While President Trump’s legal team continues to challenge the legitimacy of the vote counts from the November 3 election in battleground states giving Joe Biden his victory, the president has permitted the General Service Administration (GSA) to assist in the transition process by cooperating with members of Biden’s team as they prepare to take over the federal government on inauguration day, January 20.
The decision to move forward with the “ascertainment process,” provisionally recognizing Joe Biden’s status as the president-elect, was announced in a letter sent Monday by the GSA’s Trump-appointed administrator, Emily Murphy, to the Biden administration. It was confirmed by an email sent by Mary Gilbert, the federal transition coordinator, to the heads of all federal agencies, stating, “In accordance with the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, as amended, today, November 23, 2020, the GSA Administrator has ascertained Joseph R. Biden and Senator Kamala Harris the apparent successful candidates for the offices of President and Vice President, respectively.”
Trump signaled his approval of the GSA’s action in a tweet in response to the release of Murphy’s letter, after delaying the ascertainment process for two weeks while dozens of Trump campaign legal challenges to the state vote counts were rejected, one-by-one, in state and federal courts, steadily bolstering Biden’s de facto status as the president-elect.
Trump’s tweet declared, “I want to thank Emily Murphy at GSA for her steadfast dedication and loyalty to our country. She has been harassed, threatened, and abused—and I do not want to see this happen to her, her family, or employees of GSA.”
Making it clear that he was not giving up the fight to claim victory in the election through legal action, Trump wrote, “Our case strongly continues. We will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail! Nevertheless, in the best interest of our country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”
Biden’s Democrat supporters and the mainstream media had been loudly demanding that Trump stop delaying start of the transition process by refusing to concede Biden’s apparent victory, while Biden himself has not waited to begin announcing the names of the members of his cabinet and White House team, most of them subject to confirmation by the US Senate.
FAMILIAR FACS RETURN
For the most part, the picks consist of well-known, relatively moderate members of previous Democrat administrations, as well as former federal agency heads and administrators.
As of Tuesday, the list of announced Biden cabinet appointees included Antony Blinken as Secretary of State, former Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen as Secretary of the Treasury, and Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security. Other announced top-ranking members of the Biden administration include Ron Klain, repeating his role serving two former vice presidents, as Biden’s White House Chief of Staff; Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence; former Hillary Clinton chief of staff Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor; Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the US Ambassador to the UN; and former Obama secretary of state John Kerry as Biden’s envoy to fight climate change.
Supporters of Israel were generally reassured by Biden’s appointment of Blinken, who is the New York City-born son of Jewish parents and the stepson of Samuel Pisar. Tony Blinken has said that the experiences of his stepfather, who survived the Holocaust-era death camps at Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau, have informed his vision for the “engaged” role that the United States should play on the global stage.
Tony Blinken’s father, Donald Blinken, was a co-founder of the Warburg Pincus investment firm, and served as the US ambassador to Hungary for four years during Bill Clinton’s presidency. His son, Antony, served as then-vice president Joe Biden’s national security advisor from 2009 to 2013, then as deputy national security advisor to President Obama from 2013 to 2015, and finally as deputy secretary of state from 2015 to the end of Obama’s presidency. Blinken’s relationship with Biden dates back to his last years in the Senate, when Biden was chairman of the Foreign Relations committee and Blinken was the director of the committee’s staff.
Friends of Israel far prefer Blinken, who has a long record of support for Israel, to former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who was another leading candidate to become Biden’s secretary of state.
AN ENDORSEMENT FROM MICHAEL OREN
Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s Ambassador to the US during the Obama years, described Blinken as a man of “singular intelligence and warmth” in his published memoirs of that period; a man showed the rare ability to demonstrate his friendship of Israel even while criticizing its policies.
Oren recalled an encounter with Blinken in March 2010, when a crisis erupted in US-Israel relations while then-vice president Biden was visiting Israel. Biden was embarrassed by an announcement from the Israeli Interior Ministry that a housing committee had approved construction of 1,600 new Jewish apartments in East Yerushalayim, interfering with Biden’s efforts to restart the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and angering the Obama White House. Blinken, who was Biden’s national security advisor at the time, asked Oren, “How could you do this to Israel’s best friend [referring to Biden]?”
Blinken is considered to be relatively moderate and traditionally pro-Israel when it comes to Democrat foreign policy positions. He disagrees with progressives, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, who have urged the Biden administration to condition continued US economic aid to Israel on a halt in further West Bank settlement construction, as well as more concessions to Palestinian demands to restart negotiations to reach a two-state solution.
HOW MANY OF TRUMP’S ISRAEL POLICIES WILL SURVIVE?
A top question for supporters of Israel about Blinken going forward is how many of the pro-Israel policies initiatives of the Trump administration he will be content to leave in place.
Upon taking office, Trump quickly reversed the growing hostility which severely strained US-Israel relations during the Obama administration, and cultivated a close relationship with Israeli prime minister Binyomin Netanyahu. Trump rejected the prior US role as an impartial mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and main sponsor of the Oslo peace talks, which have been stalled ever since the 2000 Camp David summit. That conference ended in failure when Yasser Arafat rejected a generous Clinton-endorsed peace offer from then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and responded two months later by launching the Second Intifada which killed more than 1,100 Israeli citizens.
After Trump broke longstanding State Department policy in 2017 by formally recognizing Yerushalayim as the capital of Israel and moving the US embassy to the Western part of the city from Tel Aviv, the Palestinians cut off all diplomatic contact with the United States, and rejected repeated US invitations to join the new regional peacemaking initiative being developed under the leadership of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
PUNISHING THE PALESTINIANS FOR THEIR RESISTANCE
In retaliation for the Palestinian diplomatic boycott, Trump cut back sharply on direct US economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, and ended US contributions to UNRWA, the internationally-supported UN agency devoted to educational, food and social welfare program benefitting Palestinian refugees. Trump also closed the PLO’s diplomatic office in Washington, DC, and demanded that the PA stop paying terrorists in Israeli jails and families of Palestinian terrorists killed by Israeli security forces.
Trump also broke with longstanding American foreign policy by formally recognizing the legitimacy of Israel’s West Bank settlements and Israel’s annexation of the portion of the Syrian Golan Heights captured in the 1967 Six Day War. When the Palestinians and their advocates complained that Trump’s recognition of Israel’s claims to Yerushalayim and the West Bank foreclosed the possibility of resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at achieving a two-state solution, defenders pointed out that the option had been preserved by Trump’s refusal to allow Netanyahu to go forward with his plan to annex the West Bank settlements and to permit Israel to launch new construction beyond current settlement territorial limits.
TRUMP CREATED A NEW MIDDLE EAST DIPLOMATIC REALITY
The PA’s decision to boycott Kushner’s negotiating initiative and reject the new Trump peace plan it developed turned out to be another colossal diplomatic blunder and lost opportunity for the Palestinians, when the initiative resulted in the recent signing of normalization accords (effectively peace treaties) between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, also known as the Abraham Accords. The new alliance between Israel and the pro-Western Sunni Arab states in the region has shattered a half-century of Arab solidarity behind the Palestinian cause and rejection of Israel’s legitimacy, leaving the PA diplomatically isolated.
Trump’s elimination of direct and indirect US aid has also left the Palestinians effectively bankrupt. In addition to terminating $360 million in annual contributions to UNRWA, representing a quarter of its budget, Trump halted $200 million in annual financial support for the PA through the US Agency for International Development, $60 million in aid for the Palestinian security forces, $25 million for hospitals serving Arabs living in East Yerushalayim and $10 million to support Israeli-Palestinian coexistence efforts.
TRUMP’S PARTING GIFTS TO ISRAEL
Trump’s final presidential gestures of friendship and support for Israel include ending the five-year parole of Jonathan Pollard, permitting him and his wife to go on aliyah to Israel, and changing long-standing State Department policy by allowing US citizens born in Yerushalayim to list Israel as their native country on their passports. Trump also permitted his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to pay the first-ever official visit by a US diplomat to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank last week.
Blinken is expected to support Biden’s expressed willingness to keep the US Embassy in Yerushalayim, and continue the strong support for Israel at the UN, initiated by former Trump US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.
THE RETURN OF TWO-STATE SOLUTION DIPLOMACY
Biden has praised the normalization agreements between Israel and the three Arab states, but he still intends to re-establish US aid programs and diplomatic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, in an effort to restart Oslo-style bilateral negotiations leading to a two-state solution.
Blinken suggested in an October 28 [pre-election] interview with the Jewish Insider that if the deals with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan “make Israelis feel generally more secure, that may be helpful in creating greater confidence to move forward with the Palestinians. It may also. . . send a message to the Palestinians that they have to actually engage, negotiate in a meaningful way.”
Blinken insisted that “[Creating] two states remains the only way to truly ensure Israel as a Jewish democratic state in and of itself. Ignoring the Israel-Palestine dimension doesn’t make it go away. Like the coronavirus, it’s not going to miraculously disappear.”
However, the Biden administration will reportedly support Israel’s demands that the PA must first stop its generous payments to jailed Palestinian terrorists and surviving family members of terrorist “martyrs” to the Palestinian cause.
“It is good for Israel that the [three] countries are recognizing its existence and moving toward normalization,” Blinken said. “That’s a positive step and one that should be applauded and one that Vice President Biden did applaud in the moment.”
BLINKEN’S “GLASS HALF EMPTY” APPROACH
But Blinken was also quick to note that Israel was never actually at war with its three new diplomatic partners.
“The practical reality built up over many years, including during our administration, was that their relations were actually very close,” Blinken explained. “But symbolism matters, and some of the additional practical things that flow from normalization matter. The more countries normalize their relationship with Israel, the greater I think Israel’s confidence is in being able to make peace across the board.”
Blinken pledged that a Biden administration “would certainly try and continue to pursue and advocate for normalization with any Arab state that is prepared to do that.”
THE F-35 QUESTION
Blinken did express concern about one aspect of the initial deal that the Trump administration cut with the UAE to normalize relations with Israel—the implied promise that the US would re-evaluate its decision to turn down a prior request by the UAE to purchase American-made F-35 jets, widely regarded as the best military aircraft in the world. When the Obama administration agreed to provide the F-35 to Israel, it was with the understanding that no other Middle East country would be allowed to buy one, guaranteeing Israeli air superiority in the region for decades to come.
When the deal with the UAE was first announced, it was accompanied by reports that Israel had quietly agreed to encourage its friends in Congress to give their required approval of the sale of F-35s to the UAE. That report resulted in some national security experts in Israel sounding alarm bells that were heard by some pro-Israel Democrat on Capitol Hill.
Blinken acknowledged these concerns when he suggested that the Biden administration “would have to take a hard look at it to understand exactly what’s involved. I hope very much that the [Trump] administration isn’t moving forward quickly [on the UAE F-35 request] or does not try to do so in a way that circumvents Congress.”
REJECTING TRUMP’S FOREIGN POLICY ATTITUDES
More generally, Blinken expressed concern that Trump’s retreat from commitments to international organizations and agreements has “done tremendous damage to the US and to our standing in the world, which in turn is not good for Israel.
“Whether we like it or not, the world doesn’t organize itself,” Blinken explained. “Until this administration, the US played a lead role, doing a lot of that organizing—in helping to write the rules, shape the norms, and animate the institutions that govern the way countries relate to each other. The challenge now is that President Trump has largely abdicated that role and responsibility of putting us, in many places, in full retreat from our close allies. The problem is that when we are not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happen: Either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests or values; or maybe just a bad one does and then you tend to get chaos or a vacuum that is filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things. Either way, that’s not good for us, and it’s typically not good for our closest partners and allies.”
Blinken is also critical of Trump’s “America First” policies because he says they do not give the US enough power to act alone on global affairs and tackle crises such as the coronavirus pandemic. “From where we sit, there’s no wall high enough or wide enough to contain these challenges,” Blinken stressed.
Blinken said he believes that “American influence. . . [and] respect for the United States in the world [is in] freefall, and that’s not only not good for us, it’s not good for our close partners and allies that depend on us, including Israel.”
REJECTING ISRAEL’S FAR LEFT CRITICS
The foreign policy views of Blinken and Biden—especially on Israel—are known to be very closely aligned, and differ significantly from those of the progressive Democrats who seem to feel a moral obligation to criticize Israel at every opportunity. In May, Biden wrote that he “firmly” rejects the left-wing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, in sharp contrast to the position of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and her squad, while Blinken has endorsed Biden’s anti-BDS position.
In 2014, Blinken was instrumental in mobilizing US government support for Israel’s right to defend itself against Palestinian missile attacks from Gaza. In response to an urgent, middle-of-the-night request for immediate aid from Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, Blinken raised the issue in an Oval Office meeting with Obama and Biden. They authorized a Biden-led effort to get Congress to authorize an emergency appropriation of a quarter billion dollars to help Israel replenish its supplies of Iron Dome missiles to protect its cities from further attacks.
During the presidential campaign, Blinken, in his capacity as Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser, maintained regular contact to explain Biden’s positions to the leaders of American Jewish pro-Israel organizations such as Aipac and the American Jewish Committee.
BLINKEN DOESN’T WANT TO LOOK BACK
However, Blinken declined to comment on 2016 reports that Biden was opposed to the decision by President Obama to take revenge on Israel during the last days of his presidency by ordering then-US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to abstain on UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli settlements in “Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem” as illegal. Similar resolutions had been introduced in the Security Council by sworn enemies of Israel for many years, only to be routinely vetoed by the United States because their passage would have been damaging to any remaining hopes of Israel and the Palestinians reaching a negotiated agreement on the issue.
When the US stance on that resolution was debated once again in late December 2016 within the top echelons of the Obama administration, Dan Shapiro, the US Ambassador to Israel at the time, strongly urged that it be vetoed. He was reportedly supported by Biden, who “warned of [a] fierce backlash in Congress and in Israel itself” if the US abstained. But many friends of Israel believe that Obama could no longer control his pent-up frustrations due to his repeated clashes with Netanyahu over the previous eight years, and took his last opportunity to strike back by ordering Power to abstain in the Security Council vote, breaking the united front on the issue that the US and Israel had maintained for half a century.
Biden and Shapiro had been right. That 14-0 vote in the Security Council on December 23, 2016, sparked much anger and despair among Israel’s friends, and is considered to be the low point in recent US-Israeli relations.
But when Blinken was asked whether Biden as president would order UN Security Resolution 2334 to be vetoed if it came up for another vote, he declined “to revisit that past history,” and added instead, “The vice president [Biden] has a long and strong record of standing up for Israel in international organizations.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE WITH IRAN SANCTIONS
Another concern going forward is how vigorously Blinken will push, as Biden’s secretary of state, to eliminate Trump’s sanctions on Iran and resume US participation in Obama’s flawed 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Biden promised, during the presidential campaign, to bring the US back into the nuclear deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Iran agrees to return to compliance with the agreement’s limits on its nuclear program. Biden also promised to work with US allies who also signed the 2015 deal to “make it longer and stronger.”
From 2009 to 2013, in his roles as Deputy Assistant to President Obama and National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden, Blinken participated in the administration policy discussions which led to the Iran nuclear deal. As Biden’s secretary of state, Blinken is likely to encounter strong opposition from Israel to any move to relax the intense pressure from Trump’s sanctions on Iran.
In his interview with the Jewish Insider, Blinken was critical of Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 “with nothing to replace it.” Blinken argues that Trump’s move prompted Iran to restart some of the most dangerous elements of its nuclear program, such as the production of enriched uranium, “putting Israel, potentially, first in the line of fire if Iran were to actually develop a weapon.”
Critics of the Iran nuclear deal warn that if the current US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports re-imposed by Trump are lifted, Iran will use the billions of dollars of revenue it will generate to finance expanded terrorist activities around the world by its proxies, including Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as by its international terrorist Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED
Blinken responded that if the Biden administration does suspend the Trump sanctions on Iran due to its nuclear program, “we will continue non-nuclear sanctions as a strong hedge against Iranian misbehavior in other areas. The hard truth is that Iran was doing bad things before the JCPOA, during and after, and much of what it does is, unfortunately, not very expensive.
“A much stronger way of doing this is making sure that you’re working in concert with allies and partners to stop and push back against Iranian misbehavior. The problem with the [Trump] administration’s having torn up the nuclear deal is that it alienated us from the allies that we need to hold a hard line against Iran,” Blinken explained.
TOP HILLARY CLINTON AIDE RETURNS
Another newly announced member of Biden’s White House inner circle is Jake Sullivan, who will continue in the role of national security advisor to Biden that he played during the campaign.
Sullivan, who had served as Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff when she was secretary of state during Obama’s first term, stayed on during Obama’s second as then-Vice President Biden’s chief security advisor. In that capacity, Sullivan was one of three US officials who met secretly five times with their Iranian counterparts to negotiate the interim agreement which was signed on November 24, 2013, in Geneva. That, in turn, paved the way for the final Iran nuclear deal which was signed a year and a half later.
Sullivan remains proud of that accomplishment, and has recently said he is still convinced that Biden’s “diplomacy first” approach is a “durable way” to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb “without resorting to military force,” while restoring trust with US allies and partners.
RESTORING THE OLD APPROACH TO FOREIGN POLICY
When he ran for president four years ago, Trump suggested that the classic approaches to American foreign policy developed by Biden during his years in the Senate and other American foreign policy experts of that era were obsolete. Upon entering the White House, Trump experimented with a new foreign policy which rejected the widely accepted globalist assumptions and was based instead on his “America First” philosophy. While not entirely successful, a lot of Trump’s initiatives—especially with regard to Israel and its relations with its neighbors—worked far better than the “experts” had predicted, although they are still loath to give Trump credit for it.
It is clear that when Biden enters the White House in January, accompanied by Blinken as his secretary of state and Sullivan as his national security advisor, the conduct of American foreign policy will return to the pre-Trump norms and conventions.
The transition will not be smooth. Israeli government officials, in particular, might have to readjust to a more confrontational relationship with their counterparts in the Biden administration, creating frictions we can only hope and pray will be overcome by the evident goodwill towards Israel of Biden and his foreign policy team.
We also pray that President Trump’s more notable accomplishments, such as the move of the US embassy to Yerushalayim and Israel’s growing alliance with Sunni Arab states in the region, will be allowed to endure and lead to further progress towards peace and prosperity for Israel and its more openly friendly neighbors and allies throughout the region.