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Will the Coming Election Change US Middle East Policy?

Will the Coming Election Change US Middle East Policy?

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Note: This article was first published at In Military.

By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Military University

The U.S. presidential election is fast approaching. More than 50 million Americans already have voted and many more will cast ballots between now and Election Day, Tuesday, November 3. Nobody knows how long before we will have a clear outcome, but Americans will not be the only ones waiting with bated breath for the results.

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All over the world, people are looking and waiting to see how the elections will affect American foreign policy. When it comes to the Middle East this is true for both friend and foe. The traditional allies of the U.S and its adversaries are wondering who will sit in the White House for the next four years and what will that president bring with him to the troubled Middle East.

At this point we can think about two clusters, the first is the group of traditional allies of the U.S: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Israel and Egypt. To this group, we should add its proxy powers such as the government of Yemen and the Libyan government based in Tobruk.

On the other side, we have the adversaries of the U.S. They would be Iran, Turkey, Qatar (which has joined Iran and Turkey in light of its tensions with Saudi Arabia) and their proxy powers, Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Syria, Hamas and the Islamist Libyan government in Tripoli.

Iranian Leaders Thought the US Would Not Interfere in Its Aggressive Acts

Iran, for one, went through hard times with the Trump administration. When Tehran pushed boundaries by continuing to enrich uranium, seized ships going through the Persian Gulf, and attacked the Saudi oil fields, Iranian leaders thought the U.S would not interfere. They were proven wrong after the assassination of General Qasem Slimani.

Iran’s economy is suffering from renewed U.S. sanctions and COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on Iranian society. So the regime has much to gain if Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidency. In fact, Tehran is even making it known that Biden should quickly call after the election or there might not be anything to talk about concerning the nuclear deal.

As The Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Patrick Wintour, put it, “Even if Joe Biden triumphs at the polls, Iran’s weakened government may only have a few months to negotiate a revived nuclear deal before facing its own electoral challenge by hardliners who oppose any engagement with the west.”

The Iranians Are Signaling That They Will Pick Up the Phone if Biden Calls

The Iranians are very good when it comes to vitriol, but it is obvious they are signaling that they will pick up the phone if Biden calls. But what will they actually do if Trump wins? That is anybody’s guess. I am not sure if even they know.

Turkey has been antagonizing the U.S for a while now. Ankara’s latest move was its weapons trials with the S-400 and the Greek navy went on alert fearing a Turkish attack on a cluster of islands in the North Aegean Sea. Turkey might try to make a move claiming control of economic waters against Greece, a fellow NATO member, putting the alliance itself in danger. Biden might actually be less sympathetic to Turkey than Trump, who is not a big fan of NATO. But a further move by Turkey would be such a significant act that even Trump would be pressured by his generals and the State Department to act.

Dr. Sara Yael Hirshhorn Sees Nothing Changing until the Pandemic Is Under Control

I discussed this issue with Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn, Visiting Assistant Professor of Israel Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University, who writes extensively on the Middle East. She sees nothing changing until the coronavirus pandemic is under control: “My general answer is it is impossible to forecast any of this as there is no foreign policy until the domestic crisis of COVID-19 is over in the USA, Israel, and beyond,” she said. “And it is very hard to say what position these countries will be in then and their future needs and objectives.”

On the other hand, we have the traditional allies of the U.S. Some Gulf States signed peace agreements with Israel this month buying into the U.S. foreign policy envisaged by Trump and his aides. Most recently Sudan signed a peace agreement with Israel. Perhaps Saudi Arabia and others will follow. Will this change with a Biden victory? Not necessarily, but pressure against Egypt and Saudi Arabia from Iran and Turkey via its proxies in Yemen and Libya might lead them to be more cautious in aligning openly with Israel.

There Is No Clear Trajectory for Either Trump or Biden in Middle East Scenarios

Up until now, all the scenarios discussed could go either way. There is no clear trajectory for either Trump or Biden. The one case where things have a clearer demarcation line is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Trump is a fan of Netanyahu, Biden not so much.

If you believe John Bolton’s account, President Trump has no real policy in the Middle East and could change his mind 180 degrees. But assuming Trump will be consistent, he made it clear what he wants to offer to the Palestinians. The deal of the century included a Palestinian state without an army and an unequal territorial swap that would keep all Israeli settlements and continued Israeli control of the Old City. Will they work with that? Yagil Henkin, a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told me:

“I think their approach to negotiations has been pretty much constant, that is theoretical readiness to negotiate based on the assumption that the result of the last round of talks is the opening position of the current round, but no commitment to any binding agreement. The question is will they decide that time is not on their side?”

Asked whether the Palestinian position will be affected by who is the American President after the elections, Henkin said, “I think it matters only in the hope that a Democratic president will pressure Israel. But in the past [Mahmud Abbas] managed to avoid [former Israeli prime minister Ehud] Olmert’s offers, and I don’t think they’ll get a more generous deal here.”

Assuming Netanyahu will honor the agreement he made with his coalition partners and step down in October 2021, Benny Gantz will become the next Israeli prime minister. Can he make new offers to the Palestinians? Probably not beyond the offers they got from Olmert in 2008. And who knows if Gantz will be willing to return to those offers, which included making Jerusalem’s Old City an international city and the return of some 10,000 to 100,000 Palestinian refugees to Israel over a period of time.

So what do we derive from all of this? It looks like there is a real chance that a new president in the White House might not change a thing when it comes to the Middle East. The U.S positions in the region transcend the personality of this or that president and have remained consistent over the past few decades.

About the Author

Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B. in Law and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He has published a book and 17 articles to date in leading scholarly journals. At AMU, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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