By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Some phone calls are memorable, like the one from the hiring manager telling you that you’ve got the dream job you were hoping for.
A phone call from the leader of the free world should be ranked up there along those kinds of calls. On Feb. 17, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received such a call from President Biden. The call was a big deal. Netanyahu had been awaiting it and his supporters had been awaiting it. Everybody wanted to see what the new Biden administration would unveil as its Middle East policy.
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Biden took office on January 20. Since then he has made some calls to foreign leaders. Those who were not called were noticed and were left to wonder why they didn’t deserve a call from the Oval Office.
Middle East leaders had to wait, too. After Biden’s call with Netanyahu there were calls to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. However, it is understood by many in the region that the Biden administration has better things to do right now: Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, getting the economy back on track again, and continuing tensions with China and Russia.
The White House press release on the call gave few details of their Feb. 17 conversation:
“The President affirmed his personal history of steadfast commitment to Israel’s security and conveyed his intent to strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israel partnership, including our strong defense cooperation. Together, the leaders discussed the importance of continued close consultation on regional security issues, including Iran. The President emphasized U.S. support for the recent normalization of relations between Israel and countries in the Arab and Muslim world. He underscored the importance of working to advance peace throughout the region, including between Israelis and Palestinians. Together, they affirmed their shared interest in continued strategic cooperation to confront the many challenges facing the region.”
The only other country specifically mentioned by name was Iran. Biden made several moves in recent weeks that sent calming signals to Iran along with a clear message that the new administration wants to return to the 2015 multilateral nuclear accord worked out during the Obama administration.
According to The New York Times, the president decided to order the Nimitz and its 5,000-member crew to return to the ship’s home port of Bremerton, Wash., “after a longer-than-usual 10-month deployment.” Biden was making it clear he is interested in a de-escalation in the Persian Gulf.
Earlier in the week there was a move forward, however small, on Iran’s part. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached an agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear status. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was able to reach an agreement with Iran concerning the role of independent inspectors. The deal ensures the inspectors will have continued access for the next three months to verify and monitor nuclear activity in the country.
This agreement might be a signal that there is something in the works vis-a-vis resuming the nuclear accord talks between Washington and Tehran.
The need for the deal came about after Iran publicly announced that it would no longer implement the IAEA’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That would have significantly limited the number of production facilities the nuclear inspectors could visit and inspect for uranium production.
Netanyahu was obviously very interested in the U.S. position vis-a-vis Iran, their future talks, and the scope of the agreement Washington would strike with Teheran because they are all of vital importance to Israel. The Saudis have the same concerns in light of the centuries of enmity with the Shi’ite-dominated Iran.
What will happen now?
Probably not much. As we’ve said, the Biden administration has other things to think about first. But things are happening in the region and it could be that the Biden administration’s desire to advance talks with Teheran will get a boost by rumors of developments on the Syrian front.
In the past two weeks Russia has been assisting Israel in negotiations with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Recently an Israeli woman who had crossed into Syria and was held in a prison in Damascus was released with the help of Moscow in exchange for the release of a prisoner in an Israeli jail. The Syrians asked for the release of Nihal Al-Makat, a Druze activist living in Majdal Shams, a village in the Golan Heights.
Al-Makat has been calling for the return of the Golan heights to Syria which were captured by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967. Three Druze villages in this area are home to several thousand Druze who still retain their Syrian identity. As part of this agreement Israel also purchased COVID-19 vaccines from Russia that will be send to Syria.
There are even more persistent rumors that the Russians are attempting to broker a peace treaty between Israel and Syria. Such a peace deal would secure Israel’s northern border and make Netanyahu a miracle worker. A peace treaty would also help to rebuild al-Assad’s government and begin a process of rebuilding Syria, which was devastated by a civil war that turned half its population into refugees.
The next few months will focus on deals with Iran and the regional players. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey will be looking to see what direction the White House takes and how it will capitalize on the pressure the Trump administration put on the Iranian regime.
With another Israeli election coming up soon and a new administration in the White House, there might be options for major changes in the region. However, based on the domestic needs facing President Biden, it is likely the Middle East will not be a top priority.