When our first-born child was 3, he had an intense dislike for the toddler daughter of my wife’s good friend. It was quite embarrassing. My wife tried to change his mind. One day, he looked at her and said: “Mommy, you don’t understand. I hate her so much I even hate her shoes.”
For many opposing President Trump, the dislike is so intense that it might even come down to his shoes.
In the foreign policy realm, though, there’s at least one area where the current administration made notable headway that warrants careful attention. It’s the Middle East.
The incoming administration has an opportunity to build on the developments of the past four years and might wish to bear in mind the Arabic words “shwaya, shwaya” (slowly, slowly) before making any dramatic changes of policy in this key region.
While some may have sneered at the seemingly whimsical conduct of international relations by the current president, what’s actually been accomplished is quite noteworthy.
Most especially, of course, have been the normalization deals between Israel and four Arab nations — UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
No small feat. Only two deals preceded them — in 1979 with Egypt and 1994 with Jordan. In other words, the number of Arab countries at peace with Israel has tripled practically overnight.
Plus, a few other Arab countries have not yet signed agreements with Israel, but their bilateral cooperation has nonetheless grown exponentially. And there are some other nations in the wider Muslim universe rethinking their traditional hostility to the Jewish state.
Several critics have attacked the “transactional” nature of the four accords, but transactionalism is a key tool of foreign policy (and also was employed in the deals with Egypt and Jordan). It is in the American interest to nurture peace in the Middle East, as it is in the American interest to deepen our links with friendly countries there. And that is precisely what has been happening.
Moreover, this American approach has upended decades of embedded Democratic and Republican thinking in Washington (not to mention Europe) that all roads to Middle East peace lead through Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s seat of power.
That point was most famously suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the Brookings Institution in December 2016: “There will be no separate peace between Israel & the Arab world…No, No, No & No.” He meant the Palestinian issue would have to be resolved before any other peace accords could be reached.
Looking ahead, that certainly does not mean leaving the Palestinian issue behind, not at all. But the point of the Trump policy was to signal to the Palestinians they can no longer singlehandedly drive the Arab train, they can no longer veto Arab decisions that directly affect their own national security and economic interests, and they can no longer assume that a decades-long maximalist stance will serve them well ad Infinitum.
Just as four Arab countries made peace with Israel and are moving swiftly to deepen ties, so the US finally did what previous Republican and Democratic administrations had pledged but failed to do — move the American Embassy to Jerusalem and encourage other countries to do the same.
No, the sky did not fall after Washington’s decision to acknowledge reality, but it did send another unmistakable message to Ramallah that there are real-life consequences for failing to return to the negotiating table and refusing one two-state proposal after another.
And meanwhile, it was the UAE, not the Palestinian Authority, that stopped Israel’s proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank. Suddenly, Israel had far more to lose by going ahead with extension of Israeli sovereignty — jeopardizing burgeoning links with Abu Dhabi — than stopping it dead in its tracks.
Then there is the JCPOA, the signature foreign policy issue of the Obama presidency.
Three years later, President Trump withdrew the US from the deal, asserting it was fatally flawed and replacing it with a campaign of maximum economic pressure.
Whether withdrawal was the right move or not, the fact is that simply returning to the deal, as negotiated in 2015, would be an error — or, for that matter, so would believing that once inside again we could more easily revise the terms regarding ballistic missile development, regional behavior, sunset clauses, and inspections of suspected sites.
There is today American leverage generated by the punishing sanctions, not to mention growing awareness in key European capitals, including Berlin, that Iran’s behavior in recent years has only grown more brazen. Tehran has plotted terror attacks in Europe, kidnapped and murdered journalists, sought clandestinely to acquire European technology, supported Hezbollah activities on European soil, and funded Islamist religious extremism across Europe, not to mention its egregious violations of the JCPOA itself.
In other words, whatever the thinking about the Middle East may have been until January 2017, regional circumstances have changed dramatically in the past four years.
That gives the Biden team the chance to assess those changes and factor them into the incoming administration’s thinking. Indeed, there‘s no reason why there couldn’t be still more breakthroughs on Israeli-Arab peace agreements, a chance to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks and achieve tangible progress, and a more hard-nosed approach to any new deal with Iran.