Melina Mara/The Washington Post via AP Pool
Biden’s first 100 days according to the Saban Forum crowd
With the buzzy conference on American and Israeli foreign policy on hiatus since 2017, experts weigh in on the White House’s policy on Iran, relations with Jerusalem, and more
One hundred days into Joe Biden’s presidency, the White House is focused on addressing major issues at home: the pandemic, climate change and gun violence, to name a few. But these first few months also offer some insight into how the administration will approach key issues in the Middle East: nuclear talks with Tehran, Israeli-Palestinian relations and cooperation with Jerusalem.
Up until 2018, Beltway insiders might expect high-level conversations on these topics to take place at the Saban Forum, a long-running invite-only conference bringing together policy experts, high-ranking officials and lawmakers from the U.S. and Israel.
“It was set up in the early 2000s to fill a void for dialogue between Israelis and Americans. It was very specifically Israel and America,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, which organized the forum with backing from media mogul and Democratic megadonor Haim Saban.
The off-the-record Saban Forum was hosted annually at the ritzy Willard InterContinental, a hotel across the street from the White House. Speculation abounded that the conference was canceled due to the election of former President Donald Trump.
“This is a common misperception. It really is not the case,” Sachs told Jewish Insider. “We had two Saban Forums since the Trump election. The first was immediately after the Trump election, we had a successful one. The second one was in 2017, it was almost a year into the administration. We hosted Jared Kushner. It was the first time he spoke publicly on these issues.”
Sachs explained that Brookings, in conjunction with Saban, made the decision to pause the conference “while on a high note” because, he argued, “institutions never know when to quit.” He noted that the decision was not to cancel the conference altogether, but rather to put it on pause — and while there are no current plans to resume the annual event, it could come back in the future.
More recently, Brookings’ Middle East center hosted a virtual international conference that was much broader in scope, with leaders from countries including Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Israel and Italy. “It was excellent,” Sachs said, noting that the new conference is one of Brookings’s many public events and “is not a replacement for the Saban Forum.”
Since the Saban Forum won’t gather its distinct selection of Middle East experts this year, Jewish Insider polled the Saban Forum crowd with a simple question: When it comes to foreign policy and the Middle East, how is Biden doing?
“I think it’s very impressive how the early days are marked by a sense of restraint and patience,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “For example, we just had an Israeli election, a remarkably visceral, hard-fought election, in which the new administration played no role because it was smart enough to keep quiet, and not to get drawn into the gutter of Israeli politics one way or the other.”
Biden came into this role with decades of public service under his belt, including a stint as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is, to a certain extent, a known entity in Israel.
“Biden has known [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu for decades, so at the top, there’s a familiarity between the two leaders, which can be called upon when serious issues in the relationship erupt,” noted Andrew Shapiro, who served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs from 2009 to 2013.
The Biden administration has approached the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with less zeal than its two most recent predecessors, which were both quick to stake their ground on the issue and attempt to reach a solution.
Ghaith Al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who served as an advisor for the Palestinian negotiating team from 1991 to 2001, noted that Biden and his team “seem to have internalized the lesson — and rightly so — from previous administrations that right now, Israeli politics and Palestinian politics do not allow for a major breakthrough, so they’re not pushing that.”
“You do not see the soap opera-like quality of the centrality of Israel as we saw in the Obama administration and the Trump administration,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “One, great tension in the Obama administration; and the other, great exaltation, where Trump basically created what I describe as a sugar high for both Israel and Saudi Arabia; you’re not seeing that here… They’re very busy. And they really don’t have time or interest, as Obama and Trump did, in focusing on this issue.”
After two administrations marked by intense personal relationships between the leaders of the countries, the Biden White House is “just trying to restore a little bit more of a sense of balance in the way the United States relates to both sides of the conflict,” said Susie Gelman, board chair of Israel Policy Forum.
Allies of Biden say that his history of support for international institutions and foreign policy norms is a welcome change from the Trump years.
“President Biden’s responsible leadership, strategic policymaking and fundamental civility have been on full display these past 100 days, in stark contrast to the turbulent and chaotic Trump years,” Haim Saban told JI. “In terms of the U.S.-Israel relationship, I remain pleased that President Biden and his administration have emphasized time and again their unyielding support for Israel’s safety and security, directly engaged with the Israelis on core issues of national importance, and rebuffed fringe calls to condition U.S. aid to Israel.”
The individuals who spoke with JI acknowledged that the Biden administration is taking care to not politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship and repair damage that may have occurred under the prior two administrations — but some worry that may not be enough if the U.S. takes steps on Iran that may endanger Israel’s security.
“Although the White House has underscored America’s commitment to Israel’s security repeatedly, and pledged to continue consultations with Israel on regional affairs, the subtext of a potential collision between U.S. and Israeli positions toward engagement with Iran hovers over their relationship,” said Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously served in the Israeli prime minister’s office.
Dani Dayan, Israel’s former consul-general in New York, told JI that he worries Biden is looking to get back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) too quickly. Still, Dayan does not expect Israel to mount as much of a public opposition as Netanyahu did in 2015, when he angered Democrats by speaking to Congress at the invitation of then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who had not informed then-President Obama of the invitation.
“Unfortunately it seems that President Biden has decided to return to the JCPOA ‘as is.’ If he believes he will be able to extend, later, the scope of the agreement — I doubt this is a strategy [that] will succeed,” Dayan argued. “However, I assume this time Israel will be less confrontational in its attitude towards the administration. I don’t foresee Netanyahu speaking in Congress… Also, the political chaos in Israel itself makes it more difficult for Israel to launch a strong diplomatic initiative.”
The White House has made clear that it views returning to the JCPOA, which was a campaign talking point for Biden, as a priority.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, told JI that Biden “gets good marks from J Street for articulating good intentions regarding their policy direction during the first hundred days.” The real test, Ben Ami said, “is likely to come in the second hundred days. Will those good intentions be translated into an actual agreement that enables both the U.S. and Iran to return to full compliance with the JCPOA, and which paves the way for subsequent diplomacy?”
Indirect nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran continued in Vienna this week, following comments from the White House last week that it may lift sanctions on Iran as a step toward rejoining the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Many of Biden’s top foreign policy officials are veterans of the Obama administration, including Malley and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who was the lead negotiator for the 2015 deal. “The Biden administration, on the Middle East, represents the third term of Barack Obama,” said Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “There is a view which holds that there is a division inside the administration between the progressives and the centrists, but the apparent division is smoke and mirrors. On the big issues, they are all on the same page.”
One point of frustration for opponents of the deal is that Iran has been elevated as a top foreign policy priority. “The unseemly eagerness of the new administration to get back into the JCPOA, at any cost, has been much more precipitous and obvious than I had expected,” said Victoria Coates, who served as deputy national security advisor under Trump.
“Once [Secretary of State] Tony Blinken selected Rob Malley [as special envoy for Iran] to negotiate the return, that was a clear signal that everybody should have received that they were going to run the same playbook they ran in 2015, with respect to the negotiations, and that there was very little the Israelis or anyone else could do about it,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Language used by the Biden administration suggests an outward desire to improve on some of the more widely criticized aspects of the 2015 deal. In February, Blinken offered some examples of “issues that were not part of the original negotiation that are deeply problematic for us and for other countries around the world: Iran’s ballistic missile program, its destabilizing actions in country after country.” Blinken has also said the U.S. wants a “longer and stronger” deal.
The secretary of state has also promised to consult with Congress on the deal: “I am committed to working with Congress — on the takeoff, and not just the landing,” he said at a March hearing on Capitol Hill. Obama faced widespread criticism in the leadup to the 2015 agreement for failing to engage Congress — as well as U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf Arab states — as the deal was negotiated.
“Biden’s team is seasoned,” said Laura Blumenfeld, senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “While they reject the Trump administration‘s maximalist approach, in sober moments they will acknowledge the shortcomings of the Obama efforts. This time around, there’s a renewed commitment to bring along Israel and the Gulf states.”
“I don’t think Joe Biden is looking for a fight with the Israelis at all, which is why I think you see his desire to consult,” said Carnegie’s Miller. “There’s been more consultation on Iran in three months [of Biden] than there was between the Obama administration and Israel in three years.”
Still, the question remains as to what extent critics’ views are taken into consideration as the White House proceeds with negotiations. “My understanding is there has been some informing of Congress and of our partners and allies in the region, but certainly no discussion with them,” said Coates. “Their views are not solicited. They sometimes are informed of developments. And one of the key flaws of the JCPOA was the fact that regional partners and allies were not involved in those negotiations.”
Earlier this month, the Iranian nuclear facility Natanz was attacked while U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was visiting Israel. Reports indicated that Israel had orchestrated the attack, although Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility. Austin and Netanyahu appeared at a press conference together soon after news of the attack became public. “I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel, and Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism,” Netanyahu said. Austin did not mention Iran, but noted, “I wanted to reaffirm the administration’s strong commitment to Israel and to the Israeli people.”
“Not only did Secretary of Defense Austin project no embarrassment or consternation or anger that this occurred during his visit to Israel, but then this was followed almost immediately by a particularly warm public statement by National Security Advisor [Jake] Sullivan toward his Israeli counterpart, warmly inviting him to Washington,” said Satloff.
Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, speak regularly, and the pair met for the first time this week in Washington. “The United States updated Israel on the talks in Vienna and emphasized strong U.S. interest in consulting closely with Israel on the nuclear issue going forward,” said a White House readout of the meeting. Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan, who was also present, called the meeting “excellent” and tweeted that he, Sullivan and Ben-Shabbat “discussed our shared goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons [and] agreed to work together to strengthen our security ties.”
“I think [Sullivan’s] discussions with Meir Ben-Shabbat are genuine and well-intentioned and mostly positive in terms of tone and spirit, but the reality is Meir Ben-Shabbat has no ability — he nor anyone else in the Israeli government — to change the direction and trajectory of the Biden administration’s Iran policy,” said Dubowitz.
Biden surprised observers by not calling Netanyahu until mid-February, nearly a month after taking office. Although he has known Netanyahu for a long time, Biden came to office following a uniquely close personal relationship between Trump and the Israeli prime minister.
“Did Bibi make the bed that he’s lying in? Oh, absolutely, by throwing his lot in so obviously with Donald Trump, you shouldn’t have been surprised at what was coming,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “And yet we were constantly told that this is an administration that’s much, much more mature now, and they’re not going to retaliate. And yet, how petty was the decision by the White House not to call the prime minister of Israel for over a month? What was that about?”
“The truth is that, at least so far, I don’t think we’re seeing the same kind of clashes that we saw in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship,” said Gelman. “It’s unquestionable, his commitment to the relationship between the United States and Israel. He’s made it very clear that that is something he intends to maintain, and hopefully strengthen.”