Biden, The Middle East and the Chances at Ending the Conflict
By Shabtai Shavit, Head of the Mossad (1989-1996) | Personal Opinion | March 2, 2021
|Photos: Joe Biden - Gage Skidmore | CC BY SA 2.0|
My initial working assumption is that in Israel, there exists a wall-to-wall consensus, 72 years after declaring independence, that seeks an end to the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world, which in large part has yet to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
How does the Middle East look after four years with Donald Trump in office?
Iran remains the key engine of instability in the Middle East. Trump believed that he could halt Iran’s nuclear efforts through withdrawing the United States from the 2015 JCPOA agreement and by enacting against it a maximum sanctions effort. A hidden motivation behind President Trump’s policy was to harm President Obama’s legacy, who was instrumental in initiating and pushing for this agreement.
According to credible intelligence sources, the Iranian nuclear program today is estimated to have a breakout time of less than one year to achieve a nuclear weapon. Moreover, throughout Trump’s presidency, Iran developed the capability to equip a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.
Trump entered the White House saying he would “bring home the troops” and end the American involvement in “stupid” foreign conflicts. Trump prevented an American response to Iran’s provocations in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2019 (downing an especially expensive American UAV and Iran’s bombing of Saudi maritime infrastructure and assets).
The American balance of deterrence vis-à-vis Iran at the end of the Trump presidency was severely harmed, despite America’s successful targeted assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
In Syria, halfway through his term in office, Trump arbitrarily declared an allied victory over ISIS and ordered his commanders to pull out US forces from Syria, which brought about the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Additionally, Trump authorized Turkey’s Erdogan to conquer sizeable territory in northern Syria and northern Iraq. While this move worked to weaken Syria’s Assad to some extent, it was perceived as an act of betrayal against America’s most loyal ally in the region: the Kurds!
Trump’s policy allowed for Turkey, Russia, and Iran to deepen their military presence in Syria and for ISIS to continue its presence and operations on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
President Biden will need to deal with all of these challenges, and with one more: democracy and human rights. Trump declined to pay much attention to these issues and did not prioritize them in his decision-making process.
In other words, the meaning of his “America first” slogan broadcast a message whereby in any case in which the US must choose between economic or strategic interests and between democracy and human rights, it will prefer the former.
Since Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential elections, the first question asked by analysts and opinion leaders in the US and around the world is: What will be the new president’s agenda? There is no doubt that managing the coronavirus crisis and stabilizing the economy will be two key issues the new president must prioritize.
However, beyond these, the president, and his large team of advisors, should and are capable of taking on additional challenges. In my humble opinion, the president will prioritize reshaping American foreign policy, partially because of the chaos around the world that Trump has left for him.
On the global level, the president will need to redefine US relations with China, Russia, and the European Union.
On the regional level, it would seem the Middle East should receive top priority, due to the following reasons:
- Since the dawn of history, the Middle East has been and remains a volatile region that demands attention from the dominant power of that era.
- More than a few American presidents found themselves devoting time and energy to the Middle East, including those that did not plan on initially doing so.
- The Middle East is drifting toward a military nuclear era in the coming year, the control of which will be in the hands of a religiously fanatic (Shia) ruler who is considered infallible. Therefore, we cannot know if his decisions will be pragmatic or messianic in nature. When dealing with military nuclear weapons, one must base their decisions on the logic whereby “if there is any doubt, there is no doubt”!!!
- The inherent tension in Iran between the religious leadership and Revolutionary Guards, could turn the tables and make Iran’s clerics captive in the hands of the IRGC, who could turn out to be even more militant than the Ayatollahs.
- The Middle East is undergoing a process of nuclearization in which Pakistan is already a nuclear power with a shaky political regime and is proliferating technological knowhow. Turkey, which is undergoing a process of Islamist radicalization, is another candidate, and Egypt could soon join the race as well.
- In order to complete the nuclear circle in the Middle East, one cannot ignore the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, which escalates from time to time. Both have significant military nuclear capabilities. The demographics and economics in both countries may act as a catalyst to decision makers to utilize this capability.
The only credit that Trump can claim for himself is the “Abraham Accords”, attained not through a vision, strategy or orderly plan, but rather through intuition and negotiations: “I (Trump) will bring you (Netanyahu) improved relations with a number of Arab states, and you will, in exchange, take the notion of territorial annexation off the table”. This is a worthy achievement in its own right but is not part of any vision and was not leveraged in any way.
I assume that if Trump had included moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights- and hints toward a possible defense treaty between Israel and the US- in one basket, he could have received from Netanyahu renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations based on the 2002 Saudi offer in exchange. However, that ship has sailed.
And yet despite this reality, in the post-Trump Middle East, there is the potential for a positive development. Actualizing this potential requires long-term planning (on the order of close to a decade), imagination, patience, and optimism.
It is only natural that the intelligent reader will ask: If we are talking about such a long stretch of time to implement this idea, what is the urgency? And my answer is this: it is imperative to define the fundamental strategic idea already today. On this basis you can proceed with the plans, phases, and timetables necessary for implementation, which may take longer than planned. The fundamental idea is to create a new Middle Eastern axis with the United States as the leading power, and internalizing this idea should not be delayed, but begin immediately.
The countries that will partake in this axis will include Egypt, Jordan and Israel, who have peace agreements between themselves, the Arab Gulf states included in the Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The last chapter of this fundamental idea is to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a conclusion on the basis of a two-state solution.
First, a brief reflection relating to the American dilemma on how President Biden should engage with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The rationale behind this fundamental strategic idea is as follows:
- An American message to Iran whereby the United States will clarify it will not disengage from the Middle East or retreat from its positions regarding the nuclear program and related issues.
- A similar message to China and Russia, the significance of which is that the United States intends to continue being a key actor in the international system going forward.
- An American message to all other actors that the American, Israeli and Sunni axis is being established and will encompass the moderate Muslim world.
President Biden will need to consider and decide what price he is willing to “pay”, with regard to democracy and human rights, in order to piece together this strategic concept. It seems that the Moroccan model can provide an example or test for Biden.
Morocco, for all intents and purposes, is not yet a liberal western democracy, but it is definitely an enlightened monarchy with a liberal economy. Suggesting to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in his one-on-one meetings (which are recommended) the “Moroccan model”, in order to address his voters’ expectations from him, would have the best chances to succeed.
How does the Road Map to this destination of ending the conflict play out?
On the American side:
- President Biden must internalize and adopt the understanding that the United States cannot disengage from the world. The world today stands on the precipice of a new cold war (some might say that this cold war is already underway).
- President Biden, who recognizes the need to engage with the Iranian issue, understands that he cannot do disconnected from other global and regional challenges.
- President Biden is aware that confronting the Iranian threat is more likely to succeed the more he mobilizes a broad coalition in favor of normalizing relations within the confines of the “Abraham Accords”. In the cost-benefit test, in terms of inputs, priorities and time, it will be cheaper and more efficient as part of a coalition effort.
- The coalition formed in the Middle East, at the onset of the cold war in the 1950’s between the West and the USSR can provide an model for the proposed coalition between the United States, the Sunni Arab world that is normalizing relations and Israel, versus an Iran that is threatening all these.
- As to democracy and human rights, if President Biden adopts this idea, the administration will need to include these issues in its talking points with its allies, to convince them to sign on and commit to implement it according to a timetable acceptable to their citizens, without shaking up regional stability too much.
- Appointing a Middle East envoy to ensure the conflict has not been forgotten or neglected but will be handled at a high political level answering to the President.
On the Israeli-Palestinian side:
- Reviving decisions that were already made, such as the commitment to a two-state solution and having both sides refrain from harming the future potential of such a solution. This includes renewing the relations between the American administration and the Palestinian Authority (consulate in Jerusalem, PLO office in Washington, foreign aid, etc.).
- Israel will accept the 2002 Saudi peace plan, that was adopted by the Arab League as the basis for negotiations toward a two-state solution. Such an Israeli move would convince Saudi Arabia to upgrade its relations with Israel en-route to establishing full diplomatic ties.
- At the end of the second year, and assuming the Biden administration will manage the Covid-19 crisis and restore the American economy, it will be possible to push forward toward ending the conflict.
- Each of the sides - Israel and the Palestinians - will appoint their own teams, tasked with responding to the 2003 Arab League initiative. The two sides will present their responses to the United States. After consulting with the countries that have normalized ties, the US will work to bridge the gaps in the Israeli and Palestinian positions. This mechanism includes multiple phases and will partially take place in secret, in order not to sabotage it.
- Assuming these negotiations do not succeed in fully bridging the gaps between the positions, the next phase will include sticks and carrots on both sides, until a final draft is reached, and an agreement is signed. The United States on the one hand, and the normalizing countries on the other, and with an emphasis on Saudi Arabia, will accompany and envelop the process in such a manner that neither side of the conflict will be able to afford rejecting it.
If this vision succeeds, this will not only end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but will redesign the global architecture, with a more logical strategic balance, that will give birth to the idea of Detente B, at a much earlier stage compared to Detente A.
Authored by Shabtai Shavit, Head of the Mossad (1989-1996).
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