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Down to the Wire

On the agenda: normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, even before Trump leaves office

Photo: AP Images

Inauguration Day is now only 50 days away, and the ferment in the Middle East is palpable. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman last week, and there have been reports that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Mossad head Yossi Cohen were present at the meeting as well. On the agenda: normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, even before Trump leaves office.

That particular meeting yielded no results, but Trump’s envoys Kushner and Berkowitz returned to the region this week for another meeting with Bin Salman, as well as with the emir of Qatar. The latter is a piece in the same puzzle. Washington understands the hostility and suspicion with which Qatar is viewed by the rest of the region, due to its reputation for playing a double game with Iran and the Gulf States. The tension around Qatar is a worrying factor, a potentially destabilizing influence that could hamper Israel’s ongoing rapprochement with the Arab world.

What exactly is each country demanding, and does Kushner stand a chance of resolving the crisis before January 20? That’s a hard question to answer. But one thing is clear — Kushner’s team is determined to leave behind him as long a list of possible of normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab world, and talks will continue until the last minute.

While Saudi Arabia is perceived as the biggest prize in the region, there are a number of other Muslim states that could conceivably normalize ties with Israel in the next two months — Oman and Morocco, for instance. But it seems that most countries are taking the approach that it’s wiser to wait for the Biden administration, in order to open relations with the next president on the right foot.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Saudi Arabia has made the decision to take steps toward normalization after Biden is sworn in, in a bid to earn the president-elect’s gratitude. Biden has spoken out against human rights conditions in the country in the past, and this could be an opportunity for both sides to turn a new page.

In the midst of all this, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated in Iran last week. The incident generated a lot of questions. Some see it as an attempt by a certain party to milk the last months of the friendly Trump administration to the full. Others see it as a signal to the Biden administration that Israel won’t sit with folded arms if Biden returns to the Iran nuclear deal, which is staunchly opposed by Israel as well as by the Gulf States.

“One can debate the logic of killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh,” former ambassador Dennis Ross tweeted on Sunday. “But to argue it was done to frustrate the incoming Biden Administration ignores reality. Such an operation takes extensive planning, having operatives on the ground, actionable intelligence. It can’t be spur of the moment.”

Even once the dust over Fakhrizadeh’s killing settles, one fact will remain: Israel and the Gulf states are very publicly on the same page regarding the nuclear deal and the continuation of maximal pressure on Iran. Time is running out for the remaining Arab states to decide whether they want to hold off till Biden is sworn in and use normalization as a bargaining tool to nix the nuclear deal, or to proceed immediately in order to send a clear message to Biden that the entire region is united in opposition to the deal.

There’s good reason to hope, then, that Biden will have to rethink his strategy after entering office. Will he choose to make immediate overtures to the Iranians? Will he agree to lift sanctions as a goodwill gesture? Or will talks with the Iranians take place in the context of a continued campaign of maximal pressure on the Islamic Republic in an attempt to force the Iranians into concessions? We’ll find out the answers in 50 days.

Coffee Break with Ambassador Dore Gold


Do you expect that the Biden administration will focus on the Middle East, or are they going mostly to care about domestic issues?

They have to start with domestic issues because that’s what’s pressing the American people. The coronavirus, the economy… but the American government is not built to just focus on one or two issues, it’s a very large, complicated machine. And they can do both. The question is, whether there are diplomatic opportunities for them to get involved in various Middle Eastern issues or the Middle East remains hopelessly complicated.

When you look at the foreign policy team that Biden intends to appoint, do you see them as a pro-Israel team?

First of all, they’re experienced diplomats. It’s not going to be the same as the situation that existed in the Trump administration, but they’re not out for some kind of revenge, with an anti-Israel orientation.

So Israel would be able to cooperate with them and work with them?

Yes, you still have a couple of fundamentals: the Palestinian officials under Mahmoud Abbas are sort of exhausted from the peace process. I’m not sure I see them looking for real progress. Iran is determined to achieve a military nuclear capability, and that limits what they can do with the Iranians. And I think if you look around the Middle East, there are objectively difficult circumstances that they’re going to have to confront. And I think that’s likely to be the situation for a considerable period of time.

Biden’s advisors indicated multiple times that they intend to rejoin the JCPOA shortly after the inauguration. Do you think it could cause any kind of tension with Israel?

The question is, do they have any real opportunities here? The Iranians are saying if the US requests to rejoin JCPOA, they’ll demand a price for it. It’s not a simple situation.

How do you expect it to affect the normalization process? Could the US face a united front of Israel and the Gulf states against the deal?

It’s really hard to say how they will react. I hope they’ll be ready to have more states and more progress. But if they don’t expect the United States will conduct a policy that will be to their benefit, then they’ll say to themselves, why should we help the US with the Israel issue?

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 838)

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