President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu have both spoken with President elect Joe Biden and for the first time have referred to him with that descriptor.
That in and of itself is significant as President Trump has not yet ceded the election and there are still two months remaining of his current term.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is walking a delicate line between trying to encourage President Trump to still deliver benefits to Israel, whilst keeping an eye on not alienating the next president of the United States.
President Trump did many great things for Israel, including recognising Jerusalem as her capital.
But perhaps of even more practical significance was that he changed the conversation about the Middle East in two main ways:
– he removed the Palestinian veto on peacemaking by Arab countries acting in their own interests
– and for the first time in 100 years Palestinian intransigence was not rewarded with a better offer than the last one they had rejected, which till now only encouraged further rejection.
In another sign of the new normal – Saab Erekat passed away, in an Israeli hospital (receiving treatment in an Israeli hospital speaking volumes about the hypocrisy of the BDS movement).
Significantly, no-one I have seen, claiming he was killed by Israel. Which would have been the standard accusation of the past.
And the Palestinian Authority, hoping for better days with a new president entering the White House, suddenly agrees to once again receive the taxes Israel collects on their behalf – which they have refused to accept for the past six months and which therefore drove themselves into a fiscal crisis.
These taxes by the way, account for about 60% of the PA’s entire budget.
Included in their announcement is the full resumption of all ties with Israel including security co-operation.
Nothing from the Israeli side and so the PA’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh had to go into PR spin mode to try and justify the zigzag in the PA’s position by stating:
“Against the backdrop of the talks Mahmoud Abbas held about Israel’s commitment to signed agreements with us, and based on official written and oral messages we received, which prove Israel’s commitment, the ties with Israel will return to their previous state.”
Status quo ante.
Who suffered? Once again, the everyday Palestinians were victims of their own leadership’s actions.
So, in these last 2 months of Trump’s Presidency we can look at just some of the areas that activity may or may not occur in – keeping in mind that Trump may be distracted with many other issues.
And noting that in this period similar to some sort of twilight zone, much may happen, or nothing much may happen.
1 – Iran.
This of course is the big issue and the most important immediate point of difference in approaches between Trump and Biden.
Trump tore up the unsatisfactory JCPOA deal that Obama had made and enforced tough sanctions on Iran.
Biden prefers to go for another agreement, one he recognises needs to be better than the Obama one. But can he do it?
Trump has a little time to look at his possible choices on Iran. Rumors abound at the options he is considering and everything seems to be on the table.
US Secretary of State Pompeo, is visiting Israel and other ME countries and said about the peace deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain whilst keeping the pressure on Iran:
“These agreements also tell malign actors like the Islamic Republic of Iran that their influence in the region is waning, and that they are ever more isolated in this and shall forever be until they change their direction.”
2 – Further peace deals with additional Arab countries?
Possibly, but the pace is likely to slow somewhat until Arab leaders ascertain what a Biden presidency might mean on Iran and how public Biden may be on such things as for example, criticising their human rights records – a particularly sensitive issue for Saudi Arabia.
3 – Extension of Israeli sovereignty?
Unlikely on any grand scale as the non-extension was the public price paid for the deals with the UAE and Bahrain.
Although Netanyahu, who is doing poorly in the polls and is regarded with quite some suspicion by the right wing, may take the opportunity to do something symbolic under Trump’s cover. Perhaps of an area that will remain in Israeli hands under any future agreement.
4 – Increased building of homes over the Green Line?
It should be noted that whilst actual real settlement activity slowed dramatically during the Trump years, the Times of Israel reported on construction plans announced this week for over 1,200 homes in Givat Hamatos as follows:
“If built, Givat Hamatos would become the first new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem in two decades.”
Netanyahu also intends to ask Pompeo to approve of a few thousand homes being built in a new neighborhood of Atarot (the old Jerusalem airport).
These would be a very large moves, again proceeding under the cover of the Trump presidency.
Not an extension of sovereignty per se, but significant ‘facts on the ground’.
5 – Qualitative Military Edge.
This is an area where Israel will be pushing Trump with determination, but perhaps not publicly.
Defense Minister Gantz has been in the US twice in recent weeks as well as other high level discussions that are taking place.
Trump and Biden have both reaffirmed America’s commitment to Israel’s QME.
The question is what does that mean in real terms?
Israel has been seeking some types of military equipment from the US over different administrations – without success.
The Americans do not want Israel to be able to take certain actions independently and wish to keep these options under US control.
Particularly in regards to Iran.
Trump has the ability to be a game changer in this regard if he now so wishes.
6 – Israeli elections.
The budget trigger for yet another election in Israel is always there. What will influence the decision to call one or not in the main, will be a consideration by the various leadership contenders as to their chances.
There’s no doubt that a Trump presidency made Netanyahu stronger as he would point out, because of their special relationship and so on.
But with Biden coming in, Netanyahu, Gantz, Lapid, Bennett et al will have to calculate whether that makes them more or less attractive to the electorate.
In true Netanyahu style, he has already adapted. His line is that only he can say “no” to Biden, if needed, just as he did to Obama.
Only time will tell if there is any movement on some or any of these areas, but we shall watch with concern and interest.