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Biden’s Policies Toward Israel Are Trump-Lite – OpEd

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I didn’t vote for Joe Biden. I didn’t vote for him despite the fact that Donald Trump was the worst president this country ever had.  Despite the fact that it was imperative to remove him from office.  I didn’t vote for him because I knew I would oppose his Middle East policy.  I didn’t want to have to explain to my conscience why I voted for a man whose approach to these issues I would despise almost every single day.

Without doubt, Biden’s approach to the region is better than Trump’s.  The latter was an imminent danger to world order.  A disaster waiting to happen.  Joe Biden is not that. But he is a fierce disappointment.  And I knew he would be.

During the campaign, Biden talked as if one of his first priorities would be a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal.  He never said a word about imposing prior conditions on a US return.  But now, all of a sudden, the US won’t return to the deal negotiated under an administration in which he served as vice-president, unless Iran agrees to his demands.  Iran, per Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, must stop enriching uranium above the 4.5% levels prescribed in the agreement.  It must surrender any material enriched over that level.

Someone has to remind me: who abandoned the deal first?  Was it Iran or the US?  Of course, it was Donald Trump.  Now, under Joe Biden we maintain the same policy.  We are the ones out of compliance.  We are the ones who not only dumped the deal, but imposed even more spiteful and punitive sanctions on Iran as we slammed the door on the way out.  We are the ones daring other countries to break ranks so that we can punish their financial and commercial companies.  Right now, Trump’s policies are Biden’s.  He can talk all he wants about how different things will be.  But they aren’t now and that’s all that matters.

Iran says it will return to the deal when we are prepared to lift sanctions, which should have been lifted had the deal not been abrogated.  This is an entirely reasonable demand.  If JCPOA is to be a real agreement then all its terms must be honored.  And the party which walked away first must show good faith by making the first move to return to it.  Iran did not walk away.  Iran stayed within the enrichment limits long after the US left.  It was only after it saw that the US essentially nullified any efforts by European signatories of the deal to lift sanctions in defiance of us.  At that point, Iran realized that the US held all the cards and the Europeans were all bluff.  That’s when it became clear that the only way it could signify its protest was by plowing forward with its own enrichment.

The point was to show the world that by the end of Trump’s presidency Iran had far more centrifuges and far more enriched uranium than it had when the agreement was first launched.  In other words, had Trump not made a shambles of JCPOA, Iran would be much farther away from nuclear capability than it is currently.

Joe Biden needs to get back into compliance.  He needs to call for a renewal of JCPOA.  He needs to summon the six parties back to the negotiating table and find a way back.  It is incumbent on him to do this.  The Iranians have already said they are ready.  They have already indicated a willingness to deal with the enrichment issue as long as we have shown our own good faith.  We are the ones holding things up.

I suppose Biden’s supporters might say: “be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Joe needs time. Republicans are nipping at his heels.  And there’s shit like this he has to worry about.  He’ll get there. Trust him. He will.”  I’d like to believe them.  But we can’t ignore the failures of Barack Obama who also began with strong promises and ended with empty rhetoric.

I wasn’t reassured to read of Biden’s Super Bowl interview in which he told the interviewer that the US would not lift sanctions till Iran stopped enriching uranium:

NORAH O’DONNELL (CBS): Will the U.S. lift sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No.

O’DONNELL: They have to stop enriching uranium first?

At that point Biden nodded…

This could have been a gaffe on Biden’s part. After all, the guy is 78. He may not have realized the question required a nuanced answer and he offered just the opposite.  Alternatively, Biden could be signaling an even more draconian US position on JCPOA which would put us much farther away from returning to it.

Justin Logan writes:

The broader worry here is that the Biden team seem to be taking their sweet time working out their Iran policy, and they may not have as much time as they think…

First, letting this run-up to, or through, the Iranian election may not have good results. A lot of thinking has Rouhani being replaced by a more hardline president no matter what happens with the nuclear deal. But letting nationalists make hay over the suffering from American sanctions…seems unlikely to help anything…People in Iran could be forgiven for believing that the United States is inherently hostile and cannot be trusted. You don’t want to see that result in an Iranian election…

Blinken Refuses to Recognize East Jerusalem as Capital of Palestinian State

But Iran is not the only issue provoking my ire tonight.  We already knew that Biden would refuse to return the US embassy to Tel Aviv, which essentially meant that the US recognized Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.  That, in turn, meant that there could be no two-state solution, since that option provided that the Palestinians have sovereignty over portions of the city that would comprise their own national capital.

When Wolf Blitzer asked Blinken point-blank whether he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he fired back immediately: “I do.”  But when he asked whether the U.S. recognizes East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state he hemmed and hawed.  That refusal to grant the Palestinians what we’ve freely granted the Israelis speaks volumes about our bad faith.

Yes, it’s true that Biden did make a big deal about undoing policies which were essentially cosmetic: US aid to the corrupt Palestinian Authority would be restored; a Palestinian mission would be reopened in Washington (though Congress during Trump’s term, essentially legislated away this possibility).  The US would return to its ineffectual policy of opposition to settlements.

The Israel Lobby (including Blitzer who raised this question to Blinken) is raising a geschrei that Biden hasn’t called Bibi yet.  I suppose this is meant to show that Biden has a bit of spine and won’t be the patsy that his predecessors were.  It’s our way of saying: Bibi, you’ve gone from being hot borscht to being cold herring.  But really, we all know that Biden has little leverage.  He will take the benign neglect approach to Israel, which is just fine by Bibi.  When the cat is away then Bibi will play.

Blinken Recognizes Israeli Control of Golan

Curiously, we never heard a peep about the Golan. Would the US return to its decades-long policy of refusing to recognize Israeli conquest and annexation of the Golan?  Tonight, we have the answer.  Tony Blinken, in a statement that makes one shudder, said this:

As a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security as long as Assad is in power, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself, all of these pose significant security threats to Israel. As a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation remains of real importance to Israel’s security.  Legal questions are something else and over time, if the situation were to change in Syria that’s something we would look at. But we are nowhere near that,

The US position is that Israel, contrary to international law, controls the Golan and that we support Israeli control.  We offer a vague prospect that at some unspecified time in the future if Syria, Iran and Hezbollah accede to our demands that they withdraw from Syria, then we would entertain the issue of Syrian sovereignty over the Golan.  Of course, there is no mention of Israeli invasions of Lebanese and Syrian sovereignty via hundreds of air attacks over nearly a decade.  No demand that Israel do precisely what we are demanding of the Iranians: withdraw and stop interfering with the affairs of these states.

This is utter, shamefaced hypocrisy. It is the same bankrupt policy offered by Obama.  And it is not much different than the even more egregious approach of Trump.  In fact, while Trump officially recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, Blinken has just revealed that the US tacitly does as well.

And you wonder why I refused to vote for him?

Why Matt Duss Doesn’t Matter Much

One final word on a related matter: Peter Beinart today wrote a post (“Why Matt Duss Matters”) rallying to the defense of Bernie Sanders foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss.  Duss is leaving Sanders’ employ for a new job at the State Department.  There he will join another newly appointed official who’s stirred the ire of the far-right reaches of the Israel Lobby, Rob Malley.  Duss has been attacked by what MJ Rosenberg delightfully used to call Washington Free Bacon, as a “Jew-hater.”  Apparently, when you work for a Jewish senator you somehow become an anti-Semite.  Especially when that senator has the chutzpah to advance “provocative” ideas like–criminalizing BDS is a violation of the First Amendment; and US aid to Israel should be conditioned on its adherence to international law regarding the settlements.

These attacks by DC pro-Israel hacks are disgusting.  They likely will have no impact on Duss’ viability as a candidate for this new position.

But I want to raise a major caveat to Duss’ appointment, which has nothing to do with those of the Free Beacon.  Bernie Sanders is no radical when it comes to Israel-Palestine.  He’s a liberal Zionist who supports the DOA two-state solution. He opposes BDS.  He opposes ending US military aid to Israel.  Matt Duss espouses the exact same views.

So in what way will Matt Duss advance a progressive agenda on these matters?  He won’t.  When he enters the halls of the State Department he will become a soft-left version of Dennis Ross and Aaron David Miller.  But unlike them, he won’t have much leeway to advance serious proposals which could move US policy leftward.  He will be swallowed in the jaws of the bureaucracy.  Biden, in fact, will not give Israel-Palestine a high priority since Bibi Netanyahu has so deftly outmaneuvered Barack Obama and John Kerry in their own efforts to broker a peace deal.  The Biden team knows that there is no way around Bibi, and that there is no way around Israeli intransigence no matter who is PM.  So prospects for peace are dead for the foreseeable future.

It’s curious that Beinart links to several American Jewish writers and activists who’ve praised Duss (who is Christian), as if that is supposed to provide credibility.  Let me go on record as dissenting from this view.

In the interest of full disclosure, my downbeat assessment of Matt Duss is colored by my personal history with him.  A decade ago or more he was working for the Center for American Progress and its publication, Think Progress.  He and a group of other journalist-activists were publishing hard hitting criticism of Israeli policy which I admired.

When he planned a trip to Seattle, Duss called me and asked to have coffee. We did, and had an enjoyable conversation about politics and our mutual history growing up in Rockland County NY (he in Nyack and me in New City).  Our contacts continued and were on a warm footing until he left CAP and moved over the the Foundation for Middle East Peace.  One day, I woke up to a slashing tweet from him attacking me.  It struck like a bolt of lightning.  I had no warning.  I didn’t know why it happened.  I didn’t know what the disagreement involved.  But one thing I knew for sure: Matt Duss was neither my friend nor my ally.

I responded and the next thing I knew he blocked me. I remained blocked until he began working for Bernie Sanders.  It’s generally frowned upon for public officials to block individuals merely because they disagree with them. So Duss was obliged to unblock me.  Periodically, I’ve tweeted questions to him and challenged him regarding the inadequacies of Sanders’ statements on Israel-Palestine. He’s never responded.

So while Peter Beinart may regard Duss as a friend and someone worth defending, I don’t.  Defend him from spurious attacks, yes.  But defend him on the merits of his ideas and views? No.  Believe that he’s going to miraculously advance a progressive agenda on Israel-Palestine? No.

This article was published by Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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