The Israeli Election and U.S.-Israel Ties

**Two important elections that took place over the course of the summer: Israel’s election took place on March 23 and Iran’s election on June 18. Both elections led to changes in leadership. This series will explore how these elections and changes in leadership will affect U.S. relations with its closest ally in the Middle East, Israel, and one of its primary adversaries, Iran.

On June 13, after 12 years as Israel’s conservative prime minister, the Israeli parliament voted Benjamin Netanyahu out of power by a very thin margin, 60-59. A coalition government of left-wing, right-wing, centrist, and Arab parties led by Naftali Bennett, a conservative from the Yamina party, and Yair Lapid, a centrist from Yesh Atid party, replaced Mr. Netanyahu in a power-sharing agreement in which Mr. Bennett serves as the prime minister and Mr. Lapid assumes that office in 2023. Many analysts have wondered if the Israeli government led by Mr. Bennett would fare better with U.S. President Joe. Biden, a Democrat, than with Mr. Netanyahu in charge.

Upon election, Mr. Biden reached out to congratulate both leaders, noting that he looked forward to strengthening the partnership between the two countries. Moreover, Mr. Bennett’s first foreign trip as prime minister took him to Washington, D.C. to meet with Mr. Biden, a visit which Mr. Bennett employed as a chance to reset relations. Both sides are eager to improve the partnership and, as a result, the change in Israeli leadership will allow the United States and Israel to keep tensions in the relationship in check.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal

One issue which could cause tension between the United States and Israel is the Iran nuclear deal, which was brokered by former U.S. President Barack Obama, along with the P5+1, in 2015. Mr. Bennett, in alignment with Mr. Netanyahu, publicly reiterated his opposition to the nuclear deal in his first address to the Israeli parliament: “Renewal of the nuclear agreement with Iran is a mistake, an error that would again grant legitimization to one of the darkest ad violent regimes in the world.” Mr. Biden, who was Vice President during the Obama administration, played a prominent role in spearheading the deal through Congress in 2015 and, since taking office, has made it clear that reviving the nuclear deal was one of his top foreign policy objectives.

While Prime Minister Bennett and President Biden have opposing views on this issue, the Iran nuclear deal will not serve as a catalyst for tension between the United States and Israel as both sides share the same overarching goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. While Israel and the United States may disagree on the how, they do agree on the what. And for this reason, even though both sides see the issue differently, the Iran nuclear deal will not strain the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The Palestine Question

Another potentially tension-causing issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the one hand, Prime Minister Bennett’s views differ very little from those held by his predecessor. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Mr. Bennett noted he would not “allow the occupied territory to become a sovereign Palestinian state” while also announcing that he would not attempt to annex the West Bank. On the other hand, President Biden fully supports Palestinian statehood. Mr. Biden has also expressed that “Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy,” a relatively new phenomena when compared to previous administration’s rhetoric.

For an issue that is usually a thorn in the side of all three parties – the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians – this likely won’t strain the relationship between the United States and Israel as Mr. Biden has shown little appetite for pursuing an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, neither Mr. Bennett nor Mr. Lapid are likely to touch this issue either, choosing instead to focus on domestic reforms and avoid any moves on any controversial international issues.  

Simple Ideology

Simple ideology also stands to be an issue that could cause tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship. During his time in office, Mr. Netanyahu was not shy in favoring Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, over Democrats. This is also evidenced in his strained relationships with former President Obama, a Democrat, and President Biden. One particular event that enraged former President Obama and then-Vice President Biden occurred when Mr. Netanyahu addressed the U.S. Congress in 2015 in an effort to recruit Congressional support to oppose the Iran nuclear deal. In this act, Mr. Netanyahu exploited political divisions within the United States and circumvented the Obama administration.

Both Israelis and Americans criticized Mr. Netanyahu for damaging American bipartisan support of Israel. In fact, many in the Democratic Party, including liberal democrats as well as long-standing, staunch supporters of Israel, suggest that tacit, unconditional support of Israel may no longer be appropriate. Moreover, some fear that the right-wing Mr. Bennett, frequently referred to as an ultranationalist, may pursue a similar course as Mr. Netanyahu and antagonize his American counterparts. As a result, Mr. Bennett has affirmed that his government will pursue a close partnership with both Democrats and Republicans alike. Despite leading a right-wing party, Prime Minister Bennett understands how important U.S. support is for any Israeli leader and will not rock the boat.

Conclusion

Many analysts have wondered if President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett will get on better than Mr. Biden and former Prime Minister Netanyahu However, the change in Israeli leadership will allow the United States and Israel to keep tensions in the relationship at bay, even with the thorniest issues like the Iran nuclear deal, the Palestinian question, and the ideological differences between the two leaders. Despite some general disagreements on the major issues facing both countries, the United States and Israel are largely in agreement on major foreign policy issues and understand that the partnership between the two countries is invaluable.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On July 26, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House. During this meeting, the two leaders announced that the United States would formally end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. Yet, not all 2,500 U.S. troops located in Iraq would return home as an undetermined number would remain to continue assisting Iraqi security forces in battling the Islamic State, but in more of a training and advisory capacity.

Credit:  DVIDSHUB

While Mr. Kadhimi’s government silently supports U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, he is under intense domestic pressure from members of a government that have fallen under the influence of Iranian-backed militias and those with close ties with Iran to rid the country of any U.S. military presence. Those with close ties to Iran believe the true intention behind an American military presence in Iraq is to counter Iran. The recent announcement does not really change the current situation and instead more accurately depicts the reality on the ground: U.S. troops have primarily been serving in training and advisory roles for the last several years as Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State. It does underscore, however, Mr. Kadhimi’s most prominent challenge: balancing its two most important allies, which have left Iraq in the middle of the of its tug of war. 

A Generation Later

On the one side, there is the United States. President Biden’s decision to end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq comes on the heels of the United States’ full withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, marking the end of the post 9-11 era. The U.S., under the George W. Bush administration, invaded Iraq in 2003 under the false presumption that Iraq under Saddam Hussein developed weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. toppled Saddam, removing him from power, and then settled in for years of nation building to restore the decimated Iraqi institutions and set up a power-sharing agreement along the sectarian and ethnic lines that define Iraq.

Then, in 2011, after a largely failed attempt at putting Iraq back together, President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, eight years after the initial U.S. invasion. While some troops remained under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the advent of the Islamic State in 2014 and its spread across both Iraq and Syria led to the Iraqi government’s request that the U.S. send more troops back to aid in its fight against the growing and increasingly violent terrorist organization. The cold fact is that Iraq relies heavily on U.S. support and the presence of its troops to keep the country from decaying into civil war, putting Iraq right in the middle of the United States’ power struggle with Iran.

Blood is Thicker Than Water

And on the other side, there is Iran. The Islamic Republic, through its proxy militias and close ties to members of the Iraqi government, wields considerable power in Iraq. Iran also shares close ethnic and sectarian ties with some of Iraq’s population, which contributes to its degree of power. Most of these militia groups are Shiite Muslims, which represent a majority in Iraq, and the most powerful groups are stood up by Iran, which is a Shiite-majority country.

Moreover, Iran, through its tentacles that permeate the Iraqi government, is applying pressure on Iraqi officials to force the United States out entirely. In this vein, Iran is carrying out attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq all the while denying any responsibility. These militias, under the command of Iran, are working to push U.S. troops out of Iraq entirely and permanently by pressuring Mr. Kadhimi and the Iraqi government to solidify its own power in the region. This is how Iran is putting Mr. Kadhimi and Iraq square in the middle of its wargames with the United States.

A Delicate Balancing Act

Lately, Iraq’s efforts to balance its two allies, who are engaged in retaliatory airstrikes but are also working toward a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief, has come to a head as Iranian-backed militias have targeted U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the assassination of Major General Qassim Soleimani, along with an Iraqi security official, at the hands of an American airstrike in 2020. The United States has responded with airstrikes aimed at the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. Both efforts are a major political headache for Mr. Kadhimi, who has done his best to check the power of the Iranian-backed militias and halt American retaliatory airstrikes while also keeping close partnerships with both Iran and the United States.

Conclusion

Iraq is caught right in the middle of the tug of war of war between the United States and Iran. Despite the havoc that the United States’ military presence and its often detrimental ties with Iran are wreaking in Iraq, for now, very little is likely to change any time soon. Unable to stop Iran’s attacks on its U.S. partners or prevent U.S. retaliation on the militias backed by Iran, Iraq is now facing the “biggest threat to its stability since the Islamic State.”

The Royal Shakeup in Jordan

In early April, the Jordanian government accused King Abdullah II’s half-brother, Prince Hamzeh, of “destabilizing Jordan’s security.” That weekend, Jordan’s king charged Prince Hamzeh with attempting to stage a coup, supported by several members of his inner circle and foreign backing. The prince, not surprisingly, denied any involvement in the plot, though he did take the opportunity to point out the graft that plagues Jordan’s government.

The United States, meanwhile, is monitoring the situation closely and quickly emphasized its support for the Jordanian king. The State Department’s spokesman recently reiterated Jordan’s importance to the United States, stating that “King Abdullah is a key partner of the United States, and he has our [the United States’] full support.” President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke with King Abdullah to express his support and strong bilateral relations as well.

In all the turmoil and uncertainty, why is Jordan such a close friend to the U.S.?

A Stable Ally

The United States has long considered Jordan to be a close friend and partner through both Republican and Democratic administrations, lauding the Hashemite Kingdom as a bastion of stability in arguably the most volatile region in the world. Jordan was largely free from the political unrest and upheaval that raged through the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring a decade ago. Moreover, Jordan is a long-time key counterterrorism partner, globally supporting U.S. forces and security operations.

Jordan has also been a major partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and served as a “key overland conduit to Iraq” during the Iraq War. Jordan has absorbed over 1 million refugees who fled Syria during the decade-long civil war, according to Jordanian officials.

In the past, Jordan has sided with the Sunni Arab states against Iran. This proves significant to the United States as the Sunni Arab states and the United States have historically enjoyed close relations and each country views Iran as a primary adversary.

Since Jordan and the United States share close ties, recent events and any resulting instability in the Hashemite Kingdom could potentially impact the Biden administration’s approach to the larger Middle East.

Biden Wants Out

For one, Biden is “deprioritizing” the Middle East in favor of concentrating U.S. foreign policy more on the great power rivalries with China and Russia and the myriad domestic problems the U.S. is facing at home. Like the Obama and Trump administrations, despite failing to extricate the United States from the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other commitments which have dominated U.S. Middle East policy, Biden hoped to reduce U.S. focus on and commitments to the Middle East.

To deprioritize the Middle East, the United States needs its key allies in the region onboard. When asked about the United States’ closest allies and friends in the Middle East, most analysts talk about Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, increasingly less, Turkey. This list should always include Jordan.

Since Jordan is considered by the United States and the West to be one of the consistently stable countries in the region, the U.S. has been able to take this fact for granted. However, the royal shakeup in Jordan could impact the region’s stability. Beyond that, instability resulting from King Abdullah’s latest skirmish with his half-brother could hinder Biden’s plans to downgrade the Middle East’s centrality in U.S. foreign policy.   

The Two-State Solution

The Biden administration has indicated they wish to “re-establish the goal of a negotiated two-state solution as a priority in U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The two-state solution has long remained the only viable solution to this conflict and calls for granting the Palestinians an independent state alongside Israel. This arduous and tedious project, which has thwarted many presidents, will not be possible unless Jordan is involved.

Jordan is a critical player in the United States’ pursuit of a two-state solution. Firstly, Jordan was one of the first Arab states to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, and has maintained relatively friendly relations ever since. Conversely, Jordan is also a “key interlocutor with Palestinians.” Today, Jordan is home to millions of Palestinians who fled to the Hashemite Kingdom after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.

As the New York Times recently noted, Jordan “is important to any future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.” If Jordan were to succumb to chaos and instability, whether due to the recent flare up or another set of events, the prospects of a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians would seem even more remote than they already are.

Conclusion

The recent tussle within the Jordanian royal family seems to have mostly subsided. However, this series of events is a good reminder to the United States just how much a relatively stable country in an otherwise volatile region can easily upset the fragile balance. This is especially true as the Biden administration has plans to focus less on the Middle East and perhaps find a solution to the very complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Transatlantic Alliance

*This post is second in a series exploring what America’s allies in Europe can expect from the Biden administration.*

In line with his campaign promises and recent foreign policy speech, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is seeking to repair U.S. alliances, specifically those in Europe. In this effort, Biden reached out to the U.S.’s primary allies in Europe: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Biden recognizes that good relations with its European  allies are key to the U.S restoring its global leadership and confronting the global challenges facing both the U.S. and its European allies.

U.S.-European Relations

U.S.-European relations, which include the relationships between the United States and NATO, the European Union (EU), and bilateral relations with individual countries, have long been close, across both Republican and Democratic administrations. However, the Trump administration was extremely critical and often mistreated the United States’ European allies.

Credit: Mrowlinson

Much to Europe’s chagrin, Trump removed the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and rebuffed multilateralism and participation in international organizations and treaties that the Europe has grown accustomed to seeing from its American partners. Trump also imposed tariffs on the EU. He labeled the organization as a “foe” and referred to NATO as “obsolete.” Worse of all, Europe questioned whether they could rely on their partner across the Atlantic.

Most European leaders were relieved, and even rejoiced, at the news that Biden won the November 2020 election. While most European leaders are approaching the U.S. with cautious optimism, they also acknowledge that relations will improve vastly. Biden has made improving relation with its European allies as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Nevertheless, the two sides will not agree on every issue. In fact, there are likely several issues that will monopolize U.S.-European relations under the Biden administration.

Iran

In 2015, the United States, in concert with the P5+1, and Iran signed a deal designed to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. Trump withdrew the United States from this deal in 2018 for two reasons: lack of permanence in the deal and because the deal did not include Iran’s regional aggression, including ballistic missile development and support for militant groups around the region. Trump subsequently imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, angering his European allies.

Regrettably, Iran advanced its nuclear program since the U.S. withdrawal. As a result, Biden has noted his intention to rejoin the nuclear deal, but Europe recognizes it will not be quite as easy as that. The United States’ potential reentry into the deal will be an issue that occupies U.S.-European relations during the Biden administration.

China

The rise of China is another issue that will likely absorb both the United States and Europe’s attention over the next four years. The High Representative of the European Union recently noted that the United States and Europe are mostly aligned on China. “We are both liberal democracies and market economies, but that does not mean our interests always coincide. And that does not mean that we have to follow blindly what Americans decide to do, with respect to China.”

Most important for Europe is not being caught in the middle of a “trade battle” between the U.S. and China. And yet, the EU negotiated a new trade deal with China at the end of 2020, with the assumption that engaging with Beijing is the most effective means of altering its behavior.

The timing of the deal, however, frustrated the incoming Biden administration weeks away from taking office, hoping that Europe would consult with them first. But the EU went ahead with the deal anyway. Biden has promised to consult with allies on all matter of issues related to China, but this trade deal caused Europe and the U.S. to start off on a curious footing.

European Security

Europe’s participation in providing for its own security will also demand attention on both sides. European security was a major sticking point for the Trump administration, one that will likely carry over into the Biden administration. Trump was not the first U.S. president to question whether Europe should contribute more to its own security; this was a common sentiment of former presidents as well.

European leaders, led by President Macron, have begun calling for strategic autonomy, or what Europeans call “promoting greater European independence from the United States.” Most European leaders acknowledge that Europe could play a bigger role in defending itself instead of relying primarily on the United States. For one, divisions exist between the United States and Europe, and within Europe itself, on what signifies a major challenge, depending on the audience.

Biden, despite his promised efforts to improve U.S. alliances with its European partners, is expected to encourage Europe to assume more responsibility for its own security, though taking a less draconian approach than Trump. While Biden announced that the United States would not remove U.S. troops from Germany and will take a more rational position on this issue, the degree to which Europe defends itself without relying so much on the United States is one that will dominate U.S.-European relations over the coming years.

Conclusion

One of the foundational themes of Biden’s foreign policy is improving relations with U.S. allies, particularly those in Europe. While most European leaders are happy about Biden’s election and the United States’ return to a more traditional, familiar foreign policy, they are also approaching the U.S. with caution. Relations will be much more cooperative, friendly, and smooth during the Biden administration than over the last four years; however, the Iran nuclear deal, the rise of China, and European security will likely be the focal points of U.S.-European relations under the new administration.

Secretary Blinken on U.S. Adversaries

The previous post discussed how Secretary Blinken, whom the Senate confirmed on January 26 as the next Secretary of State, would recalibrate the United States’ strained relationships with its key allies. This post is the second in a series of how Secretary Blinken would address U.S. allies and adversaries. 

U.S. Adversaries

The United States’ adversaries were another central theme throughout the hearing. During the Trump administration, the former President was often accused, beginning early in his term, of praising strongmen and admiring U.S. adversaries while treating U.S. allies poorly. The Biden administration plans to correct that. What policies toward U.S. adversaries can we expect to see over the next four years with Secretary Blinken leading the State Department?

China

China, in particular, garnered quite a bit of attention. Secretary Blinken took a hardline in his analysis of China, noting that “there is no doubt that China poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States.” In providing his views on the world’s second largest economy, Secretary Blinken stated, “I also believe that [former] President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach on China.” However, he opined, “I disagree with many of the ways he went about it.”

Xi Jinping

Credit:  nznationalparty

The United States must approach China from “a position of strength.” This “position of strength,” he affirmed, included “a unified position among our democratic allies,” U.S. cooperation and coordination through international institutions, and standing up for “our values.” Despite his hardline analysis, Secretary Blinken also acknowledged that there are issues on which China and the United States can cooperate, including climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Arctic Circle.

Secretary Blinken touched on the specific, more contentious issues in U.S.-China relations. Chief among those are China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic minority group in the Xinjiang province. Before leaving office, former Secretary Mike Pompeo classified China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide. When asked whether he agreed with this assessment or not, Secretary Blinken replied in the affirmative.

Relatedly, Secretary Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s comment to Taiwan, stating that he would review former Secretary Pompeo’s late decision on loosening the rules which regulate how the United States can engage with Taiwanese officials. Taiwan is a particularly thorny issue in the U.S.-China relationship, and Secretary Blinken echoed seemingly bipartisan support for Taiwan in the face of pressure from Beijing.

Russia

Questions about how the Biden administration would handle Russia arose. On Russia, Secretary Blinken said the threat posed by Russia was “very high on the agenda,” signaling a sense of urgency for the new administration. Secretary Blinken promised an approach to Russia different from that of the Trump administration, which is often accused of being too lenient on Russia. This begins, Secretary Blinken observed, with seeking an extension to the New Start Treaty, that expires in early February.

Putin

Credit: World Economic Forum

Secretary Blinken also raised the recent detainment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany after recovering from aa failed poisoning attempt last summer, with all fingers pointing to the Kremlin as the likely guilty party. Secretary Blinken expressed his support for Mr. Navalny, and drew attention to what he calls Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fear of the opposition leader: “It’s extraordinary how frightened Putin seems to be of one man. I think that speaks volumes.”

With respect to Russia’s larger regional and global threat, Secretary Blinken stated his strategy to continue supporting “the arming and training of Ukraine’s military, the continued provision to Ukraine of lethal defensive assistance and indeed, of the training program as well,” noting that he felt this program had been “a real success.” Secretary Blinken told the Senators that “I spent a lot of time on Ukraine when I was last in government” and concurred with the Senate’s desire of trying to help Ukraine and standing up to Russia in the face of the annexation in Crimea and the deteriorating situation in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Iran

Much of the disagreement” [between Republican Senators and Secretary Blinken] centered on the Biden administration’s plans surrounding Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. Republicans on the Committee worry that President Biden will abandon the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Rouhani

Credit: World Economic Forum

Secretary Blinken stressed how the U.S. withdrawal from that agreement has actually left the United States in a weaker position and noting that Iran is closer than before the deal to acquiring nuclear weapons, highlighting that Iran has “increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and fired up its centrifuges to produce higher-grade uranium.”

Secretary Blinken pointed out that Iran “represents a greater threat if it [Iran] wields nuclear weapons or reaches the threshold of using nuclear weapons.” He echoed President Biden’s plan to reenter the nuclear deal and that he would seek a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran.

The United States is more likely to curtail Iran’s support for terrorism and proxy militias and regional antagonism, the Secretary claimed, if the nuclear weapons issue is no longer the primary issue. However, Secretary Blinken admitted that the Biden administration is “a long way from” any terms of a deal with Iran as it is too early to know what terms Iran will be willing to accept.”

North Korea

Secretary Blinken recognized North Korea as a strategic challenge for the Biden administration. He did not offer much in the way of the Biden administration’s plans or policies toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons. Secretary Blinken shared that the Biden administration would conduct a full review of the United States’ approach to North Korea in search of ways to get its leader, Kim Jong-Un, to agree to further negotiations.

Kim Jong Un

Credit: Prachatai

Simultaneously, Secretary Blinken vowed to watch the worsening humanitarian situation. “We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation.” What’s more, Secretary Blinken said that any actions taken on the North Korean issue would begin with close consultation with U.S. allies in Asia, specifically Japan and South Korea.

Conclusion

Similar to his perspective on the United States’ allies, the Secretary also has an in-depth and comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing the United States, particularly in its complicated and strained relationships with its adversaries as each adversary presents a unique challenge. However, Secretary Blinken’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee highlighted his capability, readiness, and enthusiasm to lead the State Department and return U.S. foreign policy to a more traditional and unified foreign policy.