel to that, Yaari revealed, Abbas wrote to Israeli PM Netanyahu asking whether Israel abides by all agreements with the PLO and the PA. Abbas wants either for Netanyahu to say yes, or to be able to demonstrate Israel is shying away from its commitments.

Abbas, Yaari continued, “has also notified Bibi that he’s now graciously willing to accept the three billion shekels that are still in the safes of the Israel Treasury Ministry, that …belongs to the Palestinians. They so far refused to take this money because they…declared a policy of boycotting Israel and stopping all contacts and coordination.” He added that if the PA doesn’t take the money, it will be unable to pay salaries in a month or two.

In the background, the PA is also quietly trying to mend fences with the UAE and Bahrain, and will say nothing against Sudan for normalising relations with Israel.

Biden’s people, Yaari says, may therefore have opportunities to move forward with the PA, not on final status issues, but trying to fix the Palestinian economy, initially using $3 billion in the Abraham fund to invest in infrastructure, and working with Qatar on Gaza.

If Biden and his people decide to build on the normalisation momentum, there are several candidates – Morocco, which wants a symbolic US consulate in the Western Sahara region, which Trump may do before his term ends; Djibouti, which is waiting for a nod from the head of Saudi General Intelligence; Oman; and Qatar, which despite its Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey links has indicated it would rather do so before Saudi Arabia.

Regarding Turkey, Biden has advocated for Kurdish autonomy, and would not be as willing as Trump to condone Turkish misbehaviour.

 

Asked whether the US will continue to allow Israel to act against Iranian efforts to threaten Israel from its north, Yaari replied that this is his number one issue, because while the frequent Israeli attacks on Iranian activities in Syria have caused losses, they have not stopped the Iranians.  He continued, “We have workshops producing…precision heavy missiles in Lebanon by now. We have the Iranians penetrating most units of the Syrian army sort of slowly being reconstructed by Russian advisers…and I’ll share with you the estimate of at least part of our [Israeli] security establishment. They feel that if we stay on the present course, in two to three years, the Iranians, and Hezbollah, will be in de-facto control of southern Syria bordering with Israel and Jordan.”

One of the main issues Israel must discuss with Biden, Yaari said, is how he will tie negotiations on the JCPOA with Iranian activity in Syria and Lebanon.

Yaari explained that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are extremely concerned that they will no longer have personal relationships with the White House, and there will be a greater US focus on human rights, but the relationship will stay in place overall. The Saudis may actually normalise with Israel to endear themselves to a Biden administration.

Biden welcomed the Abraham Accords in no uncertain terms and has an interest in other Arab states also normalising as, amongst other things, it will help with the Palestinians. Yaari added, “I think we have to take very seriously what, for example, the Emiratis are saying – at the end, what we do will help the Palestinians, at least will help them come to their senses, in terms of yes or no, compromise with Israel.”

He believes Biden’s team won’t go easy on Iran, but the test will be whether they leave US troops in Iraq.

While Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah claims the current negotiations between Israel and Lebanon on a maritime border are purely technical, Yaari disagreed. If an agreement is reached, it will be important politically. With both countries having large resource companies drilling near the border, it will be in their interests to maintain peace at sea, although Lebanon, Yaari said, is an empty shell, not a state.

Asked how Israel should react to the election result, Yaari responded that “Bibi’s course would be one, on the Iranian nuclear issue, to try and reach understandings with the Biden team, what would be requested of the Iranians, both in terms of compliance and in terms of their regional activity. This, in my opinion…it’s a must. We need to get to some understanding with the Americans and involve the Gulf and Egypt and others in that too.” Examples include the sunset clause on the nuclear weapons ban, and the arms embargo.

“The second is for Bibi to try and reach an understanding with the Biden team, the immediate next moves on the Palestinian front is that big huge economic package…” and third is to help other Arab countries reach the decision they should normalise with Israel.

AIJAC

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