What signals is Biden sending about his Middle East policy?

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“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” Will Rogers once quipped, a remark as true in diplomatic relations as in personal ones.

Which is why the first weeks and months of a new American administration are so important: they set a tone, they create those first impressions that people take with them, become ingrained and are later difficult – though not impossible – to alter.

The first impressions that former president Barack Obama left on Israel were largely negative, traveling during his first 16 weeks in office to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but pointedly bypassing Israel. That itinerary said much about the administration’s break with the previous one, and how Washington under Obama was readjusting its foreign policy.

The first impression Donald Trump left on Israel was positive: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the third call he made to a foreign leader after taking office, a signal that the icy relationship that existed between Netanyahu and the Obama administration was a thing of the past. That set a hopeful tone going forward.

Netanyahu, as of Thursday, was still waiting to hear from new US President Joe Biden.

There may be many good and valid reasons why Biden has called the leaders of a dozen other countries before phoning Netanyahu. This could be because Biden has so much on his plate – the pandemic and racial issues at home, and China and Russia to deal with abroad – that the Mideast is simply not a big priority for his administration. Besides, it is not only Netanyahu who has not received a call yet from the US president; neither has any other leader in the Middle East.

Or it could be that the Biden non-call has to do with the Israeli election campaign, with the new president not wanting to get sucked into the campaign and have a call used by Netanyahu’s camp to help his campaign.

It also could be that Israelis are just overly sensitive about these types of issues, and that it really doesn’t matter all that much – or say anything about the country’s standing in Washington – whether Israel’s prime minister is the third or thirty-third leader called by a newly sworn-in US president.

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All that could be true, but the non-call is creating a first impression, and it is not a good one. It gives the impression of an intentional snub, and is being widely interpreted as such both in Israel and abroad. If this is the mood music that will accompany the relationship between Netanyahu and Biden going forward, that music is decidedly downbeat.

BUT THE non-call is only one part of a set of signals that the administration has sent out in its first three weeks in office toward Israel and the region.

Those first three weeks, said Eran Lerman, a former deputy director at the National Security Council and currently vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, have been “a mixed bag,” with some of the actions and statements “very worrisome” and others “more positive.”

“This is not an anti-Israeli administration,” Lerman stated. “Not Biden, not [Vice President Kamala] Harris, not [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken, and definitely not [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin.”

But, he added, many Israelis consider Rob Malley, the veteran diplomat Biden picked as his point man on Iran, “to be problematic.”

The reason, said former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is that Malley “has always been a person who has explored America expanding its relations with more radical elements, including Islamists.”

New York Times columnist and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Bret Stephens said in a Jewish Council for Public Affairs webinar this week that people who have followed Malley’s career “know that he is highly intelligent, highly well versed in the region, but someone whose judgments – for instance, his counsel to Obama, in the last four years of the Obama administration, to essentially go soft on [Syrian President] Bashar Assad – proved to be both a strategic and humanitarian disaster with repercussions that have extended for some time.”

Stephens, who stressed that he was in no way questioning Malley’s allegiance, said he hopes that the new point man on Iran understands his new position is to represent America’s interests, “not trying to represent Iran’s interests to America.”

Gold said that Malley’s appointment, alongside those of more traditional democrats like Blinken, indicates that the Democratic Party has a lot of different and competing streams within it, and that this is being reflected in the individuals Biden has selected to shape his administration’s foreign policy.

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Blinken is more of a “mainstream” voice inside the party, “and not wild progressive,” Gold said.

But Lerman said that one comment this week coming from even the mainstream Blinken was cause for concern: specifically, his answer to a question posed in a CNN interview regarding whether the administration will continue to see the Golan Heights as part of Israel.

Blinken equivocated, saying that while he did not want to go into the “legalities’’ of the issue, “as long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran… the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security. Legal questions are something else. And over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at. But we are nowhere near as that.”

Lerman said that Blinken’s response was “out of touch with reality,” because since no one has any solution to the Syrian problem, “it doesn’t look good” to even address the Golan issue at this point.

Gold applauded Netanyahu for the way he dealt with the matter, not opening up a “diplomatic front with the Biden administration” over the issue, but just stating very clearly that Israel will never leave the territory.

“As far as I am concerned, the Golan Heights will remain forever part of the State of Israel, a sovereign part,” Netanyahu said less than 24 hours after Blinken’s comments. “Should we return it to Syria? Should we return the Golan to a situation where mass slaughter is a danger?”

Gold said that Netanyahu was not getting into politics or a confrontation with the new administration, merely stating Israeli policy.

In the beginning of the new administration, Gold said, it is incumbent upon Israel – both privately and in public – to “articulate its most vital national security positions. It is important that Israel reassert the idea that it has the right, at the end of day, to have defensible borders.”

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The most worrisome step the new administration has taken in relation to the Mideast, according to Lerman, was the decision to reverse Mike Pompeo’s decision on the final day of Trump’s term to designate the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization.

“The Houthis are a bunch of murderous Iranian proxies with the most overtly antisemitic ideology,” he said. “We have reasons to be worried about this decision and the sense of abandonment the Saudis may be feeling.”

Two days after this policy reversal, the Houthis took responsibility for a drone attack on a Saudi airport.

Even with that misstep, Lerman said, the first days of the administration do not represent “darkness descending upon us. It is not a straight repeat of the Obama administration, and Biden would do well not to throw away the baby with the bathwater in terms of abandoning aspects of Trump’s legacy that are positive,” foremost among those being the Abraham Accords.

Lerman said that regarding the Palestinian issue, the administration’s initial decisions – staying away from comments about any specific peace plan, not talking about putting together negotiations or demanding a settlement freeze – show a positive understanding that “at this stage, against the background of Israeli and Palestinian dynamics, we are looking at conflict management, maybe improved conflict management, but there is not much else to be done in the immediate and intermediate future.”

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