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What a Biden presidency will look like for the region

Jul 14,2020 - Last updated at Jul 14,2020

President Donald Trump’s goal of winning a second term as president in November is looking feeble every day, as a majority of polls show him lagging behind his Democratic rival Joe Biden. His approval ratings are down and the Covid-19 pandemic has scuttled the one thing that Trump prided himself in achieving since his surprise victory in 2016: the economy. He had survived impeachment, a special investigation into Russian interference in the US elections, scandals over his personality, taxes, empathy with white supremacists and his connections to felons. But it is too early to write him off.

Between now and November anything could happen and Trump may still recover and turn things around for his struggling campaign. The Covid-19 has delivered one of the weirdest presidential campaigns in recent history; no public rallies, at least for Biden, calls to cancel party conventions and the possibility of another lockdown as the pandemic resurges making it more likely that more Americans will be voting by mail.

With Biden in the lead, this is his third presidential bid since he was elected Senator in 1972, the likelihood of him becoming the 46th president of the United States is becoming increasingly realistic. So much so that many foreign leaders are taking a fresh look at his political record especially in the foreign policy arena. The Middle East is no exception.

Having served as Barack Obama’s vice president for two terms, Biden is a well-known commodity. Trump’s divisive, populist and isolationist policies have resonated with voters especially in Eastern Europe and South American, where right wing leaders and lawmakers have been elected. Biden is seen as a moderate, a leader who will restore America’s ties with Europe and help unite its allies. More importantly, perhaps, he is seen as someone who can heal America and bring Americans together.

It is no wonder that regional leaders as well have been seeking to understand what a Biden presidency will mean for them. One area where Biden is expected to reset the course of Washington’s policy is the Arab-Israeli conflict and in particular the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine struggle. Biden is on record in rejecting a unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank. He is expected to re-engage the Palestinians, resume aid to the Palestinian Authority and reopen a US consulate to deal with the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. But it is highly unlikely that he will reverse Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or relocate the embassy back to Tel Aviv.

Biden, who described himself as a Zionist, will not pressure Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians even as progressives in his own party are pushing to punish Israel economically if it carries out illegal annexation. He is likely to maintain Obama’s second term approach, one of minimum engagement, on the two-state solution.

On Iran Biden’s campaign has hinted that the US will return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) nuclear deal of 2015 if Iran recommits. Trump had withdrawn from the deal in 2018 and since then Tehran had absolved itself from certain commitments and resumed uranium enrichment. But Biden is likely to side with European partners, especially France, by demanding that certain clauses in the deal be re-negotiated, especially with regard to the so-called “sunset clause”, the date when restrictions on Iran can be lifted. France also wants to negotiate an additional agreement regarding Iran’s long-range missile programme and its controversial regional agenda.

Biden’s position on Iran will be of great concern for America’s Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, whose oil facilities have been targeted by Iranian missiles last September. Last week a UN report implicated Iran in the attack. Of all of Trump’s regional policies, imposing tough sanctions on Tehran to pressure its leaders to renegotiate the nuclear deal is the one that has created most controversy both regionally and internationally.

The contrast between Trump and Biden on the presence of US troops in the region will be another pressing issue. Under Obama, Arab allies of the US were discouraged by his so-called pivot to Asia; allowing Iran, Turkey and Russia to fill the vacuum. Whether Biden will follow on Obama’s footsteps or choose to recommit the US to the region’s deepening conflicts remains to be seen.

Like Trump Biden wants to end America’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. But his campaign has said that he also wants to restore America’s leadership and rebuild alliances and partnerships. When it comes to the Middle East, whose problems got more complicated under Trump, Syria and Libya are stark examples, there is no way to perceive Biden’s presidency from a black and white, good and bad perspective.

With America battling the resurgence of Covid-19 resulting in record-level daily cases and rising number of fatalities, the next president of the United States, whether Trump or Biden, will have to focus almost entirely on conquering the pandemic, rebuilding the economy and restoring millions of lost jobs. For Biden reversing many of Trump’s controversial domestic policies will keep him busy and for many months foreign policy will be a second priority!

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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