Throughout the US presidential campaign season, Joe Biden argued against President Donald Trump’s handling of almost every issue, from Covid-19 to the economy, from police brutality to climate change. The only time Biden, now the president-elect, praised a Trump administration policy was when he commended the normalization deals the US mediated between Israel and (so far) three Arab states – the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.
That this was the only Trump initiative that enjoyed bipartisan consensus inside Washington suggests that while Biden might reverse dozens of Trump’s policies, he will, as president, continue to encourage other Arab governments to normalize their relations with Israel.
While neither the Democratic nor Republican party will admit it, America’s foreign policy mostly reflects bipartisan support – except perhaps for the Iran nuclear deal under President Barack Obama. Even the ultimately contentious 2003 Iraq war saw bipartisan consensus when launched; the bickering afterwards, when things turned pear-shaped, was predicated on domestic politicking.
By and large, US foreign policy does not shift dramatically when the White House changes hands. Policies that promote America’s global interests often are nurtured by long-serving professional bureaucrats in various federal agencies, including those from the military, intelligence and diplomatic community.
Now the caveat.
That doesn’t mean, however, that prudence in diplomacy cannot be suspended – which it mostly was in the Trump years. And American interest is not immune from harm – even serious harm – resulting from an abeyance of proper, grown-up diplomatic work. Indeed, the strongest accusations that might be made against the Trump administration’s foreign policy is that it sought to shrink America back from the world, celebrating insularity and isolationism while shaming cosmopolitanism; that sometimes it was clearly more of a carnival-style sideshow – though very dangerous indeed – than anything the adults in the state department might have been involved in (think North Korea); and that sometimes – maybe too often – the “foreign” in its policy was no more than Trump’s re-election campaigning engaged abroad. Hence China (protectionism in support of business-minded voters); hence Israel (everything from Jewish-American votes to pandering to hard-right Christian evangelicals).
With respect to the latter, Trump, being the salesman that he is, put a grandiose spin on it. He relocated the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the American consulate building in West Jerusalem. He promised a “big new building” for the legation, but no more has been held about that since Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner inaugurated the consulate as the new embassy.
But he never uttered the words the Israelis really wanted to hear: that a “united Jerusalem” was the capital of Israel. He remained ambiguous. In so doing, his policy stayed in line with international consensus, including with the position of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is that the capital of a future Palestinian state will be East Jerusalem. Mostly, this was because his Israel policy was directed at his electoral base at home, not in the service of anything so high minded as American policy.
Yet Biden, carefully and selectively, will continue Trump’s policy on Israel. The soon-to-be US president will continue America’s support of Israel and of its Arab allies. And he will continue efforts to convince those same Arab allies to normalize their ties with Israel. He will do this because the bones of the policy are sound, when they are aligned with America’s interest in global leadership. Importantly, he will do so by contextualizing policy against the diplomatic norms of the United States, by welcoming back the nurturing work of the grown-ups in the foreign policy community.
In this case, Biden’s continuation of Trump’s policy on Israel and the Arab states will not undermine the position and aspirations of Palestinians. Instead, it is more than likely that Biden will uphold Obama’s position on the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process: America cannot possibly want peace more than the two parties themselves; America stands ready to sponsor negotiations and to support a peace deal when, and only when, both parties are willing to do so.
How active Biden will be in nudging the remaining Arab countries to recognize Israel remains to be seen. What we know so far is that this kind of diplomacy has no downside. Either Biden scores Trump-like diplomatic breakthroughs and basks in the spotlight of hosting Arab and Israeli leaders signing historic agreements at the White House, or nothing happens if he fails to convince Arab capitals of doing so.
The economic, cultural and other rewards of Arab-Israeli normalization are perhaps most evident – even at this early stage – in the UAE. Deals are being done, collaborations planned, contacts made. This might convince those Arab states still on the fence that they do the Palestinians no favors by holding out. Instead, more and more instances of normalization might eventually convince the Palestinians and Israelis to want the peace that is starting to emerge elsewhere.
As noted before, foreign policy doesn’t usually change from one administration to another. The last four years, however, have been unprecedented. In the case of Joe Biden taking over from Donald Trump, US policy on Israel it will not be so much a matter of changing it but rather of injecting it with a dose of badly needed maturity.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.