Biden’s first 100 days according to the Saban Forum crowd

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.”

“I think it’s very impressive how the early days are marked by a sense of restraint and patience.”

Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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.”

Then-Vice President Biden meets with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on January 13, 2014. (U.S. Embassy)

Then-Vice President Biden meets with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on January 13, 2014. (U.S. Embassy)

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.

“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

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?”

Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu. (Haim Zach/GPO)

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.”

“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.”

Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

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.”

Iran avoiding direct conflict with U.S., top general says

Iran is attempting to avoid direct state-on-state conflict with the U.S. pending the outcome of the nuclear negotiations, General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Thursday.

McKenzie said that Iran is avoiding direct confrontation with the U.S. while continuing deniable activities through proxies with the goal of forcing the U.S. out of nations like Iraq.

“They are prepared to [conduct attacks], which they believe they can disavow by their actors, their proxies acting on the ground, to conduct low-level attacks against us,” McKenzie asserted. “Over the last year in 2020, the Iranians believed they had a political solution to eject us from Iraq. That no longer appears to be a viable way ahead for them. So we’re seeing a return to a more kinetic approach.”

McKenzie also affirmed the Israeli military’s assessment that a Syrian missile attack on Israel on Wednesday was likely unintentional, and is not a sign of a broader Syrian campaign of direct attacks on Israel. 

The incident, he said, appeared to have been an attempt by Syrian air defense forces to shoot down Israeli aircraft striking locations in Syria, but the missile missed its target and continued into Israel. It exploded in southern Israel near the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.

“I think it reflects incompetence in Syrian air defense,” McKenzie explained. “I do not believe it was an intentional attack, but just rather a lack of capability on the part of the Syrian air defenders.”

McKenzie added that he expects Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region to remain secure, downplaying concerns about U.S. arms sales to other Middle Eastern nations.

“I am confident that we will be able to preserve Israel’s QME going forward, even considering arms sales to the various countries across the region,” he said. “And we should also reflect that the arms sales across the region at least partially reflects the increasing normalization of ties between Israel and those nations.”

McKenzie spoke on the issue at a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week, noting that arms sales to countries such as the United Arab Emirates are a key part of the U.S. strategy for deterring Iran.

At that hearing, McKenzie also emphasized the threat of Iranian drones to U.S. forces and allies, which he said the U.S. is not yet fully equipped to counter.

Congressional efforts to repeal Iraq war authorization raise questions about Iranian proxies

A House push to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has picked up support across the political spectrum as President Joe Biden begins taking significant steps to extract the U.S. from Middle East conflicts that date back to his time in the Senate, leaving some legislators concerned that a full repeal could open the U.S. and its assets to future attacks.

Last month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to advance a bill that would fully repeal the 2002 AUMF, originally passed to allow the U.S. to wage war on Saddam Hussein’s regime. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the only lawmaker at the time to vote against the post-9/11 2001 AUMF targeting terror groups and the 2002 AUMF. The current bill is cosponsored by 114 members reflecting a rainbow of ideological viewpoints, from House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) to progressive “Squad” members such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Democratic moderate Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA). 

Such repeal efforts passed the House on multiple occasions during the 116th Congress, but faced opposition in the Senate — largely from Republicans — and from the Trump administration. This term, Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) are pushing similar legislation to repeal the AUMFs from both 2002 and 1991, the latter of which authorized the Gulf War.

Repealing the 2002 AUMF, Lee told Jewish Insider, “is a no-brainer. It does nothing to support troops in the field; it is only a temptation for abuse. [The] 2002 repeal passed the House twice in the 116th Congress. It is past time to get it off the books,” she said, adding: “The 2002 AUMF was intended to enforce UNSC [United Nations Security Council] resolutions regarding Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs. Those programs have been dismantled; the UNSC resolutions have expired; and Saddam himself has been dead for 15 years.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who introduced a separate bill to repeal the 2002, 1991 and 1957 AUMFs, described the repeal efforts as “a matter of basic constitutional hygiene.” The Cold War-era 1957 AUMF authorized activity against communists in the Middle East, but was never directly invoked.

“These authorizations are no longer relevant, and their repeal would not impact ongoing operations,” Gallagher told JI. “War powers are Congress’s most important constitutional responsibility, and it’s critical we take this small but significant step forward to reassert our authority.”

Both inside and outside of Congress there remains considerable debate over the continued necessity of the 2002 AUMF. During a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting last month, Republicans argued that repealing the 2002 AUMF without a broader reform of presidential war powers, including the 2001 AUMF — a much more difficult prospect — could prevent the president from responding to threats to the United States.

The 2002 AUMF was most notably cited in recent years as part of former President Donald Trump’s legal justification for the 2020 strike on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.

“It signals unilateral disarmament. The fact that it has been used, the fact that it has been referenced, the fact that it remains there is a deterrent in and of itself to those would-be actors that think they can potentially operate with impunity without it,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a vocal opponent of repealing the 2002 AUMF alone, said in an interview with JI.

Some outside analysts, like John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, agree with Perry that repealing the 2002 AUMF would tie Washington’s hands, particularly in fighting Iranian proxies that have established a foothold in Iraq.

“I do think that the most energetic opponents of an aggressive U.S. policy to combat Iranian regional aggression are the same people who want to either do away with those AUMFs entirely, or to drastically reform them or amend them in such a way that they really limit the ability of any president to take action against the Iranian threat,” Hannah said. “Once you begin getting rid of the AUMFs, the real purpose behind [that] is to tie the president’s hands to address the ongoing threat from Iran and its proxies throughout the region.”

Others say that repealing the 2002 AUMF would have little to no practical effect on U.S. engagement with Iranian proxies in Iraq, given that presidents can continue to cite Article II self-defense powers.

“If you look at the legal justifications associated with military strikes in the Middle East, the primary justification is almost always either the 2001 AUMF or Article II authority,” Gallagher said. “Where the 2002 AUMF is cited, it’s a secondary source of legal authority that is ultimately unnecessary.”

Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Century, echoed Gallagher.

“You have to ask yourself, would they not have targeted Soleimani if the 2002 AUMF had been repealed prior to it? And my guess is that they would have done exactly the same thing,” Fontaine said. “I don’t think at the end of the day it will make that much difference.”

Of the Trump administration’s argument that the 2002 AUMF allowed the Soleimani strike, Fontaine added, “I don’t know how many people found that terribly persuasive.”

Still others, like Lee, say that the Iranian threat is irrelevant to the debate over the 2002 AUMF.

“The argument that the 2002 AUMF is somehow a tool to be used against Iranian militias that did not exist when it was passed 19 years ago is a complete red herring,” the California Democrat said. “If some members feel that we should authorize force for a proxy war with Iran, they should have the courage to introduce a new authorization to enable that. Otherwise, they are just contributing to the dereliction of responsibility we’ve seen from Congress for 20 years.”

Despite bipartisan agreement among a number of legislators that the 2002 AUMF should be repealed, it is not clear if they will be successful in these efforts.

“There’s nothing that’s not going to be difficult [regarding AUMF reform],” said former Ambassador Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, adding that efforts to move the issue forward may require the Biden administration to expend political capital in Congress — something it may not be willing to do on this contentious issue so early in the president’s tenure. The Biden administration has expressed support for AUMF repeal efforts.

Fontaine said 2002 AUMF repeal is “possible” but added “there’s a certain ‘Groundhog Day’ quality to some of these debates, because every few years the drive for a new AUMF sort of gathers steam. It’s never actually been successful.”

Even if the 2002 AUMF repeal efforts do succeed, lawmakers are likely to face a nearly insurmountable challenge in reforming the 2001 AUMF, on which there is much less agreement, including among legislators backing 2002 AUMF repeal.

“I think it’s inconceivable that they’ll repeal the 2001 AUMF without replacing it with something,” said Fontaine, “and I think the difficulty of replacing it is so profound that it’s unlikely that it will be repealed,.”

More than two dozen Senate Democrats sign letter backing Iran deal reentry along 2015 terms

Twenty-six Senate Democrats, led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Tim Kaine (D-VA), signed onto a letter sent Tuesday to President Joe Biden urging him to quickly reenter the Iran nuclear deal as it stood in 2015.

The letter supports lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran in line with the 2015 agreement if both sides come back into compliance. Senior administration officials are reportedly split on how to approach Iran, with Secretary of State Tony Blinken suggesting a more gradual approach to rapprochement, while Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley has called for a return to the deal without addressing issues including Iran’s influence in the region, raising concerns among Israeli security officials over the future of negotiations.

Signatories on the letter include Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-VA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also signed on.

Last month, a bipartisan group of 43 senators, including 14 Democrats, sent a letter urging the administration to reach a more comprehensive agreement that also addressed Iran’s destabilizing role in the region, rather than rejoin the 2015 deal.

Only one Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), signed both letters. Nine Democrats have not signed onto either one.

The letter’s release comes amid ongoing indirect nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran. Over the weekend, the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz sustained significant damage following an attack that Iranian leaders have blamed on Israel.

Murphy told Jewish Insider on Monday that “Any time there’s activity of that nature, it’s not likely going to be constructive in the midst of diplomatic efforts,” adding in a Tuesday tweet that “now, the diplomatic road is more difficult.”

On Tuesday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Iran will begin to enrich uranium at higher levels than it ever has before.

A year later, Senate letter against ICC drops to 57 signatures

Fifty-seven senators have signed onto a letter written by Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) criticizing the International Criminal Court’s decision to launch a formal investigation of Israel. A larger group of 69 senators signed onto a similar letter in May 2020 — a supermajority of the Senate, Portman boasted at the time.

The final version of the letter, which was sent to Secretary of State Tony Blinken on March 11 after the ICC announced it would officially investigate Israel for war crimes, praised the secretary for denouncing the decision and expressed concern over the ICC’s actions.

“We believe that the United States should stand in full force against the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber’s decision,” the letter reads. “We also urge you to work with like-minded international partners to steer the ICC away from further actions that could damage the Court’s credibility by giving the appearance of political bias. We ask that you give this matter your full attention and that you continue to defend Israel against discriminatory attacks in all international fora.”

The initial draft of the letter obtained by Jewish Insider on March 1, before the ICC’s pre-trial chamber decided to proceed with an investigation of Israel, urged Blinken to “issue a more forceful condemnation of the Court’s actions,” a call that is missing from the final version.

Fourteen current senators — 11 Republicans and three Democrats — who signed the 2020 letter did not sign the letter sent earlier this month: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Richard Burr (R-NC), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Steve Daines (R-MT), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

Five Republicans who did not sign last year’s letter joined this one, as did four new senators — two Democrats and two Republicans.

A source familiar with the situation told JI that every senator on both sides of the aisle was contacted about the letter — Republicans by Portman’s office and Democrats by Cardin. But spokespeople for Graham and Tillis said they were never contacted.

“[Sen. Tillis] was happy to sign it last year, and would have been happy to sign it again as he staunchly opposes the ICC’s unfair and unwarranted treatment of Israel,” Tillis spokesperson Daniel Keylin said.

In a statement to JI, Jessica Skaggs, a spokesperson for Cruz, described the senator as “a leader in countering the ICC’s overreach and politicized attacks on Israel.” Skaggs added that Cruz is “considering how to respond to the ICC’s newest campaign.”

The Daily Beast reported in early March that Cruz is working on a resolution calling on the United Nations Security Council to block the ICC from bringing charges against individuals from non-ICC member states. The resolution would also condemn the ICC for investigating Americans and Israelis.

Cardin and Portman’s offices did not provide comment for this story.

Iran attempted to undermine Trump’s reelection, declassified intelligence report finds

Iran’s military and intelligence services attempted to undermine former President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects, a declassified report from the U.S. intelligence community found.

The report, declassified Monday by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, concluded that “Iran carried out a multi-pronged covert influence campaign intended to undercut former President Trump’s reelection prospects — though without directly promoting his rivals — undermine public confidence in the electoral process and U.S. institutions, and sow division and exacerbate societal tensions in the U.S.”

It further assessed that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorized the “whole of government” campaign, which was carried out using “overt and covert messaging and cyber operations.” The report also found that Hezbollah, an Iranian-funded terror group, also engaged in smaller-scale attempts to undermine Trump’s re-election.

Iran’s efforts were “driven in part by a perception that the regime faced acute threats from the U.S.” under Trump, the report details.

The Iranian efforts were aimed largely at “sowing discord in the United States and exacerbating societal tensions” and influencing U.S. Iran policy through methods such as promoting anti-Trump social media content, spreading pro-regime messages and attacking pressure points such as the COVID-19 pandemic response, the pandemic’s economic impacts and domestic civil unrest.

The Iranian campaign was further-reaching in 2020 than in previous election cycles, according to the report, which specifically mentions a previously disclosed campaign by Iranian actors who sent threatening messages to swing-state Democratic voters impersonating members of the right-wing pro-Trump Proud Boys group.

It also discusses several other influence attempts, including disseminating a video demonstrating alleged voter fraud, publishing over 1,000 pieces of online content in the U.S., utilizing “several thousand” inauthentic social media accounts and attempting to gather passwords from U.S. government and campaign officials in order to “gain derogatory information or accesses for follow-on operations.”

Iran’s efforts have not stopped after the election, the report adds, alleging that “Iranian cyber actors were almost certainly responsible” for a website containing death threats against election officials and that Iran is “seeking to exploit the post-election environment to collect intelligence.”

The assessment concluded that the regime’s influence efforts were likely blunted, compared to  previous election cycles, due to greater awareness of the issue, information sharing between the government and social media companies — which led the companies to take down Iranian-operated  accounts, public information-sharing and sanctions against some of the individuals responsible for the efforts.

According to the report, Iran did not attempt to directly manipulate any election infrastructure, although it did “[exploit] a known vulnerability to compromise U.S. entities associated with election infrastructure.”

The report also alleges that Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah backed efforts to undermine Trump in the election.

“Nasrallah probably saw this as a low-cost means to mitigate the risk of a regional conflict while Lebanon faces political, financial and public health crises,” the report reads.

The report also details extensive efforts by Russia to influence the election in favor of Trump and exacerbate domestic divides, and contradicts claims from former DNI John Ratcliffe that China conducted election interference or influence operations.

Moderate Democrats stay mum on Malley pick as Iran envoy

Robert Malley has reportedly been chosen as the Biden administration’s envoy to Iran, confirming a report from Jewish Insider last week that the former Obama administration official was under consideration for the role. Malley, a veteran foreign policy analyst who is currently the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, was one of the key negotiators of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

“Secretary Blinken is building a dedicated team, drawing from clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views. Leading that team as our special envoy for Iran will be Rob Malley, who brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program,” a senior State Department official told Reuters. “The secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again.”

The New York Times cited a senior State Department official who said that Malley and other diplomats’ first step, before approaching Iran, will be to consult with leaders in the Middle East, Europe and Congress to hear their concerns. 

Over the past week, a number of prominent progressive Democrats coalesced behind Malley, while Republicans and some moderate Democrats criticized him for his close relationships with Iranian leaders and for meeting with members of Hamas — which cost him his role as an advisor to President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

“You can’t do better than Rob Malley,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “He knows the region. He’s willing to think outside of the foreign policy consensus. He has a lot of friends on the Hill. Whatever Rob Malley is being considered for, I’d be supportive. I’ve relied on him a lot during my time in the Senate.”

Other Senate Democrats are more skeptical about the pick, two Democratic congressional staffers told JI.

“Malley would be an odd choice. I say so since our ability to navigate the Iran issue from Congress will be largely dependent on the administration’s willingness to consult about their approach/decisions,” one aide said. “While some Republicans are already struggling to outflank each other from the right on anything Biden does, having an envoy that is viewed as moderate and restrained would be to everyone’s advantage.”

One Democratic senate staffer said that moderates are hesitant to speak out the pick publicly, despite some reservations.

“The consensus is that the criticism isn’t totally off-base but is a little overblown, so folks aren’t going to pile on,” the staffer said. “At the same time, he’s disliked enough in pro-Israel circles that it isn’t worth it to make a nuanced case about the criticism. It’s not like anyone truly loves this guy, either. And at the end of the day, [President Joe] Biden and [Secretary of State Tony] Blinken are in charge and we trust them.”

Moderate Senate Democrats were, at least publicly, remaining quiet about Malley ahead of Thursday’s news. A spokesperson for incoming Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) — who expressed skepticism about the Biden administration’s plans to rejoin the Iran deal — declined to comment to JI on Wednesday. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) — who opposed the Iran deal in 2015 — declined to comment Thursday and told JI that he needed to refresh his recollection of Malley’s background. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told JI on Wednesday that he felt it was premature to comment on reports that Malley had been offered the position, adding that he planned to review reporting about Malley that afternoon. A spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) also declined to comment.

Outside Congress, progressive leaders and groups rallied around Malley following backlash over reports that he was likely to become the administration’s point person on Iran. Nearly 200 academics, foreign policy professionals, organizations and others released a letter supporting Malley, describing him as “among the most respected foreign policy experts in the United States” and “an astute analyst and accomplished diplomat.”

“Those who accuse Malley of sympathy for the Islamic Republic have no grasp of — or no interest in — true diplomacy, which requires a level-headed understanding of the other side’s motivations and knowledge that can only be acquired through dialogue,” the letter continues. “As veterans of diplomacy and human rights work, and organizations that support the same, we hope that someone as capable and knowledgeable as Rob Malley is put in charge of fixing our broken policy towards Iran.”

This post was updated at 4:55 p.m. on 1/31/2021.

Biden’s U.N. ambassador nominee pledges to support Israel at the U.N

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President Joe Biden’s pick for ambassador to the United Nations, pledged to stand behind Israel in her role at the U.N. during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing Wednesday.

In response to a question from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Greenfield addressed attacks on the Jewish state at the U.N.

“I look forward to standing with Israel, standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions that are proposed against Israel unfairly and… look forward to working closely with the Israeli embassy, with the Israeli ambassador to work to bolster Israel’s security and to expand economic opportunities for Israelis and Americans alike and widen the circle of peace,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “It goes without saying that Israel has no closer friend than the United States and I will reflect that in my actions at the United Nations.”

The former assistant secretary of state for African affairs also praised the recent normalization agreements between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, describing them as opportunities for further progress both within the U.N. and around the globe.

“I see the Abraham Accords as offering us an opportunity to work in a different way with the countries who have recognized Israel… We need to push those countries to change their approach at the United Nations. If they’re going to recognize Israel in the Abraham Accords, they need to recognize Israel’s rights at the United Nations,” she said. “I intend to work closely with the Israeli ambassador, with my colleagues across the globe, because this is not just an issue in New York — but also pushing our colleagues to address these issues with their countries bilaterally so that we can get a better recognition of Israel in New York.”

She also condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

“I find the actions and the approach that BDS has taken toward Israel unacceptable. It verges on antisemitism,” she said. “It is important that they not be allowed to have a voice at the United Nations.”

Thomas-Greenfield also said she plans to implement a robust approach to thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with the goal of engaging both U.S. allies and adversaries in countering the Iranian regime.

“We will be working with our allies, our friends, but we also have to work with other members of the Security Council to ensure that we hold Iran accountable,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “As the ambassador to the United Nations, if I’m confirmed, I will work across all of those areas to ensure that we get the support but [also] see where we can find common ground with the Russians and the Chinese to put more pressure on the Iranians to push them back into strict compliance.”

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee did not raise the issue of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, a 2016 measure that declared that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories have “no legal validity” and constitute “a flagrant violation under international law.” In a rare step, the U.S. broke with Israel at the time and abstained in the Security Council vote on the resolution. In 2017, 78 senators cosponsored a resolution condemning the resolution.

Israelis expect a different approach from the Biden administration

Former Israeli defense officials offered differing views of the incoming Biden administration’s top Middle East priorities this week. Former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon celebrated the former vice president’s victory, while former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett praised President Donald Trump for his work in the region and expressed hope that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will chart a different course from previous Democratic administrations.

Bennett said the outgoing Trump administration “was simply outstanding in so many dimensions of support of Israel,” highlighting the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem; the killing earlier this year of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force; and the maximum pressure campaign on Iran. 

For Ayalon, Biden’s election and the selection of his national security team are a welcome moment for the security and future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. 

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Ayalon emphasized that the Biden administration’s emphasis on diplomacy will prioritize both resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of a broad initiative to move forward with advancing peace and countering Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region. 

“Israel will not be safe, it will not be a Jewish democracy, unless we come to an agreement with the Palestinians,” posited Ayalon, who co-founded the Israeli NGO Blue White Future in 2009 to push for a negotiated peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “I believe that in order to create this Sunni coalition as a future basis to confront Iran and create more stability in the region, we have to come to an agreement with the Palestinians.” 

Ayalon suggested that while Israelis appreciated Trump’s support of Israel, the foreign policy team Biden has assembled will gauge Israeli concerns about a return to the Obama administration’s approach to the conflict, which was perceived by Israeli leadership at the time as aggressive and somewhat hostile. “Even if they are the same people [who served in the Obama administration], they are older and they are much more experienced,” he stressed.

Israeli leaders may also be more willing to consider peace process concessions depending on the next administration’s approach to Iran, Ayalon said. “If Israelis will feel that [a two-state solution] is the price that Israel will have to pay in order to remove the Iranian threat, a majority will support it,” he suggested. 

Bennett expressed different expectations from the Biden administration. In a Zoom call hosted by the Zionist Organization of America on Wednesday, Bennett — whose party, Yamina, is polling in second place behind its right-wing rival Likud — projected that the Biden administration will learn from the mistakes of the past and take a different approach that will be more acceptable to the nationalist camp. 

“The other path has been taken so many times and failed so many times, and brought immense damage and suffering on the region,” Bennett asserted. “There is a price to pay for failed so-called peace attempts — usually it ends up with another round of violence and people die. And I think the incoming administration is very experienced. They’ve been there, seen that, done that. I’m not ignoring the well-known opinions, but I do think that we need to sit down and think thoroughly about how to manage the disagreements that we might have.” 

It is unlikely that U.S.-Israel ties will be as strained as they were during the Obama administration, Bennett said, explaining that the peace process is likely to be “far down the list” of Biden’s priorities. Bennett also expressed hope that “stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon does not become a partisan issue” in the U.S.

The former defense minister predicted that as more Arab countries express willingness to normalize relations with Israel, the paradigm of first resolving the Palestinian issue will become irrelevant. “I’ve always said that I’m okay with ‘land for peace’ — we are willing to accept land for peace from anyone who wants to provide us [with land],” Bennett quipped, adding, that “more seriously, the notion of ‘land for peace’ is crazy, and certainly, this will be one of the issues that we’re going to have to address.” 

Rep. Tom Malinowski dishes on former JCC teammate Tony Blinken

It took just over two weeks for Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) to be formally declared the winner in New Jersey’s 7th district election. The Associated Press called the race for Malinowski hours after polls closed, but his sizable lead over State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., shrank from 28,000 votes to just 5,314 — a 1% margin — by November 24. The first-term incumbent, who beat longtime incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) by more than 16,000 votes in 2018 is, nonetheless, satisfied with the win. 

In an interview with Jewish Insider on the eve of Thanksgiving, Malinowski sounded relieved. “I had a tougher challenge than many people,” said Malinowski, one of roughly a dozen Democrats reelected in districts that went for President Donald Trump. “[The Republicans] really put up a strong opponent, spent a lot of money. So I feel like we overcame a lot.”

Malinowski is also grateful that during his second term, he will serve both in the House majority and alongside a White House he feels he can work with, opening the door to collaborate on issues important to the New Jersey congressman. 

President-elect Joe Biden’s recently announced pick for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, added to the New Jersey congressman’s excitement. Malinowski and Blinken are longtime colleagues, having both served together under former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The pair were also teammates on the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C.’s indoor soccer team. 

Last week, when reports emerged that Blinken had been nominated to be the country’s top diplomat, Malinowski tweeted a picture of the team after their only championship win, from the the winter of 2005, with the caption, “[Blinken] will be joining the best foreign policy team since this one… which was undefeated!”

“You don’t realize. This is a great honor for you,” Malinowski gleefully bragged in his JI interview. “You are talking to the goalie of the D.C. Jewish community center championship indoor soccer team.” 

“We were just awesome. We were just so good,” Malinowski said of his team, which also included former Obama administration officials Robert Malley and Philip Gordon. 

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Anthony Blinken on the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C.’s indoor soccer team in 2005. (Twitter)

Malinowski first met Blinken at the State Department in the Clinton administration during the tenure of former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Malinowski was Christopher’s speechwriter, while Blinken worked in the European Bureau. In 1994, Blinken left Foggy Bottom to become Clinton’s chief foreign policy speechwriter and director for speechwriting at the National Security Council, a role Malinowski took over four years later. 

Malinowski shared with JI that while serving in the Clinton White House, he and Blinken “teamed up” to write “parody versions of famous songs, where we changed the lyrics to make fun of our foreign policy” and “directed a couple of self-parody movies together.” When pressed, Malinowski declined to leak the revised lyrics or share footage of the films — at least not before Blinken’s Senate confirmation.

The two friends later “revived the band” when they served together in the State Department under Obama.

“Tony and I share a sense of humor about the world, a belief that the more serious your job, the more important it is to find some humor in it,” Malinowski explained. 

Blinken is “a great diplomat,” Malinowski said of his close friend. “He has the right personality for the job. He will be a good leader for the people at the State Department who have been disparaged and dismissed by the current [Trump] administration.” 

“I think this is the first president in my lifetime who is appointing, from my point of view, the perfect person for every job,” Malinowski added, speaking more broadly about Biden’s key administration appointments. 

Malinowki said that both Blinken and Jake Sullivan, who was tapped as Biden’s national security advisor, “are strong believers in the idea that American power comes from American principles, and that there has to be a moral component to our foreign policy if we are to advance our interests effectively. They both have a tendency to challenge conventional wisdom. They are comfortable with being challenged by others, and I think they’ll always tell the president what he needs to hear, not just what he wants to hear.”

Even if Republicans maintain control of the Senate following two Georgia runoffs in early January, Malinowski predicted a smooth confirmation process for Biden’s foreign policy team. “I’m sure the Republicans will suddenly rediscover their obligation to conduct oversight now that there’s a Democratic president,” he quipped. “But so far the people Biden has nominated are people who enjoy broad bipartisan respect in Washington.” 

The Democratic congressman — who was endorsed for his reelection bid by J Street, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and Democratic Majority for Israel — sought to reassure supporters of Israel that as the chief diplomat representing the Biden administration, Blinken “is always going to listen” on issues affecting Israel. Malinowski also noted that there are “few leaders in the Democratic Party, or any party, who will be more grounded in a traditional American approach in support for Israel security, who understand more clearly the moral and historical basis for America’s relationship with Israel.”

“And if you come to him with a thoughtful and principled argument, he’s going to hear you out,” Malinowski emphasized, “Tony’s not an ideologue. He’s not insecure in the way I think [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo was.”

Still, Malinowski cautioned that the Israeli government “has to understand that there are going to be significant changes” in the Biden administration’s approach in the Middle East, particularly toward Saudi Arabia. “I think it would be a very serious mistake for the Israeli government to think that they can somehow shield a guy like [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] from that change, solely because he has — for pragmatic and self-interest reasons — moved closer to the Israeli perspective on some issues,” Malinowski warned. “This is an administration that is going to care about human rights, for example. It is going to care about the plight of civilians in Yemen. It’s not going to tolerate governments in the Middle East that kidnapped and chopped to pieces journalists,” referencing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.   

According to Malinowski, the recent secret meeting between bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is not an alignment that is in Israel’s medium- to long-term interests.” 

“This is the administration that will be very pro-Israel,” he continued, “but that alignment has to be disentangled from our relationship with Gulf states that have been behaving in many ways that are directly contrary to U.S. interests.”

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