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What Future for the Relationship Between the United States and Israel?

Interview with Dominique Moïsi

What Future for the Relationship Between the United States and Israel?
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The inauguration of a new American administration raises the question of where Israeli-American relations stand. It appears that the Biden administration’s approach towards the Jewish state will be characterized by realism and pragmatism. With new elections to be held on March 23 in Israel - the fourth in less than two years - Benyamin Netanyahu, who made his deal with Donald Trump a major campaign argument in recent years, may once again find himself forming a coalition government. Dominique Moïsi, geopolitical adviser at Institut Montaigne, shares his insights into the future of relations between Israel and its American ally, particularly regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the Iran question. 

Donald Trump, whom Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has often referred to as "the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House", has been the most pro-Israeli president in American history. Joe Biden and Benyamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone for the first time on Wednesday, February 17. What relationship can we expect the new US administration to have with Israel? 

The relationship between the United States and Israel will continue to be a close one. Regardless of the new administration's positions, Israel has no more secure ally than the US, and conversely, Americans see Israel as a key player in the Middle East. Although there is no longer an ideological and almost "affectionate", proximity like the one that existed between Trump and Netanyahu, and while it is clear that the Israeli government wanted a re-election of Donald Trump, the US and Israel will behave pragmatically towards one another. The fact that the new US president exchanged with Benyamin Netanyahu only three weeks after the inauguration signals at the very least a diplomatic cooling. This does not entail a real distancing, let alone a rift, but it indicates that realism and pragmatism will dominate Israeli-American relations in the coming years

With the new administration, a number of questions are emerging. These notably pertain to strategic nuclear talks with Iran potentially resuming, as well as the possible return of the United States to the Vienna agreements of 2015 - which was signed with Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia. Is this return conceivable? For the time being, Israel has shown a great deal of moderation and discretion on a subject it considers crucially important. Several factors can explain this silence. First, there are domestic issues at stake, as new legislative elections will be held on March 23 - the fourth in only two years. Second, Israelis are also trying to highlight their successes in the fight against Covid-19, and in particular their exceptional success in vaccination, with more than half the population now vaccinated. A third reason pertains to the regional challenges facing Israel. If talks were to resume between Washington and Tehran, and if the Iranian elections in June result in a victory of the most radicals, the mullahs, the latter will not compromise in negotiating with the United States. Thus, Israel considers that opposing an issue that will not lead to any significant diplomatic breakthroughs would only be detrimental to itself, and therefore not worth it. 

How is the Hebrew State preparing for Washington’s change of course? 

Israelis seem quite serene about the change in administration because in a way, Israel has already entered a post-American era.

Israelis seem quite serene about the change in administration because in a way, Israel has already entered a post-American era. The Hebrew State feels that in the future the US will no longer play the role it has been playing since the Six Day War in 1967. Israel is in fact gradually preparing itself for the Chinese era, a country considered to be the most interested in the region, to have the most means, and to have increasing influence in the Middle East, especially when it comes to energy.

Regarding Russia, Putin and Netanyahu maintain good relations. More than one million Russian Jews live in Israel, about 10% of the population and a very active community. But Israelis are also aware of Russia’s limitations. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Israel has particularly focused on strengthening relations more with Asian countries than with Western countries - sharing similar successful results with the former in handling the pandemic. 

Nevertheless, this is a very long process, which will likely span several decades. 

The US Embassy moved to Jerusalem under the impetus of Trump’s administration, and should remain there, according to the new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. However, President Biden reaffirmed his support for the "two-state solution", considering it the only viable way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What can we expect from the Biden’s administration on this issue?

Israel knows that, on the main issues, Washington will not overturn the spectacular advances made by Trump's America. The American embassy will remain in Jerusalem - this is now a given, and it will not change. The United States will also recognize and support the Abraham Accords signed between a growing number of Arab countries and Israel, agreements which reflect acceptance of Israel in the region. 

On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Biden administration is indeed returning to the principles held by the international community, which maintain that the only possible solution is one with two independent and sovereign states. The fact that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem does not negate this solution. Moreover, the Israeli left has mentioned several times that Jerusalem could be the capital of both states: that of the Israeli state on the Jewish side, and that of the Palestinian state on the Arab side. However, the Palestinian question has been largely abandoned by the Arab countries themselves, who are far more concerned about the Iranian threat than the Palestinian hope of having a state. This has been illustrated by Arab countries - as diverse as Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco - establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in recent months. This is happening before any progress has been made on the Palestinian question, which can be understood as priority given to national interests over any other consideration these countries might have. 

What to expect on the Iranian question, so important to the Hebrew state? 

Iran's regional influence and its nuclear program was a major theme of Joe Biden and Benyamin Netanyahu’s call on February 17, during which the two leaders stressed "the importance of continued consultation on regional security issues". When Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, Israel - which made no secret of its opposition to the agreement - had supported its American counterpart’s decision to tighten sanctions against Iran. Today, the fundamental interests of the international community - not only of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States or the European Union, but also of Russia, China and Turkey - have not changed. It wants to avoid a nuclear-capable Iran at all costs, as this would lead to a nuclear arms race in the entire region. Thus, the Iranian situation is by far the most important for Israel, and more broadly for the Middle Eastern region. 

From the Iranian point of view, however, the regime is not ready to give up its nuclear ambitions for several reasons. First, the Iranians learned the lessons from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. To dissuade the United States, Israel and other countries from attacking them, their only solution is to possess the absolute weapon - the nuclear weapon. Beyond the defense of the country, nuclear weapons are seen as a guarantee of survival for the mullahs' regime. It is a nationalist demand that is very popular with the majority of the Iranian people. It is therefore necessary at all costs to both prevent Iran from going nuclear while also categorically avoiding going to war with Tehran. What is more dangerous, a nuclear Iran or war with Iran? Donald Trump had decried nuclear Iran as more dangerous, while Barack Obama considered both to be equally dangerous. Joe Biden seems more in agreement with the latter. 

However, we are no longer in 2015 and things have changed, including the position of the United States on these issues. In 2015, Barack Obama gave a high priority to the JCPOA for example, which is not the case for Joe Biden today. His priority is first and foremost a domestic one: reconciling Americans. Abroad, he is more focused on China and Asia than on the Middle East.

Moreover, there has been a psychological shift inbalance since 2015, particularly between Israel and Iran. Israel today feels very strong psychologically, because of the recognition of the Hebrew state by a growing number of Arab powers without the country even having to make concessions on the Palestinian question. Israel's soft power has also greatly benefited from the Covid-19 epidemic: Israel has become a model of success, while Iran is the country most affected by the pandemic in the Middle East to this day. 

Israel has become a model of success, while Iran is the country most affected by the pandemic in the Middle East to this day.

Israelis are therefore watching what is happening from a careful distance, while Iranians are suffering from American economic sanctions and would like to buy time by appearing ready to return to the negotiations as well - but without accepting American conditions. This illustrates the tug-of-war between Tehran and Washington. On the one hand, the United States seeks to impose the return of IAEA inspectors to Iran to verify nuclear facilities. On the other hand, Iran fights for the removal of economic sanctions and for the return of the United States to the JCPOA as it was in 2015, each in order to consider resuming negotiations. For now, the positions of Washington and Tehran are too far apart to imagine a timely breakthrough. Does Iran prefer to save the country's economy or possess nuclear weapons at the risk of further weakening the regime? This is the big question they are facing. 

Finally, Europe (France in particular) considered that the United States had been too hasty in signing the Vienna agreements in 2015: Iran had not committed itself for a long enough period of time, and above all, the agreement should have been broadened, not only in terms of time but also in terms of its themes. Iran should have committed not only to the issue of nuclear weapons, but also to that of ballistic missiles, as well as curbing its ambitions for regional expansion. This is still relevant today, as Tehran plays a destabilizing role, notably through attacks on American positions in Iraq, its role alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon, in the Yemeni war with the Houthi movement, but also in Syria. In short, a diplomatic breakthrough will be difficult.


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