How will the Post-Election Israel-EU-US Triangle Shape Up?

Will a Biden victory heal US-European relations after being severely undermined by Trump’s term in office? And if so, how will that affect Israel?

Although the vast majority of the 27 EU member states are led by center-right parties, almost all are privately rooting for Biden, who represents center-left views. That is not surprising. The Trump years have traumatized transatlantic relations, turning the US from the staunchest supporter of the EU into a confrontational, aggressive opponent.

Trump publicly supported Brexit, scrapped the transatlantic trade negotiations (TTIP) with the EU launched by Obama, started a trade war with Europe, and withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. Trump also significantly undermined NATO to the point that French President Macron declared the organization “brain dead”. On the other hand, Trump’s attitude toward Putin and Russia, the adversary that prompted NATO’s establishment, has alternated between friendly and ingratiating. The liberal order and values so dear to the Europeans have been damaged severely.

A second Trump term can be expected to continue undermining dialogue and coordination with Europe on many issues, including those related to Iran, Israel and the Palestinians. Trump’s presidency accelerated the ongoing decline of global US hegemony. As the US withdrew inward, regional stability continued to deteriorate. This was particularly evident in the Mediterranean: Russia entered Syria, Turkey entered Libya, and Iran spread its tentacles further in the region. None of these developments benefit Israel. Moreover, another Trump term could cripple or bring down NATO, further destabilizing the region. Israel has an interest in a robust, significant NATO, given Europe’s inability to fill the US defense vacuum now or in the foreseeable future.

The Netanyahu government has benefitted from the transatlantic crisis and Trump’s unilaterally supporting its positions (e.g. relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the Trump plan that deviates from the ‘67 borders as the starting point for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and the pullout from the Iran nuclear agreement). While a Biden presidency is not likely to reverse the embassy move, it would restore traditional US support for the two-state solution. The US and Europe would likely renew their dialogue on the subject, although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer high on their list of priorities. Covid-19 and the economic downturn have drawn their attention inward, but on the other hand honed growing external threats, such as China.

China is a focal point of US global competition concerns. While Trump treated Europe like the proverbial bull in a China shop, his policy reflected a set of American interests marking China as the key challenge to waning US hegemony – this challenge will remain under Biden. Thus, although a Biden presidency would restore transatlantic relations to their pre-Trump format of cooperation, the agenda of the relationship will change. Europe will have to decide whether to espouse the US containment strategy toward China or try to reap the benefits of trade and mutual investment with Beijing.

Israel is a negligible player in this global game. Israeli regulation tends to follow that of the EU, its main import-export market. The US is therefore expected to keep pressing Israel and Europe to avoid strategic Chinese investment in their territories. If Europe joins forces with the US versus China – a more realistic scenario under Biden than Trump – Israel would obviously go along. However, if Europe opts for a different approach than the American one, Israel may be forced to make political choices it finds economically inconvenient.

As for the Middle East peace process, Biden holds a traditional approach to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He opposes settlements and unilateral annexation, supports full security for Israel, calls for recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and has taken firm stands against terrorism, incitement and glorification of violence by Palestinian leaders. Biden views the two-state solution as essential to Israel’s survival. In that sense, neither he nor the Europeans seem inclined to new or alternative solutions.

However, here too Trump leaves behind a situation requiring a difficult choice for the Europeans. The welcome normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE and, hopefully, the future agreement with Bahrain, represent a different paradigm that does not link Israel-Arab normalization with resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this paradigm the order is reversed: Normalization first, peace with the Palestinians (maybe) later. Although most Arab states do not share this Emirati and Bahraini approach (yet), Biden will have to consider whether to adopt it, revert to the previous route of peace with the Palestinians first followed by Israel-Arab normalization later, or combine the two. The Europeans, too, will have to examine whether to change track or remain stuck in the logic of the Oslo process. There is growing criticism within the EU regarding its rigid position on the issue, given that the conditions that gave rise to this logic have long since disappeared.

In this context, Trump’s unseating would banish some of the ill populist winds blowing from the US to Europe, which Netanyahu also fanned by tightening relations with a-liberal leaders in states such as Hungary and Poland, but a Biden victory would not significantly bolster EU foreign policy given its deep internal weakness of recent years. This weakness stems from internal European divisions that impede every substantive decision (other than the semi-annual renewal of sanctions on Russia over its Crimean Peninsula occupation). A Biden victory is unlikely to mend this structural weakness. Although Commission President von der Leyen and High Representative Borrell recently proposed doing away with the consensus requirement on certain foreign policy decisions, a move that would enable the EU to adopt resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue that it has been unable to adopt since 2016, such a move is unlikely anytime soon. Therefore, even when the populist criticism of the EU no longer enjoys an American tailwind, and even once transatlantic relations are restored, European foreign policy is expected to remain reactive, divided and weak. Will that help Israel? As a strategic Israeli asset, a robust EU is important even if it is perceived as a critical partner on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Should the EU want its voice to resonate louder on these issues with the top echelons in Jerusalem, ahead of a possible Biden administration foreign policy change, the Israel-EU Association Council should reconvene for the first time since 2012. Israel’s Foreign Minister Ashkenazi is already working with his German counterpart Maas to make this happen, and a Biden victory could help. Renewal of the Israel-EU high-level political dialogue would improve relations and hand the Europeans a tool with which to influence developments in the region. Otherwise, it will likely remain an onlooker.

The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 2 November, 2020.

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