The Middle Eastern Game of Thrones: On the Eve of Biden Administration
System Overview no. 2
Israel and the Middle East During the Biden Era
Authors: Eran Shayshon, Alex Grinberg, Adi Levy
1. With Joseph Biden’s entry into the White House, a reassessment of US regional policy is expected. This reassessment is expected to place greater emphasis on human rights and democratic issues than that of the current administration. Although it is unlikely that Biden will take a diplomatic U-turn in the region (see Reut’s reassessment of the Palestinian issue), the President-elect is expected to withstand pressure from his party’s progressive forces to implement a more liberal foreign agenda
2. By the time Biden takes office, there is an elevated possibility of an escalation between Iran and Israel that could deteriorate into a regional flare-up. At this point, the Iranians are grinding their teeth and not reacting militarily against operations attributed to Israel for fear of American action against the nuclear project and to make it easier for Biden to return to the nuclear deal. However, the lack of an Iranian response is also a motivating factor for Israel to continue striking Iran. Hence the danger of a regional flare-up until Biden takes office is high.
3. The Iranians will accelerate their nuclear program in order to enhance their bargaining power and to defy both the US and Israel as a response to their vulnerability. This attitude is only strengthening in light of Iran’s limited operational capacity to harm Israel at this stage.
4. Currently, Israel lacks a clear strategy regarding the formulation of a new deal. On the one hand, Israel is adopting an approach that will make it difficult for the Biden administration to achieve a new agreement. On the other hand, Israel is formulating a strategic approach to influence the content of the deal with Iran in cooperation with the new administration.
5. Although a thoughtful and measured combination of these approaches may be theoretically effective, in practice, these two opposing approaches are led by uncoordinated political rivals fundamentally divided on the nuclear issue. Hence, the Israeli policy is uncoordinated. Various publications claimed that Prime Minister Netanyahu excluded the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Security from his meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince, during which they reportedly discussed issues related to the conflict against Iran. At the same time, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up a team to work with Washington in order to influence the US regarding the new agreement.
6. There is a concern of a nuclear arms race. A return to the nuclear arms deal or the lifting of sanctions, combined with America’s cold shoulder to Saudi Arabia, could heighten the likelihood of Saudi Arabia (and possibly also Egypt) of reviving its nascent nuclear program. All indications suggest that this project has military purposes. In such a situation, Turkey would not stand on the sidelines, while its regional rivals attempt to ascend the throne of regional hegemony.
7. The pro-Iranian grip on Yemen will deepen and the Iranian circle of fire will expand. US criticism toward Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the region is expected to intensify, making it more difficult for Saudi Arabia to take action against the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels. The Houthi rebels are expected to strengthen their regional influence. This will make it easier for Iran to leverage them against Israel once they complete the construction of their kinetic capabilities. In the meantime, the influence of Israel and the international community against them will be limited.
8. The wave of normalization has stopped: Saudi Arabia holds on to its normalization card for Biden. So far, Saudi Arabia has refused to establish formal diplomatic ties with Israel without first resolving the Palestinian issue, as stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative, which Saudi Arabia initiated. However, Saudi Arabia’s “blessing” of the Abraham Accords and Netanyahu’s visit to Saudi Arabia may indicate a decision was made to normalize ties with Israel as soon as the conditions are met.
9. The surprising Saudi “detente” toward Turkey could create tension among countries in the moderate axis. In light of Biden’s election, Saudi Arabia is trying to block an unofficial boycott of Turkish products, whose purpose was to escalate tensions with Ankara. This development could create tension between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two countries in the moderate Arab axis, whose rivalry with Turkey is ideological and deep-seate.
10. At the same time, Turkey is trying to ease tensions with Israel.A After months of pursuing an aggressive foreign policy with all regional players, Erdogan is trying to reduce the economic and diplomatic damage that he has suffered by attempting to get closer to Europe and to dialogue with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the failure of Palestinian reconciliation efforts, which at this point are led by Turkey, are another demonstration of Erdogan’s aspiration to become the patron of the Palestinian issue. Hence, although in the long run, the friction between Israel and Turkey is expected to intensify in the face of Erdogan’s regional ambitions, it is possible that secret discussions between Israel and Turkey will lead the countries to rehabilitate their diplomatic ties and resend their ambassadors.
11. However, the cooperation is expected to be solely tactical and ad-hoc. It may be similar to the reconciliation efforts between Israel and Turkey following the Gaza flotilla raid, shortly after which Erdogan returned to disparage Israel. Venomous incitement against Israel tirelessly continues in the Turkish press. Moreover, Turkish intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, who is managing covert contacts with Israel, is known for his sympathy for Iran and is even suspected of exposing an Israeli spy ring that Israel operated against Iran within Turkey.
12. As the American diplomatic agenda concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is expected to focus on strengthening and upgrading the PA’s control (see Reut’s paper on the political process of the Biden era), there will be an opportunity for Israel to take advantage of the fruits of normalization with Arab nations regarding their increased involvement in improving Palestinian quality of life through economic and humanitarian aid, as well as initiating joint projects and ventures.