Trump lays landmines for Biden

Saeed Okasha , Tuesday 24 Nov 2020

Even before Biden enters the White House, Trump is moving to ensure his room for manoeuvrability on foreign policy issues is narrow, writes Saeed Okasha

Trump lays landmines for Biden

While President Donald Trump continues his court battles with President-elect (according to unofficial results) Joe Biden to prevent the latter from taking the oath of office in January, Biden stated with confidence that he does not care about Trump’s manoeuvres to block him from taking over the reins. Also, that he has started forming his new administration and he has already decided who will be secretary of the treasury. Biden said he could announce his pick, along with the new secretary of state, before Thanksgiving on 26 November, according to sources close to the transition speaking to the Associated Press.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal battles, Trump anticipates the possibility he will lose the fight and is trying to plant mines on Biden’s path to confuse him and obstruct any plans to change foreign policy goals that Trump has accomplished, especially on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iran. In a recent tour that included Israel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised Tel Aviv that Trump’s administration is thinking about listing Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) — a movement working to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, pressure Israel to comply with international law, and apply sanctions against Israel — as an anti-Semitic group. Pompeo also said his country will not label products made in settlements in the West Bank as such when they enter the US market, as Europe has threatened to do because it does not recognise the legitimacy of settlements.

Some Israeli reports expect Trump to recognise Jerusalem as a unified city under Israeli sovereignty before his departure from the White House, which contradicts his own initiative known as the “Deal of the Century” and his earlier decision that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, while urging Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate the dividing line between East and West Jerusalem. Trump has many motives to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over both parts of Jerusalem, including to prevent Biden from annulling the “Deal of the Century” and replace it with negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis sponsored by the US. It would be difficult for Biden to reverse any of Trump’s decisions, which Israel views as acknowledgement of its self-defined rights, because Biden will take into account the influence of the Jewish lobby in the US. It would also be impossible for Biden to convince the Palestinians to start unconditional talks with Israel without first reversing at least some of Trump’s decisions, perhaps the anticipated recognition of a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as stated in Israeli reports.

Trump’s motivation could also be to remind Israel and the Jewish lobby, which has great influence over US policy, that before former president Barack Obama left office in 2017 he intentionally placed obstacles in the path of Trump’s administration before it took over by not objecting to a Security Council resolution in December 2016, weeks before Trump came to power. The resolution described Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegitimate.

Trump wants to draw the support of the Jewish lobby — which usually leans towards Democrats — to the Republican side if Biden takes any decisions that hurt Israeli interests. Trump wants to continue escalating the battle with the Democrats even after he leaves the White House. Some reports indicate that Pompeo might want to run in the presidential race in 2024. This means Trump could recognise a unified Jerusalem and Israel’s capital before he leaves office to give his close ally Pompeo a chance to win the Jewish lobby to his side in the next elections. Nonetheless, Trump will be careful that such a decision does not impact his greatest accomplishment, essentially having several Arab countries establish relations with Israel without waiting for a solution for the Palestinian cause. Countries such as the UAE and Bahrain deliberately froze normalisation steps with Israel in anticipation of Trump recognising Israel’s sovereignty over both parts of Jerusalem.

On Iran also, Trump continues to plant mines on Biden’s path. In recent weeks, the US imposed more sanctions against Tehran. The New York Times reported earlier that Trump recently discussed with his advisors launching a military strike against Iran, especially the Natanz nuclear facility. This was followed by other reports that the US is deploying B-52 bombers in the Middle East and that Israel had asked Trump for advanced bombs that could reach Iranian nuclear reactors, an idea that Trump could be amenable to.

Overall, Trump is trying to block Biden from opening any venue of talks with Iran in the future, to prove that his policy was correct when he decided to stiffen sanctions on Iran. Biden will have to demand that Iran stops its nuclear activities as per the deal signed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, before relaunching talks again. Biden will not be able to return to the nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from in 2018 without giving Israel the bombs it needs to deal with Iranian nuclear reactors, approved by Trump before he left, as a means to deter Iran on the one hand and reassure Israel on the other.

Both the Palestinian and Iranian issues will be a difficult test for Biden and his administration, especially in light of his previous positions when he was a senator and approved the relocation of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in 1995. Biden will also have to add substance to what he said during his electoral campaign, when he described himself as a Zionist to prove that his Catholicism does not contradict with what is known about him and his vice president, Kamala Harris, as great supporters of Israel, whether in its conflict with the Palestinians or its concerns over Iran.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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