US presidential elections and the Middle East

September 3, 2020 by J-Wire News Service
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As both major US political parties officially anointed their presidential candidates, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council’s latest webinar was about “US presidential elections and the Middle East”, delivered by Clifford May.

Clifford May

May founded the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), a Washington DC policy institute focusing on national security, after a long and distinguished career in international relations, journalism and politics.

May, the FDD President, warns that when it comes to assessing the likely foreign policies of the candidates, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Donald Trump, he says, had no foreign policy record prior to taking office, but has been a pleasant surprise. On the other hand, Biden’s voting record and support for Barack Obama’s policies is known. Robert Gates, who served both George W. Bush and Obama as Secretary of Defence, said that Biden has been wrong on everything on foreign policy for 40 years.

However, May says, personnel is policy, so it depends who the president will have advising him. Biden’s National Security Cabinet would come from Clinton, Obama and maybe Bernie Sanders people. Republican Senator Ted Cruz has warned that the “Israel-hating far left” will drive Biden’s foreign and defence policy, but May says Biden, if elected, might stand up to the far left, because he won’t need them once elected.

Trump’s record on Israel includes recognising Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, a peace plan that “prioritises Israeli security and does not provide Palestinian leaders with more concessions than past peace plans that were turned down by Palestinian leaders”, and a push, now bearing fruit, for normalisation between Israel and Arab states without requiring an agreement with the Palestinians.

May quotes from the Trump Administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy: “For generations, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region. Today, the threats from jihadist terrorist organisations, and the threat from Iran, are creating the realisation that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems. States have increasingly found a common interest with Israel, confronting common threats.”

He also references approvingly Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, and the subsequent maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic state. Biden says he would re-enter the deal and lift some of the sanctions, and re-establish diplomatic relations with the Palestinians and listen more to their needs.

The Democratic platform, which is not binding on the president, seeks to bring “forever wars to a responsible end”, and end support for the “Saudi-led” war in Yemen, without mentioning Iran’s role in that war. It rejects seeking regime change in Iran. Biden reportedly ordered that it not include any reference to Israel being an occupier.

Trump, says May, would increase economic pressure on Iran, which may bring it to the table but not necessarily achieve behavioural change. He would be muscular against jihadi terrorist groups and has eliminated many terror threats, whereas Biden reportedly advised against continuing the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

May is disappointed with the failure of the three European parties to the JCPOA, the UK, France and Germany, to support US efforts to extend the arms embargo against Iran, saying the end of the embargo will allow Iran to give more weapons to its proxies, so supporting the US should have been easy. The US then initiated the snapback provisions under the UN Security Council resolution that implemented the JCPOA. May says it’s quite clear that the resolution, which is what allows the snapback, is separate from the actual JCPOA, meaning the US need not still be a party to the JCPOA to implement the resolution’s snapback provisions, as others have argued.

He notes that, despite this, the US snapback may not be recognised by the other parties, but will still lead to more pressure on Iran, because businesses will not want to be subjected to US sanctions.

If a Biden administration relieves the sanctions, that would be a flawed policy, because Iran has reacted better when under pressure. However, some of the sanctions would be hard for him to lift, because that would need the support of Congress, and it’s hard to see Congress agreeing to lift sanctions on Iran for human rights violations or its malign behaviour in the Middle East.

May says it’s unclear how influential Kamala Harris will be. It depends on what roles the president assigns her. Her foreign policy views are largely unknown, but she does favour a smaller military which, says May, is dangerous.

On the UAE normalisation deal, he points out that the UAE is the first Arab state to make peace with Israel that hadn’t first gone to war and was trying to get something back. More and more Arab states are realising Israel isn’t a serious enemy, just a convenient one, whereas Iran is now an existential threat. There are, therefore, increasingly good military and intelligence relations with Israel.

Arab states realise Israel is the only country in the region that can stand up to Iran, and they are irritated with the Palestinians, because they dislike Hamas as it is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and are frustrated Abbas won’t try to make peace.  Several other countries such as Sudan, Bahrain and Oman will eventually normalise too. The Israelis and Emiratis will now work together in many areas.

The Saudis couldn’t go first for religious reasons, but, May says, they must have consented to the arrangement, and have praised it.

He says Joe Biden may not have necessarily approved of UN Security Council resolution 2334, passed in the final days of the Obama Administration, which declared illegal any Israeli presence in any areas captured in the Six-Day War, even the Western Wall, and which May described as a “blow to the solar plexus of Israel.” However, there is no way to repeal it, and the best way to negate it was to move the US Embassy, as Trump did. May doubts Biden would move the embassy out of Jerusalem.

He feels Biden would make it very difficult for Israel to go to war with Iran unless Iran attacked first, but may not stop Israel doing whatever it may have been doing to degrade Iran’s offensive capacity.

He says despite a UN Security Council resolution demanding it be disarmed, Hezbollah has 150,000 missiles, including hundreds of precision-guided smart missiles, and is concerned they could challenge  Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system. He says Israel can’t leave these in place and may therefore act before any presidential transition in January 2021.

Lebanon, May notes, is in terrible shape. The economy is US$93 billion in debt. By contrast, when Argentina, with its population of 45 million, needed to be bailed out, it was US$57 billion in debt. Furthermore, the entire banking system, including the central bank, is corrupt, so it’s not even clear how to inject money into the economy. He is concerned Hezbollah may see the only way out of this predicament as a war with Israel to prompt international intervention.

Helping Lebanon, he says, needs to start with disarming Hezbollah. The Europeans must demand that Hezbollah disarm and step down from its position of power before they start helping, but they have an appeasement mentality and won’t stand up to Iran.

The Trump Administration isn’t actively seeking regime change in Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made demands including that it stop supporting terror and stop building nuclear weapons, which people on the left strangely say are unattainable. The Administration’s maximum pressure campaign is intended to convince Iran to negotiate and verify it is not building nuclear weapons and missiles to carry them. Iran maintains that is the case, but we all know it’s a lie.

Ayatollah Khamenei is old and will be replaced by a new Supreme Leader, but May doesn’t expect the replacement to be any more moderate.

He doubts the UAE normalisation would have happened if not for the threat of Israel extending sovereignty because the UAE felt that the move would have made it harder to maintain the relationship it had with Israel and for there to eventually be a Palestinian state. He says, therefore, Trump, by permitting Israel to extend sovereignty, paved the way for normalisation to happen now.

He says the China-Iran deal is not a friendly gesture but does not know how much it will help Iran, describing it as “a life vest rather than a life raft.”  He adds it won’t bring European companies into Iran as long as the US maintains sanctions.

On the treatment of US allies, Trump has expected allies to be good allies, which Australia has been, but others such as Germany and France haven’t been to the same extent. May expects that Biden will be less demanding. However, he may not be able to provide as much support as the US has done in the past if the US military becomes weaker. The US may not be as willing or able to stand up to China, for example.



One Response to “US presidential elections and the Middle East”
  1. Eion Isaac says:

    Trump needs to do much more in health care to make it easier for all and gun control to screen out psychos .

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