Joe Biden’s inauguration yesterday has ushered in a new era, raising the hope – in the Middle East and around the world – that the four years of American foreign policy wilderness under Donald Trump are well and truly behind us. This is as relevant to our region as it is to any other part of the world, but perhaps it is especially relevant to our region. In the Middle East, Arabs, Palestinians, Iranians, Turks and Israelis have been repositioning themselves on questions of security, peace and stability the better to negotiate with a new administration. No one expects major breakthroughs in the region during the first six months of the Biden presidency, which will be present enough of a domestic challenge.
As a president for all Americans – the role he has repeatedly expressed his desire to play – Biden is eager to heal divisions exacerbated by the Trump presidency at home. These include racial, gender, economic and in some sense even cultural differences within the fabric of American identity, and movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too have served to highlight inequalities and injustices which the Trump administration and its ultranationalist support base are more than happy to permit. To this point, no Middle East envoy or anyone in charge of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has been announced or nominated, which suggests that the region may not be the new administration’s immediate priorities.
The region is therefore entering a period of uncertainty and, to some degree, of unpredictability. With three major elections in Israel, Iran and Palestine in the first half of 2021, it remains to be seen what the picture in each country will look like and how it will interact with the Biden administration’s vision. The last ten years have hardly been uneventful in the Middle East, and these elections will after all be taking place against a complex backdrop of political differences and interactions beyond the obvious points of contention.
Israel’s fourth general election in 48 months is to take place on 23 March, for one thing, the hope being that it will bring to power a significantly different perspective. The Palestinians too are to organise legislative elections in May, to be followed by a presidential election in July and eventually the election of the 700-member Palestinian National Council representing Palestinians in the occupied territories and the diaspora.
If held, these will be the first elections since 2005-06. If their results are accepted by all Palestinian organisations and groups, they could well kickstart a new chapter in Palestinian politics with a new, younger leadership leading an all-Palestinian reconciliation and eventually a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All this depends on whether the new Israeli government is ready to abandon the Trump peace deal in favour of the course chartered by the Quartet or a modified version of the 2003 Roadmap, and on Washington’s commitment to resolve the conflict on terms other than Israel’s alone.
Another issue is how to resolve Washington and its Arab allies’ conflict with Tehran. So far, it is clear the Biden administration will be interested in rejoining the 5+1 nuclear agreement provided it is renegotiated to cover the Iranian ballistic missile programme and the Iranians agree to stop their “destabilising activities” in the Middle East and the Gulf. It may be a tall order but it is not impossible to meet the Iranians halfway by agreeing on a timeline to lift the sanctions gradually, for example.
The first test of Iranian good will would be reaching an agreement in Yemen. If the Iranian-supported Houthis agree in good faith to implement the relevant Security Council resolutions, accepting a united Yemeni government, this would be a sign of Tehran’s cooperation. Another would be to stop Hamas and the Islamic Jihad organisation – both of which are supported and funded by Tehran – from obstructing a united Palestinian government in the course of the upcoming elections, letting the Palestinian Authority negotiate with Americans and Israelis. No such hopes would be possible before Trumps sanctions are lifted, the strategy of “maximum pressure” reconsidered as a tactical measure to facilitate a much larger understanding serving the security interests of all the major stakeholders whether in the Middle East itself or worldwide, in Europe and the US.
For at least six months, however, the Middle East must hold its breath while we see where the winds of change will blow. This time next year, it would be a pleasure to write on the imagination and foresight of all the various interested parties, large and small. Will that be possible? It remains to be seen how much conflict and instability remains in the region – and how much improvement is due to a change in American foreign policy brought about by the Biden inauguration.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.